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It is a widely acknowledged truth that war is contemptible and cruel, but it takes the poetic opulence and the lively experience of the war to effectively convey one’s strong attitude against the reality of war. With his frequent use of contrast, para-rhyme and vivid imagery especially of blood and light in his collection of war poems, Wilfred Owen successfully portrays the brutal reality in battle thus stirs the readers’ sympathy for the soldiers, expresses his anger at the futility of war, demonstrates the disdain for ignorant people back at home and voices his anguish at the condemnation that these soldiers have to endure.
The horrendous experience Owen has gone through as a soldier in the British Army in World War I explains why the tremendous sufferings by the soldiers stands as the most predominant idea in almost all his poems in the anthology. From the passive suffering of cold winds that “knife us” (Exposure) to the disturbing death of an unlucky fellow comrade in gas warfare (Dulce et Decorum est) “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime”, Owen presents a wide range of pains that blurs the boundary between life and death.
Although the type of destruction portrayed in each poem is not the same as any other, they all highlight the frightening cruelty of the war, most obvious of all the deterioration of a man’s physical appearance and strength. They are all “knock-kneed, coughing like hags” before someone was caught in the toxic gas “guttering, choking, drowning” (Dulce et Decorum est), having “old wounds save with cold that can not more ache” (Insensibility) that escalate into “a thousand pains” (Strange Meeting), or even losing their sight “eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids” that brings them to such a total breakdown that “he sobbed” (The Sentry). “All went lame, all blind” because the merciless war gives no exception whatsoever, and that they had lost their boots makes no difference, they still “limped on, bloodshod”.
Using factual vocabulary and vivid imagery which might at some point become grotesque, Wilfred Owen exposes the ugly truth of the war. Blood is an effective image conveying the sense of suffering in the battle, all of which is disturbing and brutal. It bears the connotation both of the death of soldiers and their guilt of shedding the lives of other human beings. The blood either “come gargling from the froth-corrupted lung” (Dulce et Decorum est) or even gets “clogged their chariot wheels” (Strange Meeting). Also, if one notices he would see that the word “blood-shod” in Dulce et Decorum est which echoes “blood-shed” fully conveys the hellish nature of the war. So much blood has poured that “the veins ran dry” (Disabled). Owen also successfully utilizes the effect of sounds and pace.
By breaking lines into short fragments, he depicts the exhaustion and the limping of these men through the night. Also, whenever he talks about sufferings, Owen uses harsh sounds such as “k” (knock-kneed), “d” (drunk with fatigue, deaf to the hoots)”, “b” and “p” (what we spoiled/ Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled”) which are either naturally unpleasant sounds or are even reminiscent of the sounds that rifles make. Death is prevailing in these poems and we see most clearly in “Strange Meeting” that the para-rhyme with the second rhyme lower in pitch than the first demonstrates the dying that these soldiers are going through. They start of as enthusiastic youth only to see themselves slowly rotten away to death. That is the brutal reality of war that Owen brings to readers. Through this we can see clearly that he is strongly anti-war.
Together with depicting the physical pain, Owen also highlights the trauma that war leaves on any single soldier and the disparaging effect on their mentality. The idea of seeing their wretched comrade in their dreams is so haunting that it either gets so real-“guttering, choking, drowning”(Dulce et Decorum est) or keeps coming back like the “eyeballs” that “watch my dream still”(The Sentry). The use of continuous verb tense conveys the actuality of a nightmare and also emphasizes on the on-going nature of such horrendous suffering that will definitely traumatize the on-lookers that survive. Also, the idea of being “watched” adds the survivor guilt that disturbs them. It is so callous an experience, seeing human beings “die as cattle” that at one point a veteran “try not to remember these things”. However, “whenever crumps pummeled the roof and slogged the air beneath”, the hurtful sight in which his comrade “moans and jumps” and make “wild chattering of his broken teeth” reappears (The Sentry); there is purely no way out because even the sounds of nature brings back such distressing memory.
