The Historyof War Poetry and the works of Wilfred Owen
A poet is generally a man who feels something and tries to express his ideas and emotions about this thing in a way far better than that of the ordinary man. And the more effect of the subject, the better the poem. So when t comes to war we find that the poets express themselves in the most eloquent way. War, just hearing this word makes one think of many calshing ideas about it. Every single person on this earth has a clear idea about war and some of us already have a personal experience with the tragedies and suffering of war
In this simple thesis we will talk about war poetry and its major poet, Wilfred Owen. The first part of these papers is concerned with war poetry in genera, it begins with a historical background of war poetry traced back to the time of Homer. Followed by the major characteristics of this school of poetry which has no standard criteria. After that, we shed light on the major poets of this school: Siegfried Sassoon , Rupert Chawner Brooke, and Isaac Rosenberg.
The Second part is concerned with the great war poet, Wilfred Owen. Talking about his importance as a poet and the disagreement of men of literature about him. Followed by a simple answer to the question: How does Owen represents his school. Finally, we will make a brief illustration of six of Owen's poems.
.... they are fortunate who fight
For gleaming landscapes swept and shafted
And crowned by cloud pavilons white.
, sassoon (1)
Poems about war are as old as poetry itself, beginning with the greatest poem in European culture, Homer's Iliad composed in the 8th century bc telling the legendary tales of Troy and war between Greek and Trojan. The poem is clearly based on much older oral forms. Virgil's Aeneid, written in the 1st century bc, tells the story of the Trojan Prince Aeneas and his adventures after the fall of Troy. Other civilizations also recorded war in poetic form from the earliest times.(2) Even in our arabian culture, war poetry is as old as poetry itself; many great poets such as Antarah ibn Shaddad , Imru' al-Qais, and Al-Mutanabbi talked about war and fights that they had witnessed.
The term war poet, which is applied especially to those in military service during World War I(3) , was documented as early as 1848 in reference to German revolutionary poet, Georg Herwegh.(4) It is generally agreed that the First World War inspired poetry of the highest order, some of it ground-breaking in both treatment of subject and technique: combatants included W Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, R. Graves, E. Thomas, and R. Brooke, and memorable poems and elegies on the theme were contributed by Hardy, Binyon, Housman, and others.(5)
Several poets writing in English were soldiers, and wrote about their experiences of war. A number of them died on active service, most famously Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Charles Sorley. Others including Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon survived, but many were scarred by their experiences, reflected in their poetry.
1) Philip R. Liebson, How Sweet It Is, The Chicago Liberary Club, 28 Fabruary 2000, p. 6.
2) Sami El-Shahed, Impact of War on Language.
3) Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, The Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University Press, 2005, war poet noun.
4) The Times, Southern Germany, 29 September 1848.
5) Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature , 6th Ed, 2000, p. 1074.
I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to ragtime tunes, or "Home, sweet Home"
And there'd be no more jokes im Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses around Bapaume
There was no standard blueprint for a war poet – even if the common perception is that they were all officers from a privileged background. This was clearly not the case. The War Poets were from a variety of backgrounds. Some such as Brookes had a very comfortable upbringing. Others such as Lance-Corporal Ledwidge came from more humble stock. Some won medals for gallantry. Others did not. The whole variety of backgrounds gives a clear idea that the impact of war in the trenches hit everyone who served there. Forbidden from writing home with any degree of accuracy/truth about the life they led, some put their thoughts into a diary that could be kept in secret. Some of these diaries survive to this day. Others put their thoughts into poems. As many of these poems rely on interpretation as opposed to being clear facts, the poets bypassed any form of military censorship that certainly would have occurred if they had simply written out their thoughts as prose.(2)
It can be said that war poetry is not a school of poetry, it is just a group of poets who shared the experience of war. It is hard to find a common characteristic between war poets, but we all know that it has an unarguable common feature which is war itself, it is clear really that war poetry talks about war. Most poets of this school, or group, talked about war and the tragedies of war in order to show its real picture to the poeple who support the idea of war. They tried to change the favorable attitude of some people towards war by exploring in depth the spiritual hell that war brings into being, and by describing the physical and the emotional pain which humans have to endure during and after the war. Some poems of this era highlight the case in which a soldier survives war physically but remains obsessed with its bitter horrifying memories which drive him crazy. This takes us to a theme that can be considered a common one in war poetry, the theme of futility.(3)
This is a preview of the whole essay
The theme of futility is popular among the war poets probably because living in war conditions leads one to a kind of despair that renders everything around futile. They are different poets, but they are united in their shared sense of the futility of the world we live in, and their shared sense of the emptiness of our existence. The same of futility is considered a common theme in war poetry to the extent that Wilfred Owen, the great war poet, used the word "futility" as a tittle for one of his poems. In this poem, the soldiers try in vain to make the sun resurrect their newly dead friend whose body is still warm. The sun’s power to bring to life the clays of a cold star or a plant from a dead cold seed, is contrasted here with its inability to bring back to life a body that is still warm.(4)
Darkness, guns,mud, rain, gas, bullets, shells, barbed wire, rats, lice, cold, and trench foot: these images which have formed the modern memory of war are largely culled from the trench poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Rosenberg - to name only a few - jsut as discussions of war poetry have tended to be assimilated into a historical doctrine expressing the truth of war. Indeed, Owen, in his famous preface, actively sought this conflation. Consequently, historical and literary narratives often become interchangeable, as if war poetry was the transparent envelope of sense experience: the seared sense of the war-torn soldier which became the most powerful form of testimony, altering the very meaning of the term " war Poetry " in the twentieth century.(5)
1) Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton& Company Inc, 1973, p. 381
2) http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/poetry_world_war_one.htm, Retrieved 16 March 2012
3) Ahmad Abu Baker, The Theme of ‘Futility’ in War Poetry, September 2007.
