The portrayal of war in poems by Sassoon, Owen and Brooke Essay
Essay Topic: War
Paper type: Essay
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The First World War changed the way that people thought about war and patriotism. Analyse and compare the portrayal of war in poems by Sassoon, Owen and Brooke and explore the different attitudes shown towards war by these three poets.
The First World War or the Great War exploded in 1914. It lasted for four long years ending in 1918. The war began in the Balkans with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. After the death of their future leader, Austria demanded compensation from Serbia and the right to send troops there.
Serbia refused and so Austria attacked. Many nations took sides and so began a complicated chain of events which led to The Great War.
On the 4th of August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. The battle was not only fought on foreign ground but also on the home front. British men and women were encouraged to fight for king and country and traditionally, at the earlier stages of the war, people believed that it was honourable to die in duty.
As the war progressed, the Government found it harder to find willing men to enlist and so they introduced propaganda. This was a cunning tactic used by the British powers to persuade and boost the dwindling number of men volunteering to join up. Posters, radio programmes and newspaper articles portrayed an image of victory or brought guilt upon men who were not signing up. Many women were influenced by this and so put pressure upon their loved ones to be courageous. Newspapers only told stories of success, keeping Britain’s morale high. Images of victorious celebrations were a far cry from the horrific truth.
The reality was that their men were being sent to live and fight in abysmal conditions. British men were shocked by what they found when they reached enemy lines and this made life even harder to endure. On a daily basis they saw an appalling loss of life, in total 3 million people died or were injured in the trenches. Soldiers spent their days and nights in muddy trenches; open to the elements; having to live off rationed supplies; having little or no rest and waiting to die. Trench warfare lead many men to write letters home to their families describing the atrocities that they were witnessing first hand. These letters however, never made it to the intended readers as they were censored in order to mask the reality of what the soldiers were going through. This eventually became apparent and the men, in frustration, turned to writing their own private poetry as a way of expressing the many emotions that they encountered.
After the war was over and the British public had long realised that their men were not returning, the poetry that had been written in the trenches was uncovered. The anger and betrayal that the men felt was mirrored in their words. Poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon became well known for their work and their poems are used today to remind current generations of what they had to go through and to prevent history repeating itself.
Wilfred Owen was born in Oswestry in Shropshire. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at university. He was in France when war broke out and came back to enlist. Owen became one of the 28,000 recorded cases of shellshock during the war. This was an illness that in reality probably affected three times as many men as were reported. The continuous shelling traumatised Owen whilst he was on the frontline and so he was sent back home to hospital. When he had recovered Owen decided to rejoin and was sent back to the trenches to fight. Wilfred Owen was walking his troops across a bridge during November 1918 when he was shot and killed; tragically this was just one week before the Armistice.
One of the many poems that Wilfred Owen wrote was called ‘Exposure.’ It was set during the night in the harsh winter of 1917. The poem shows a graphic portrayal of life in the trenches and the conditions that the soldiers had to endure. The poem is about the weather and the battle that the soldiers fought against the elements. He refers to the weather as his greatest enemy. Owen takes the reader through a typical solstice, night-time, dawn, daytime and then he looks toward the coming night.
The poem begins with the title ‘Exposure.’ Exposed to battle and the enemies artillery and also exposed to the weather and the horrendous conditions. The title has a double meaning.
The poem begins by describing the cold night. The soldiers are so cold that their ‘brains ache.’ They are worried because the night is silent and they are only used to lots of noise. This makes them nervous and so they find it difficult to sleep. In the first stanza, Owen uses the metaphor,
“the merciless iced east winds that knive us…”
He describes the winds as showing no mercy; he also personifies the wind by saying that it is kniving the soldiers. He ends the first stanza with,
“But nothing happens.”
The above quote is to be the start of a pattern of phrases that show that the soldiers feel that one day runs into the next and nothing ever happens. It is somewhat ironic as there is a lot happening yet Owen feels that they are stranded in a hell where they don’t know what is going on away from their trench.