The description of hostility in nature is also used to further accentuate the enormous psychological suffering of the soldiers. The “shrieking air” that chases the soldiers running from post to post and the constant rain which “kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour, choked up the step” (The Sentry) induces the sense of threat, that any moment the soldiers would all be swallowed up. The soldiers are too discouraged that they slowly give up fighting for their lives in the harshness of nature where “the merciless iced east winds” “knife us” (Exposure) or when they are about to be “jabbed and killed”, all they would do is “parry” (Strange Meeting). The personification of nature makes it obvious as well how all these soldiers have ceased to consciously distinguish the unloving nature from the human army that they have to fight against in the battle.
The sense of pervasive pessimism in the battle is also demonstrated by the pejorative image of “dawn massing in the east her melancholy army” (Exposure). Dawn, the traditional imagery of hope and new beginning, has been distorted to become a signal of “melancholy” despair that “attacks” on “shivering ranks of gray”. The gloomy dawn blends in with the color of the enemies’ uniform, which further stresses the disheartened spirit of the soldiers in war. Even in their dreams in which they catch a vision of their beloved hometown, they remain skeptic, wondering whether it is just a precursor to death, asking “Is it that we are dying?” The pararhyme “snow-dazed faces” and “sun-dozed” establishes the wispy link between their suffering and their home but also brings out their discouragement at the incomplete and unreal vision of their dreams.
Although Owen intends to draw sympathy from the readers for the soldiers thus the anger at the war, he does acknowledge all these sufferings as the condemnation that the soldiers are inclined to suffer once they have gone to war. His frequent reference to Hell is an allusion to The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri which details his visionary progress through Hell and Purgatory. With the description of fire in battlefield, Owen induces a sense of the “haunting flares” in Hades’ world (Dulce et Decorum est). In Strange Meeting, the soldier “stood in Hell” after he “escaped” from the vicious battle. The image of “purgatorial shadows” (Mental Case) is typically Dantean that emphasizes the tortuous experience of the veterans.
By doing this, Owen is both trying to convey the hellish experience of being in the war as if they were punished for their guilt and expressing his certainty of arrival in Hell even after the soldiers have escaped from the battlefield. This implicitly disapproves the participation of these soldiers in the war, saying that their sufferings is the condemnation for their crime, because by the time a soldier is killed, he is already a “devil’s sick of sin” (Dulce et Decorum est). Born into an Evangelical family, Owen unsurprisingly echoes some religious reference in his poems. The “devil’s sick of sin” above is a good example.
Besides that Owen also acknowledges that the soldiers are going through adversity because “love of God seems dying” (Exposure). To him, war is a sin against the will of his God which angers Him so much that he ceases to be benevolent to the small creatures of his Creation. In The Sentry, the exclamation “I see your lights!” and the reply “But ours had long died out” opens itself to some interpretations. The lights that the ill-luck soldier has seen bear the connotation of the light at the end of the tunnel, an escape from the despicable life into death. But the others’ lights, their hope and faith, have ceased to exist. Thus we can see in Owen’s eyes, war is a crime that defies the will of God and is worth condemning as it brings all the soldiers under the curse as well.
Such pains are so enormous that the only way to stay alive is to suppress all emotions and become insensitive. The ironic use of the word “happy” which recurs in the poem “Insensibility” conveys the bitter resignation to the fact that soldiers can only live in war if they “let their veins run cold” before they die and from whom no “compassion” “makes their feet sore on the alley cobbed with their brothers”: they are allowed no more space for emotions once their comrades fall in the battle and they have to step on the corpses to make their way out. “Wading sloughs of flesh” and “treading blood” (Mental Cases) have become a usual occurrence that if the soldiers do not grow empathetic towards, he would be robbed off his sanity. War takes away so many lives-the soldiers “dies as cattle” that they “keep no check on Armies’ decimation” as it is ultimately pointless. However haunting and hurtful it is to witness a comrade’s death, the soldier “forgot him there” (The Sentry).
War dehumanizes people to such an extent that a little bit of care for anyone else would be a luxury. They have to adapt by turning their eyes “rid of the hurt of color of blood” and keep “their hearts remain small drawn”, otherwise it would be too painful to keep moving on. This is a development on the depiction of blood, which now adopts implication of heart-feelings of pity. It has to be constricted to resist all feelings just as their senses become dulled in the way a military surgeon might burn flesh to stop the loss of blood from a wound by “cautery”. The advantage-that they can “laugh among the dying” is, in its cruelty, an outright criticism of the effect of war on human decency (Insensibility). Gradually, they lose the feeling for themselves as well.