4) The Same
5) Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, 2007, p. 76
Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?
... You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit
Some of the major poets of war poetry are Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Chawner Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen. The latter is the main poet of this thesis but we will talk briefly about the first three.
His poetry is forceful, rich in its vocabulary, and starkly realistic in its attitudes to war; Rosenberg greatly disliked Brooke's 'begloried sonnets'. His poor Jewish urban background gives the poems a note not found in the work of his fellow war poets. His reputation was slow to grow with the public. One of his most famous poems is Dead Man's Dump in which he talks about the brave soldiers who dies in war.(2)
Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended--stopped and held(3)
Rupert Chawner Brooke
He was an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War (especially The Soldier); however, he never experienced combat at first hand. His dazzling reputation survived for many years, but he is now chiefly valued for his highly accomplished lighter verse, such as 'The Old Vicarage, Granchester' and 'Heaven'.(4) He wrote his five famous war sonnets, of which “the Soldier” is one.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed(5)
Coming to Sassoon, the great poet and the close friend of our poet, Wilfred Owen. As said by Margaret Drabble, he was known for " his contempt for war leaders and patriotic cant, and his compassion for his
In his poem Suicide in the Trenches he portrays the image of a young soldier who put a bullet through his brain in the following stanza Sassoon talks about the new soldiers who do not know their fate and what they will see in war; Sassoon, here, talks about the crowds that watch these soldiers without knowing the real ugly face of war.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.(7)
Sassoon valued his later poems more highly than his war poems, which were, he said, " improvised by an impulsive, intolerant, immature, young creature under the extreme stress of experience. " Nevertheless, they are the poems by which he is most likely to be remembered and honoured.(8)
1) Philip R. Liebson, How Sweet It Is, The Chicago Liberary Club, 28 Fabruary 2000, p. 21.
2) Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Ed, 2000, p. 877
3) Isaac Rosenberg - poems, Poemhunter.com - The World's Poetry Archive, 2004
4) Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Ed, 2000, p. 155
5) Patrick Klink, Songs from the World at War.
6) Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Ed, 2000, p. 897
7) Daniel Hoffman, British War Poetry from France.
8) Lan Hamilton, The oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry, 2nd edition, 1994, p.474
His Importance as a Poet
The importance of his contribution to the literature of the
War cannot be decided by those who, like myself, both
admired him as a poet and valued him as a friend.
Owen is by far the most popular and one of the best poets who talked about war. His friendship with Sassoon introduced him to a colloquial language suitable for rendering the experience of battle. Under Sassoon's influence, and with his sympathetic encouragement, Owen purged his style of archaism and poetic diction to find a voice of his own.(1)
His reputation slowly grew, greatly assisted by *Blunden's edition of his poems, with a memoir, in 1931, and he is now generally regarded as a war poet of the first rank. His bleak realism, his energy and indignation, his compassion, and his high technical skills (he was a master of metrical variety and of assonance) are evident in most of his work.(2)
Owen's importance as a poet is clear now, but it was frequently debated by his contemporaries. His poems are well known but he has not found total support from those in the same ‘profession’. Owen’s was posthumously criticised for immersing the reader in nothing but pity and some, such as Adrian Caesar, believed that all Owen did was to concentrate on the misery of war and failed to examine other aspects of warfare such as comradeship and acts of bravery. As a result, Caesar wrote that his poems had “an air of unremitting artificiality” about them. In 1936, W B Yeats deliberately omitted Owen from an entry in the ‘Oxford Book of Modern Verse’ believing that Owen only had one story to tell. Yeat’s also believed that Owen had been too concerned about his own personal advancement to make his poems truly authentic about life for soldiers in World War One. However, the anti-war movement of the early 1960’s latched onto his poems and just over 45 years after his death he found the fame his mother had so desired for him.(3)
Other critics and poets had opinions in opposition to those of Adrian Caesar and W B Yeats; Desond Graham, for example, has argued persuatively that Owen's poems deserve more exacting reading, the product of critical attention with its attendant improper questions:
"This is partly beacause, used to other, more apparent obscurities we tend to read Owen
salckly, assuming that we already know what he is saying, and it s partly the result of a
general familiarity with the great war and anti- war spirit it engendered. This familiarity is
especially dangerous as it encourages us to absorb both Owen's poetry and the war itself
back into cliches of attitude. The once frech expose of the lies of militarism can live in our
minds as a commonplace."(4)
Graham was not the only one who supported Owen and thought highly of his importance as a poet, Owen's close friend, Sassoon, had the same opinion of him. Sassoon says in a preface he wrote to his friend's unpublished book:
"The author has left us his own fragmentary but impressive foreword; this, and his poems,
can speak for him, backed by the authority of his experience as an infantry soldier, and
sustained by nobility and originality of style".
