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War Poetry Essay

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An Introduction

War has given writers much material to use in books, short stories, descriptive essays, poems etc. Sometimes these merely narrate incidents and bring them up to story form. For instance Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, War and Peace, tells the story of five families during the Napoleonic Wars, “The Great Escape” by Paul Brickhill which was also made into the movie, and Ernest’s Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”, which examines how World War 1 impacted the lives of several characters—including an ambulance driver.

The film, based on the novel, earned Academy Awards for cinematography and sound recording,

Apart from the poems “Six Young Men” by Ted Hughes and “War Photographer” by Carol Anne Duffy, “Vergissmeinicht” by Keith Douglas and “Bombing Casualties in Spain” by Herbert Read also show the futility of war, without minimizing the horrors it creates. Some of these books go into the economics of war. All these books imply that given a similar set of circumstances as well as predictably of human nature, war is inevitable.

They also bring about the aftermath of war and how it damages the socio-political nature of a nature. Most of these war novels have a good dose of love and romance and many have been made into outstanding films.

The Poets of the First World War

The First World War brought to public notice many poets, particularly among the young men in the armed forces, while it provided a new source of inspiration for writers of established reputation. Not a few of the younger poets were killed or died in the struggle, and it is impossible to estimate the loss sustained by English poetry in their deaths.

There can be no clearer reflection of the changing national attitude towards the conflict as the weary years brought disillusionment than that found than that found in the poetry of these men. Broadly two phases may be distinguished. The first was one of patriotic fervor, almost of rejoicing in the opportunity of self-sacrifice in the cause of human freedom, and a revival of the romantic conception of the knight-at-arms. Many writers, indeed, lived and served throughout the war and preserved unblemished this fervor of the early years. But, as the carnage grew more appalling and the end seemed as distant as ever, other poets arose with declared intention of shattering this illusion of the splendor of war by a frankly realistic picture of the suffering, brutality, squalor, and futility of the struggle. The work of this last group, though at first greeted with derision or angry protest, has probably withstood the passage of time better than that of the earlier. Perhaps something of its realism and its depth of understanding has found an echo in the experience of disillusioned post-War generations.

The Poets of the Second World War

The period of the 1939-45 War produced much poetry, and, probably for the first time in twentieth century, poetry sold well and to a wide public. Some of it was war poetry in the most obvious sense, dealing with events and experiences springing directly from the military struggle. On the other hand, among the older poets of the Georgian tradition were writes like Walter de la Mare who continued to write poetry that was little affected by the upheaval.

But the greatest poetry of the period undoubtedly felt the impact of the War, though it is not obviously concerned with its events or the emotions caused directly by them. Such is Four Quartets, the work of a writer able to absorb into the greater whole of his life’s experience the emotions and experiences of the War. For the younger and lesser poets the War was too near, too all-important to permit them to view it in that wider perspective which alone creates the greatest art. The First World War had found in Wilfred Owen a young poet of sufficient detachment, yet depth, to take his wider view. There was no one of his stature among the war poets of the second great conflict.

Among the themes, which most frequently recur in the work of the war poets are the boredom and frustrations of service life, the waste that is war, appreciation of the friendship found in the services, a deep enjoyment of nature and of the landscapes of home, and, above all, the courageous facing-up to the hardships of the struggle and the possibility of ultimate death. The predominating tone is probably one of sadness, and there is less of the spirit of knight-errantry than is to be found in the poetry of 1914-16.

Generally it may be said that the War sees a decline in the interest of psychology and sociology, and in the excessively intellectual writing, which characterized the poetry of the thirties. Face to face with a situation demanding an immediate practical response, the poets of the war years fell back upon the universal feelings, which they shared with their fellows. Confidence in political ideologies as a means to international security and general happiness vanished in the face of the struggle, which was a patent proof of the failure of the political remedies. Poetry became more of an affair of the heart, less an affair of the head, and in thus coming closer to the ordinary man it did much to widen its public.

The War Photographer by Carol Anne Duffy

The poem War Photographer deals with the various experiences of a war photographer and his emotions when he develops his films. The surface subject of the poem is the war photographer of the title but at a deeper level the poem explores the difference between “Rural England” and places where wars are fought (Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and Cambodia), between the comfort or indifference of the newspaper editor and its readers and the suffering of the people in the photographs.

War Photographer comes from Duffy’s friendship with Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffith, two very well respected still photographers who specialized in war photography. But the photographer in the poem is anonymous; he could be any of those who recorded scenes of war. He is not so much a particular individual, as like the poet, an observer and recorder of other peoples’ lives. He is an outsider (“alone/ With spools of suffering”) who moves between two worlds but is comfortable in neither. The “ordered rows” of film spools may suggest how the photographer tries to bring order to what he records, to interpret or make sense of it.

The simile, which compares him to a priest, shows how seriously he takes his job, and how (by photographing them) he stands up for those who cannot help themselves. His darkroom represents a church in which his red light is like a colored lantern (quite common in Catholic and Anglican churches). The image is also appropriate because, like a priest, he teaches how fragile we are and how short life is. (“All flesh is grass” is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah contrasts the shortness of human life with eternal religious truths- “the Word of the Lord” which “abides forever”). In this poem, the sentence follows a list of names. These are places where life is even briefer than normal, because of wars.