Also, Owen brings the response of the people back home into some of these poems to further highlight the destruction of war in the sense that it brings out the insensitivity of those who do not go to war. Surely, the death of young soldiers would dwell on the forehead of girls who love them for the rest of their lives as “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall…and each slow duck a drawing-down of blinds” (Anthem for Doomed Youth), but most of the time, all that the soldiers perceive, as Owen depicts, is indifference and ignorance.
There is a strong echo between “But nothing happens” (Exposure) and “but no one bothers” (Insensibility). War has made such a difference in the lives of those who went to the front and those who did not that it actually divides and weaken the link between human beings and Owen voices his rage in damning words “By choice they made themselves immune to pity”. Characterizing the insensitivity that is slowly engendered in human beings, Owen has successfully brought out the insensitive and merciless nature of the war.
The suffering does not end once the last gun ceased to fire. Instead it drags on and becomes an incurable wound in the veterans’ mind after they return home. The sharp contrast between the life before and after the war of the young soldier in “Disabled” exemplifies the destruction that war makes on the lives of these soldiers. Once a football player that got “carried shoulder-high” for his excellent performance, the young man is now “legless, sewn short at elbow”, helpless and dependent.
The juxtaposition of “crowds cheer goal” against “some cheer him home” shows the marked difference between the life of an admired footballer with that of a veteran who receives only spared sympathy from “some” people back home. There is a decrease in the degree of respect and recognition that the soldier gets before and after the war, and Owen severely despises war for that truth. The soldier’s social life is also worsened where he notices the “lovelier” glances that girls gave him as a young handsome guy have “passed from him to” others “that were whole”. The girls that have allowed him to “feel” their waists and hands now merely “touch him like some queer disease”. Again sharp contrast between “touch” and “feel” demonstrates the disappearance of emotions that were once present. Lack of emotions is accompanied by a sense of disgust for a “queer disease”.
If in “Disabled”, Owen depicts the contrast between the life of a soldier before and after the war, in “Mental Cases” he focuses on the trauma that robs these soldiers off their sanity once they step out of the war. Not only physically destroyed, “chasms round their fretted sockets”, “stroke on stroke of pain”, they also suffer from insanity which resulted from witnessing “multitudinous murders”, “wading sloughs of flesh” and “treading blood” of their own comrades. To link this with a point previously made, war makes the soldiers either bitterly insensitive or makes them lose their minds.
These men did not withstand and grow that insensibility; instead they have given in to the inhumanity of the war and thus become traumatized-“their hands are plucking at each other”. This is a strong allusion to Lady Macbeth who is overwhelmed with a sense of guilt in Act 5 Scene 1, thus it is reasonable to deduce that the haunting experience of killing massive number of people has rooted in these soldier’s minds causing them to lose their minds. Owen unceasingly points out the damaging influence of the war and finally comes to his firm conclusion that war is futile and contemptible.
All these pains and suffering do not bring anyone anywhere. It only turns a “brother” into an enemy which gets “jabbed and killed” (Strange Meeting). It involves lengthy days of waiting although it is clear that “nothing happens”. The question “What are we doing here?” (Exposure) can be taken as both the query for the purpose of their night duties or the questioning of the point of the war itself. The suffering in the middle of the war, the post-war sense of loss for such futile dispute makes a complete picture of the “pity of war” that Owen tries to depict in his collection of poems.
He forthrightly dismisses the sentimental description of the soldiers as “flowers for poets’ tearful fooling” or merely “gaps for filling” (Insensibility). Neither does he approve of such false promises as “jeweled hilts, daggers in plait socks, smart salutes” (Disabled) or “the old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori”. It is ultimately deception which lures “innocent” civilians into the horrendous battle. He is convinced that the propaganda can only fool “children ardent for some desperate glory” and the deception is too thin a mask for the callous reality of war.
All in all, Owen is a strongly anti-war poet who has clearly establishes his stance on the distressing and repugnant reality of war. With a combination of various devices, notably para-rhyme, contrast and vivid imagery, Owen has both offered a factual account of war and voiced his anger towards war-the crisis, the crime of humankind.