In the second stanza, the wind is personified again and is described as ‘mad’ and ‘tugging on the wire.’ Owen continuously makes reference to nature as he uses the following simile to show the force of the wind on the barbed wire that ran through no-man’s land and how it was,
“Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.”
The soldiers can hear the constant guns in the north and onomatopoeia is used to describe the ‘gunnery rumbles.’ The pattern of short phrases at the end of each stanza is continued as Owen asks the question,
“What are we doing here?”
He begins to wonder why he is there.
The third stanza is the start of a new day however Owen describes his unhappiness as being a ‘misery.’ Owen personifies the dawn by saying,
“Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army.”
Here he is describing dawn as being the army that he has to fight. He knows that the quiet of the night will end and the fighting will start all over again. Owen begins the fourth stanza with the use of alliteration. The night’s silence is disturbed by,
“Sudden successive flights of bullets.”
Further in the stanza, he uses alliteration once more as he describes the snow as,
“Flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew.”
Here we can see Owens comparison between the bullets of a gun and the deadly snowflakes. The poet believes that the weather is more life threatening than the enemy gunfire. Once again Owen begins his stanza with alliteration. Stanza five begins with,
“Pale flakes with fingering stealth and feeling for our faces.”
This is also personification as the poet describes how the flakes of snow are like fingers quietly touching the soldier’s faces. Here we being to wonder whether the soldiers are dying as they begin to hallucinate about being back at home in grassy ditches, covered with blossom. He contrasts the reality of being ‘snow-dazed’ with the dream of being ‘sun-dozed’. This is an example of para rhyming. In the final stanza Owen is looking towards the coming night. He begins to blame God and uses the word ‘fasten’ to describe the frost on the soldier’s clothes. He thinks about the burying party and how they are shaking, with cold and with fright of the prospect of being shot whilst walking across no-mans land. Owens ends the poem with the short phrase,
“But nothing happens.”
This shows how nothing has happened throughout the solstice and so the poem, like the day has gone full circle.
The poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was written by Wilfred Owen. He wrote the poem to try and educate the general public and tell them the truth about what was happening to the British soldiers during the First World War.
The poem tells the story of Owen’s platoon and their journey back to their resting place having just finished their shift of fighting.
The opening stanza describes the men walking away from the trenches. The shells are falling behind them as they trudge towards their ‘distant rest.’ The poem begins in a sombre tone.
He begins by using the simile to describe the men as,
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.”
This was to create an image that the soldiers are as worthless as beggars and are stooped over in order to prevent them being shot over the trench wall. This causes the soldier’s knees to ache as they trudge wearily through the sludge. Injured and exhausted, the men are,
“Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.”
The word ‘hoots’ in the above quotation demonstrates the use of onomatopoeia and describes how the men are so tired that they do not notice the sound of the explosions behind them. Owen uses the senses to show how the soldiers have almost ceased to function as they are ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’ yet they still march on as if they are sleep walking and are now unaware of their surroundings.
In the second stanza, the poet generates a sense of panic. He does this by changing the tone by using upbeat words and also by using short phrases. The use of upper case letters on the repeated word ‘GAS’ emphasises this tonal change to generate panic. The men discover the gas and then it is almost as if the realisation only hits them a second later. They then shout the word a second time as they have woken from their ‘fake sleep’ to warn each other and then they have to put their gas masks on quickly. The men fumble as the helmets are clumsy and heavy and the men are in a panic. One of the soldiers did not manage to put his helmet on in time and so the gas begins to kill him. Owen describes his horror as he watches the desperation of the dying man. The following simile creates an image of the man struggling to move or to stay upright and compares the gas to fire or lime.
“And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . . .”
Owen is disturbed as he sees him drowning in the deadly gas. He then takes the metaphor one step further and describes the soldier as drowning ‘under a green sea,’ due to the green colouring of the gas.