From all waht has been said here, we can conclude that poeple who did not agree with Owen did that because they did not agree with his attititudes. That does not mean that he is not an important writer, it just means that he had some objectors for a reason or another which is an importand and clear feature of importance.
1) Lan Hamilton, The oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry, 2nd edition, 1994, p.405
2) Margaret Drabble,The Oxford Companion to English Literature,6th Ed, 2000, p.753
3) http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/wlfred_owen.htm, Retrieved 16 March 2012
4) Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, 2007, p.115
Owen as a Representation
of His School
My subject is war, and the pity of war
Owen's Poems explore the emotional and psychological impact on men who had to kill in order to survive. It exposes the lies and propaganda that was showed. Throughout his poems war is personified as a powerful entity also seen as death or evil. His poetry is rich in symbolism and imagery. It appeals to the senses, sight, sound, touch and taste. Through his words the audience can see the facial expressions and body language that the men had.
Owen’s experience of war led him to reject totally the traditional themes and the stylistic features of Georgian verse. His poems are technically remarkable for their extensive use of half-rhymes, assonance and alliteration and for the way that physical detail conveys a vision of horror and apocalyptic desolation. He wrote out of his intense personal experience as a soldier and wrote with unrivalled power of the physical, moral and psychological trauma of the First World War. All of his great war poems on which his reputation rests were written in a mere fifteen months.
Owen's poetry of war was not just patterns of significant lines of verse, it was a message he wanted to convey. As most of the poets of his school, Owen wrote poetry to make people aware of the tragedies and misfortunes of war, he wrote to warn them. He says:
All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
That is why the true Poets must be truthful.(2)
Owen representation of war was not just limited to his poems; it was a style of life for him, he died in combat for the sake of his country. Even in his letters he used a his magnificent linguistic ability to express his feelings. He wrote home to his mother, "I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. – I have not been at the front. – I have been in front of it. – I held an advanced post, that is, a "dug-out" in the middle of No Man's Land.We had a march of three miles over shelled road, then nearly three along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, three, four, and five feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water "(3)
1) Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton& Company Inc, 1973, p. 515
2) The Same, p.515
3) http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/Owena.html, Retrieved 16 March 2012
Samples of Owen's Poems
ِAnthem for Doomed Youth
This poem is by far the most famous poem of Owen along with Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen had used "Anthem to Dead Youth" as a tittle to the poem, but Sassoon crossed out the word 'dead' and replaced it with 'doomed'. Owen accepted the change seemingly without question and the poem's name became 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'.
Anthem for Doomed Youth is only one of a number of Owen's poems trigged by an indignant response to a prior text as said by Lan Hamilton.(1) The poem is about sadness and reveals that war takes away much more than people’s lives. Tt also reveals that in war people die without recognition.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifl es’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.(2)
Owen, here, reminds us that our acts of memory define civilization itself. Without it, we are no better than 'cattle.'