The second stanza contrasts the photographer’s calmness when taking pictures with his attitudes as he develops them. If his hands shake when he takes pictures, the6y won’t be any good, but in the darkroom he can allow his hands to tremble. “Solutions” refers literally to the developing fluid in the trays, but also suggests the idea of solving the political problems that cause war- ” Solutions” which he does not have, of course. Duffy contrasts the fields in England with that abroad- as if the photographer thinks English fields unusual for not being minefields. The image is shocking, because he thinks of land mines as exploding not under soldiers but under “the feet of running children”.

What is “happening” in the third stanza is that an image is gradually appearing as a photo develops. “Ghost” is ambiguous- it suggests the faint emerging image, but also that the man in the photo is dead (which is why it was taken). The photographer recalls the reaction of the wife on seeing her husband die. He is not able to ask for permission to take the picture but he seeks “approval without words”. It is as if the wife needs to approve of his recording the event while the blood stains “into foreign dust”.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, he goes to the editor so that he can pick out a couple of prints from the hundreds of horrors and print them in the Sunday Supplement. ” In black and white” is ambiguous; it suggests the monochrome photographs but also the ideas of telling the truth and of the simple contrast between good and evil. Although the reader may be moved, to tears even, this sympathy is short-lived, between bathing and a drink before lunch. Duffy imagines the photographer finally looking down, from an airplane, on England. This is the country that pays his wages (“where/ he earns his living”) but where people ” do not care about the events he records.

There are four stanzas in the poem each consisting of 6 lines. The rhyme scheme is a, b, b, c, d, and d. This form is quite traditional; each line is a pentameter, which is quite common in Shakespeare’s plays.

In this poem, Duffy obviously feels something in common with her subject- she uses his experience to voice her own criticism of how comfortable Britons look at pictures of suffering, but do not know the reality. She sees the photographer as both priest and journalist. The reader’s response to the Sunday newspaper is almost like going to Church- for a while we are reminded of our neighbor’s suffering but by lunchtime we have forgotten what we learned. The poem is evocative and we, far away from the war zone, can feel his pain. As he develops his prints, the pictures come to life.

Six Young Men by Ted Hughes

Six Young Men is a nostalgic and painful poem, the theme of which is narrated by the photographer, who took a snapshot of subjects involved. These six subjects are young soldiers. Apparently out on a Sunday jaunt, dressed in civvies, and ready for a good time. Their expression are comfortable and relaxed; one smiling shyly, one chewing a blade of grass, one looking down, one looking a little proud-all wearing hats now out of fashion, their shoes shining. The last line of the first stanza changes the picture completely, when we are told that within six months of the snapshots being taken they were all dead. The third line of the first stanza tells us that 40 years have passes since that moment. The photograph has now grown yellow with age, yet, in spite of being dead; they have remained eternally young and fresh because of the impression on the photograph.

These young men have been photographed against a natural backdrop. At this point the narrator brings himself into the poem by using the personal pronoun “I”. This idea was familiar to him with the bilberries growing there. A thick tree, a black wall- all of which have remained as they were over there 40 years ago. Apart from this is the sound of seven waterfalls merging into a heavy stream. At the bottom of the ravine further indicates the continuity of nature. Through this idea, he expresses the belief that while man’s life is finite, nature is infinite. There is an air of “listening” to the sound of the roarer, which links the past with the present. The narrator tells us that all these six young men die courageously, shot down by the enemy while doing their duty or helping each other.

The poem suggests that what has been captured in the photograph reminds us of how they were before their bodies were mangled. In spite of war’s cruelty, these men have remained alive and smiling. For 40 years, their bodies have been rotting in the soil, but the smiles have remained intact. Finally the poet suggests that whether one has been dead for centuries or a few hours are immaterial, because that is the end of breathing. In the same way the smiles in the photographs are as real as the smile one might see on the face of a man standing in front of us. Regardless of that the feelings aroused by looking at what he calls “contradictory permanent horrors” are so powerful that one feels that the life might escape from one’s own body. To make this poem effective, Ted Hughes has not used any specific rhyme scheme.

The poem is in blank verse and reads almost like prose. Yet there is something tragically poetic about the needless deaths of the six young men. He creates the impression that they haven’t lived life at all, and are looking forward to a reasonably good future. The contrast between a relaxed atmosphere and the shock of war with the mention of death, the flash of guns and smell of cordite, the noise of war is hard hitting. The first two stanzas have an easy, peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. While the next two stanzas have action of war with noise and smell. The last stanza is the poet’s own thoughts and his feeling of despair at the needless waste of life.