The following two lines of the poem are then separated from the rest as the poet relives the sight of the helpless man in his dreams. He pictures this image and this is a stark reminder that he wasn’t able to assist him and watched him die.
In the final stanza, the tone changes once again and the reader is asked to imagine how it would feel to pace behind the wagon that the dying man was ‘flung’ in. Owen also uses the semantic field of the senses, as he did in the first stanza, as he asks the reader to; watch the rolling eyes of the man; hear the froth come gargling from his lungs; and also uses taste as he uses the words ‘tongue’ and ‘bitter.’ As the poem comes to a close, Owen changes the tone for the last time as he directs the poem to the reader. He uses the term ‘My friend’ to aim the final statement to the people at home that have told their children about the glory of war. He feels that if they knew about the reality of war then they would not talk about the war,
“with such high zest.”
The final line ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ translated into modern English means, it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country. Owen describes this as a lie (or propaganda) as he believes that it is not honourable to die for England because of the atrocities of war and the pain and suffering that the men had to go through.
Wilfred Owen in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ shows the harsh reality of war and death. He creates an image of violence and suffering and shows that the effects of war don’t end when the fighting is over, they continue in the form of dreams or a more appropriate term would be ‘nightmares.’
The poem has an alternating rhyme scheme and each line has ten syllables. The rhythm of the poem shows the continuous movement of the soldier toward his resting place.
During Owen’s time in medical hospital in Edinburgh he met a fellow poet, a man named Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was born in Kent and brought up in a wealthy family. Unlike Owen, Sassoon survived the war and died in 1967.
‘The General,’ was written by Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon demonstrates his sarcastic style in this short, direct poem.
The poem begins with the soldiers going up to the front line, crossing the General on their way. Unlike the soldiers the General is cheerful and greets them as he passes.
“Good-morning; good morning!”
As the General is returning back to his base and his safety, the soldiers are heading for the front line and their doom. Harry and Jack, two of the soldiers are unimpressed by the General’s high spirits as they ‘slog’ up to Arras. The word ‘up’ in this line demonstrates the contrast between the General travelling downwards and so this is easier than the soldier travelling upwards with their heavy packs towards their death. This is an example of irony. Sassoon demonstrates his sarcasm with the comment ‘grunted’ by the soldiers about the General.
“He’s a cheery old card.”
However cheerful the General may be he is two faced as he is sending the soldiers to their deaths. The stanza finishes and is followed by a break. This shows a change in tone, as the poem becomes more sarcastic, altering from cheery general to bitter and cold. This also highlights the General’s real power. The final line is in single syllables to add impact and to stress Sassoon’s hatred of war and the people in charge.
“But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”
The above quote also tells how Jack and Harry came to their end as ironically it was the General’s orders that sent them to their deaths.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote the poem ‘Base Details.’ The title itself has two meanings. The first being that the soldiers had to live in bases away from the front line and danger, and the second being that the word ‘base’ can also mean lowest of human kind. Sassoon’s anger towards the Majors is made clear again in this poem with his bitter and sarcastic tone. In this poem, Sassoon explains that if he were a Major then he would typically be fat and lazy. He would live away from the front line in safety, reading the roll of honour whilst drinking and eating the finest food and drink. He would mention the men that had died in the fighting. When the war was over, Sassoon as the Major would die in his bed, unaffected by memories of the war due to his lack of frontline participation.
The first line demonstrates stereotypical impressions of a Major.
“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath.’
This negative image portrays Majors as fat and drunken old men sat in their bases, unworthy of their superior positions, whilst the soldiers are out fighting for their country. The Majors are described as ‘scarlet.’ The word scarlet creates an image of angry faces or unfit, overweight men. The word scarlet may also refer to the term ‘scarlet woman,’ untrustworthy and disloyal. It was also apparent that the Majors would never spend time fighting on the frontline as the colour of the clothing would be too obvious.
Sassoon uses alliteration in this poem to describe the ‘puffy, petulant’ faces of the Majors, ‘guzzling and gulping in the best hotels.’