Throughout Owen’s sonnet, he contrasts the dignified, public rites that should be accorded to the slain with the ugly reality of being left in the mud to rot. Instead of the peaceful clang of church bells there is the “anger of the guns”; no choirs but “wailing shells”; no thoughtful “orisons” or prayers butthe “hasty” rattle of rifl es. (Presumably “hasty” because they are so immediately fatal).(3)
The irony is that Owen’s mother was to receive news of his death on Armistice Day itself. When the bells were ringing out in celebration, she sat down and wept for the loss of her eldest son.(4)
Dulce et Decorum Est
The poem is about the ravishes of war and reveals that one who truly knows the pain of war would not glorify it. It also reveals that the experience of war is the only way to understand how awful it is. The first words of the poem are of a Latin saying. The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.(5)
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.(6)
Owen here manages to play three central experiences of the war _ night marsh, a gas attack, and traumatic newrosis_ along almost a single, vertical body axsis, gradualy moving from the bloodied feet to the bloodeied mouth.(7)
If Dulce et Decorum Est shows a disjunction between war realism and an unchecked lyric impulse, Exposure inscribes this problem in the very consciousness of the participants. The poem is based on Owen's experiences in the early months of 1917. Through eight stanzas, Owen evokes the sensuous geograghy of the trenches _ winds, gas, flares, wire, guns, rain, frest, bullets, mud _ but instead of Sassoons's realism, the war landscape is evolved into one of the most sustained explorations of the relation between sense experience, consciousness, and language.(8)
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.(9)
This poem depicts Owen's tour of duty in the trenches which began January 1917. In letters home he discrbes the conditions: 'At the base ... it was not so bad. ... After those two days we were let down, gently, into the real thing, mud. t has penetrated now into that sanctuary, my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies, my pyjamas'.(10)
This first world war poem provides a vivid description of the relentless cold and dreadful conditions during the worst winter of the war. Wilfred Owen puns on the word "exposure." The soldiers are not killed by enemy bullets but by "exposure" to the freezing cold. The poem also "exposes" the lies of the government propaganda which promised the young men who enlisted to join the army a thrilling life of adventure and glory. In truth there is no adventure or glory: "nothing happens" in the trenches except that they wait to freeze to death in the biting cold.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.(11)
This poem expresses the tormented thoughts and recollections of a teenaged soldier in World War I who has lost his limbs in battle and is now confined, utterly helpless, to a wheelchair. The subject contrasts the living death he is now facing with the youthful pleasures he had enjoyed "before he threw away his knees"; he goes on to recall the impetuous and frivolous circumstances in which he had joined up to fight in the war. He also notes how the crowds that greeted his return were smaller and less enthusiastic than those who cheered his departure, and how women no longer look at him but at "the strong men who were whole".
Arms and the Boy
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.(12)
Owen stresses through this poems that the innocent and pure men who go to war are contaminated and corrupted after killing and murdering. These men are like young boys in a war, they do not know what to do and are just 'given cartidges of fine zince teeth'. Owen writes 'let the boy try' as if a parent is giving his child a gun to play with like a toy. The result? The boy is corrupted and thus, 'hungers blood'.
The Last Laugh
'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till, slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed.(13)
This poem depicts the indifference of war by presenting three examples of war's victims. Despite the differences in their final words each case is irrelevant in the face of death and is fated for the same outcome: the last laugh of the weapons. Three stanzas describe different reactions and exclamations by three different soldiers when these are hit by weapons. The soldiers’ responses are emotional but the weapons’ attacks are ferocious, callous and capricious. In the previous stanza, the soldier who is in love calls for his partner but only ends up kissing the mud instead of the girl. The Bayonets grins, the shells hoots and groans, and the gas hisses
1) Lan Hamilton, The oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry, 2nd edition, 1994, p.405
2) Philip R. Liebson, How Sweet It Is, The Chicago Liberary Club, 28 Fabruary 2000, p. 32
3) Christopher Nield, A Reading of Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen, The Epoch Times, November 6 -12, 2006, B7
4) The Same
5) http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html, Retrieved 16 March 2012
6) Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton& Company Inc, 1973, p. 519
7) Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, 2007, p. 84
8) The Same, p.85
9) Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Norton& Company Inc, 1973, p. 517
10) The Same, p. 517
11) The Same, p.520
12) Wilfred Owen-poems, poemhunter.com - the world poetry archive, 2004, p.13
13) The Same, p. 64
· · .
Abu Baker, Ahmad; The Theme of ‘Futility’ in War Poetry; September 2007.
Drabble, Margaret; The Oxford Companion to English Literature; 6th Ed; 2000.
El-Shahed, Sami;, Impact of War on Language.
Ellmann, Richard and O'Clair, Robert; The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry; Norton& Company Inc; 1973.
Hamilton, Lan; The oxford companion to twentieth-century poetry; 2nd edition; 1994.
Hoffman, Daniel; British War Poetry from France.
Isaac Rosenberg - poems, Poemhunter.com - The World's Poetry Archive, 2004.
Kendall, Tim; The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry; 2007.
Klink, Patrick; Songs from the World at War.
Liebson, Philip R.; How Sweet It Is; The Chicago Liberary Club; 28 Fabruary 2000.
Soanes, Catherine and Stevenson, Angus; The Oxford Dictionary of English; Oxford University Press; 2005.
The Times, Southern Germany, 29 September 1848.