In the second stanza, there is a use of alliteration with “seven streams” and then “faces-four”. In the third stanza there is “nobody knows”. In the fourth stanza there is a metaphor with “the locket of a smile”. The rest of that fourth stanza expresses a kind of pain and confusion with the alliteration “war’s worst”, “thinkable flash” – indicating that nothing would have been more useless than the suffering of these young men when they died 40 years ago. Right at the end, the author tells us though the photo is a cheerful one; the contrast of death is a contradictory permanent horror.

Hughes has used a blend of run-on lines and end-stop lines. This creates continuity of thought and, like the frame of the photograph, links the ideas of the poem.

Vergissmeinicht by Keith Douglas

In the poem, the narrator does not introduce himself in the very beginning. It is a war scene. Three weeks have passed, both sides have withdrawn, but the narrator and his companions returning over the battlefield find a soldier lying there, obviously, grievously wounded. The barrel of his gun looks on. The group is in a tank. The soldier fires one shot which penetrates the tank metal. However he is also killed. When they examine his gun, they find a photo of his girlfriend, with the name Steffi and words “Vergissmeinicht” (don’t forget me). Within a second the scene has changed to a humane and mortal scene. The man is dead but his gun survives and will continue to survive even as the body will decay.

The use of the word “but” right at the beginning of the fifth stanza, changes the scene, showing the human emotion of love, showing how she would weep if she were to see the black flies moving over his dead bodies and the dust upon her photo and his belly, which has taken the major impact of the shot. At the end the poet says that in death, there is no difference between the lover and the soldier because as human being, they have the same body and the same emotions. Death may kill the soldier, does greater damage to the lover, because it destroys that part of him, which he wants to share with somebody else. This poem of 24 lines is direct and bald in its statement of ideas. There is a great dependence on transferred to transferred epithet, example, “nightmare ground”, “frowning barrel”, dishonored picture”. In the third stanza, there is a simile; “he hit my tank with one/ the entry of a demon”. The idea is that at the last moment our military equipment betrays us death has called.

Bombing Casualties in Spain by Herbert Read

This is a short poem by Herbert Read. It describes in very painful and clear terms, the death of children killed by bombs in Spain. Their eyes gleam like gristle and their open eyes reflect the sunlight. Their lips are now pale. Once they were red and fresh. Now they are split and the blood has tousled their hair. The blood in their hair is now clotting and turning black. The faces are dead and pale. Almost turning gray like ashes in a wood fire. Their bodies have been laid out in rows in a dreadful simile; they are compared with paper lanterns that have decorated the evening fiesta. But in the morning they have been thrown on the ground and have been crumpled. The picture created is horrifying since these are children. We are made to wonder whether a school or a children hospital was bombed because they haven’t been able to escape. The poem brings out the ugliness and cruelty of war in which even children are casualties because they are the most helpless.

Using short and expressive lines, sometimes 2 words, sometimes 3 or 4 to a line. It is almost as though the poet is using hammer strokes to bring home the point. Statements like “These are dead face” hit out to the readers. “Wanly waxen wood” is a surprising alliteration because in a very complex way he compares the ember to a wasp nest. Like the paper lanterns, this is a painful simile because we are talking of children. In this brief poem, he has made his feelings clear.

Comparisons between the Poems

All the poems discussed in this project have condemned war in different ways. Carol Anne Duffy criticizes the Britons to see pictures and sufferings of war so comfortably; Ted Hughes, Herbert Read and Keith Douglas also show us the futility of war. Six Young Men gives the impression that 6 young men have lost their lives all in the name of war, Bombing Casualties in Spain gives you an idea about how unjustified war is by forming a scene out of the civil war in which many children have been slaughtered due to aerial bombing, Vergissmeinicht demonstrates a painful irony when it states that the very weapons we use to cause destruction ultimately causes the destruction of us.

The War Photographer gets into the mood of war in the second line of the poem itself ; “with spools of suffering…”,and this mood is continued throughout, while Six Young Men starts of in a much lighter mood and slowly builds up to the finale. The last line of the first stanza comes as a shock to the readers almost as though they’ve been shot like those men, and then the third stanza rings out to the readers as shots too, as the bodies keep tumbling.

The poem is written in a far more direct form as opposed to the War Photographer, where many metaphors and similes have been employed, but still the poet manages to stimulate the reader’s emotions in his subtle manner. Six Young Men might have a greater impact on some readers because it speaks of six different characters affected by war rather than sufferings of war in general, and Ted Hughes last verse is far more haunting than Duffy’s as he manages to show the six men as no more alive than any man you meet nor any more dead than any prehistoric beast.

Bombing Casualties in Spain also discusses the sufferings of war, but not as directly as mentioning any particular characters nor as vaguely as showing it in general. This poem describes the scene of the war far more vividly than any of the other poems and the description of the children is given so instrumentally that it will cause the reader’s hearts to melt. The style used in the poem is also quite witty, something not found in the two earlier poems and credit must be given to the poet to narrate such a painful poem in such a skillful fashion. Vergissmeinicht, on the other hand, like Six Young Men, has a nameless character, who dies after firing on a tank three weeks after the end of the battle.

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War Poetry. (2017, Aug 23). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/war-poetry-3-essay

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