The Majors trivialise the number of deaths, as they are unaware of the true horror of fighting on the frontline.
Sassoon’s poem ‘Base Details’ is sarcastic with a bitter tone. The negative image of the Majors shows the poet’s anger toward the higher ranking officials.
The poem is short in style, alternate lines rhyme and there are ten syllables to each line.
Before and in the early stages of The Great War, there were many poems written that were patriotic to fighting for England and dying for your country. One of the writers that used this style was a man called Rupert Brooke.
Rupert Brooke was a privileged man. He went to Rugby School where he soon built up the reputation as being a brilliant pupil. He went on to King’s College in Cambridge. He was a huge influence to others and died in 1915, just one year into the war.
Brooke wrote ‘The Soldier’ which glorified the idea of dying for your country. The poem was written in December 1914, at the beginning of the war. It displayed a romantic view of war and was used as propaganda to encourage men to feel positive toward enlisting and fighting for their country.
The poem was written in first person to help the reader to gain an insight into the patriotic feelings of the soldier. He wrote the poem in an autobiographical style.
Brooke begins the poem with a realistic view that he will possibly die fighting in the war. However, he wants the reader to believe that the place where he fell will be ‘for ever England’ and so the foreign ground will become richer. Personification is used to describe England.
“Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.”
This use of personification demonstrates Brooke’s love for his country and shows how he sees England as being the motherland or the woman he loves. This use of personifying England as being a woman is continued throughout the poem.
The first stanza describes the poet’s memories of England,
“breathing English air, washed by the rivers and blest by suns of home.”
This idealistic view of England is continued in the second stanza. Brooke asks the reader to ‘think.’ He believes that if he dies for his country then all of the evil in his body will be shed away; his soul will be saved and the memory of him will live on in the ‘eternal mind’ because of his heroic deeds. His heart will then be at peace because he will go to an English heaven. This demonstrates how Brooke believes that English soldiers are far superior to soldiers from any other race and that there are separate heavens for English patriots.
‘The Soldier’ is a positive and optimistic poem. The poet uses words such as, ‘for ever England; blest by suns; dreams; happy; laughter and peace’ to conjure up these positive images. An alternate rhyme scheme is used.
Owen, Sassoon and Brooke were successful war poets. Their writing differed vastly when compared to each other and demonstrated different attitudes.
Wilfred Owen’s work was graphic and portrayed images of a horrific war, gruesome and harrowing. He detailed how the soldiers felt, what they saw and the physical effects that the war had on them. Owen used this tactic of graphic description to shock his readers. His poems were often long and detailed.
Siegfried Sassoon also held negative thoughts about the war however his strategy was to show how the men in charge were incompetent and unable to lead. His poems were sarcastic and showed his hatred towards the generals and the majors. He wrote his poems in a short, direct style.
Rupert Brooke’s views were very different to Owen and Sassoon’s. His poems were patriotic and he tried to encourage men to go to war. Brooke felt that it was an honour to die for England and that he would be remembered forever if he was killed fighting for his country. Brooke used imagery to describe the love he felt for his country.
The poems studied have demonstrated different attitudes to war. The poets wrote their pieces during the same period and the theme was the same (war) however, their views and attitudes were very different. Each poet has a powerful effect on the reader as their poems have a persuasive influence. Owen wanted the reader to empathise with the soldiers, Sassoon wanted the reader to hate the men in authority and Brooke wanted the reader to feel proud to be English.
Today, these poems are used across the country to enable young people to understand the atrocities of war. They are viewed as an essential tool to educate people to comprehend the consequences if there was ever to be another war. They show different attitudes in order to give a variety of views and to provide as honest a picture as possible. They also enable people to remember the war so that hopefully any further wars can be prevented in the future.
Owen, Sassoon and Brooke are invaluable assets to English history as the have provided detailed accounts of a life that we will hopefully never need to encounter again but need to be reminded of in order to avoid its repetition.