The Theme of the Pity of War in "Dulce Et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth" by Wilfred Owen
How does Wilfred Owen convey the pity of war in two of his poems?
Wilfred Owen’s war poetry is used to shed light on the atrocities of war and reveal how war is not noble and glorious as patriotic propaganda portrayed it to be. In his biography, Owen stated, “Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry .My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.", this helps us to see that whilst he has acclaimed himself as a poet – and a brilliant one at that, he is using his poetry as a way to expose the suffering soldiers endured and share his viewpoints on the war. Through gruesome description, rich imagery, and rhythm, Owen successfully conveys his feelings of war and exposes the deep pity that accompanies it.
Firstly, looking at “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, an elegiac sonnet, we see the traumatic experiences soldiers endure and the horrific reality surrounding war. The poem is set during The Great War and employs various techniques to convey the lasting effect on the families of the soldiers after their deaths, but most importantly, it conveys the true nature of war, where soldiers, who are risking their lives for their countries, don’t receive a proper burial and whose lives are treated so cheaply.
Starting with the very title: ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Owen uses juxtaposition between “Anthem” and “Doomed” to create an irony. As anthems are associated with praise and triumph, and doomed means certain demise, Owen creates an irony that helps draw attention to the sarcastic bitter tone underlying the poem as he makes mockery of religious funeral services. This irony is continued further through the poems structure, whereby Owen uses a patrician sonnet to express his feelings of war. This introduces irony, as sonnets are associated with love as they are usually lyrical, smooth flowing, therefore, as this poem is about death and suffering, it seems ironic to construct his poem in this way, thus adding ironic elements and emphasising the twistedness of war and war propaganda
In the opening octet Owen introduces a rhetorical question “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle”, which he then proceeds to answer. By describing the soldiers as “cattle”, Owen dehumanises the soldiers and introduces zoomorphism, conjuring the image of a slaughterhouse and foreshadowing the soldier’s inevitable butchery. This simile not only suggests that the soldiers are pointlessly massacred in an undignified manner, but also evokes sympathy from the reader as it shows the naivety of the soldiers – sucked in by the patriotic jingoism encouraged by war propaganda at the time.
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Whilst Owen dehumanises the soldiers, he personifies weaponry to intensify its power and show how the soldiers only commemoration or “anthem” of their lives is through armaments of war. We see this in the quotation “only the monstrous anger of the gun”, where Owen personifies the gun as an angry entity to heighten its danger and power over the soldiers. This personification along with his unorthodox linking of war noise with religious imagery successfully shows that in the place of a normal funeral, these men “who die as cattle”, receive a parody of funeral rites, enacted by the noises of guns, rifles and “wailing shells”, rather than the holy service they deserve. Owen achieves this through alliteration and onomatopoeia, whereby his words and rhythm mimic the sounds of battle to make us feel a part of the action and hear the “demented choirs” that are sending the youth off. Through the onomatopoeia of “stuttering rifles” and alliteration of “rifles rapid rattle”, Owen impersonators the sound of gun shots and adds a rhythmic quality to his poem. He further emphasises this with the consonant “t” sound in “stuttering, rattle, and patter”.
As well as using rhythm to achieve this comparison of war noises with religious funeral rites, Owen uses juxtaposition to exaggerate the contrast between what is right and wrong. For example, Owen describes the 'demented choirs’ of the shells to make the reader feel uncomfortable and understand the true pity of war. As choirs are associated with peace, calmness and holiness and ‘demented’ associated with negative connotations, this phrase takes on a completely new meaning, suggesting disorder, chaos and maniacal thus causing the reader to feel negatively towards war.
Owen also uses juxtaposition when describing the 'hasty orisons'. An orison should be taken time over, not rushed, and then dismissed, , this use of juxtaposition causes the reader to feel sympathy and sorrow for the soldiers, as rather than ‘hasty and demented’ the soldier’s orisons’ should be reverent but also this quotation suggests that like their orisons, the soldiers deaths were quickly dismissed.
Closing the octet, Owen uses personification “and bugles calling for them from sad shires”, to both slow the pace and soften the tone: from bitter and rueful to sombre, preparing us for the transition to the sestet. Whilst the octet is full of techniques to highlight the devilish clamour of trench warfare, set against the subdued atmosphere of the church to reveal his feels of the pity of war, his sestet holds more appropriate and authentic rites of mourning - supplied by the grief of family and friends at home. Using strong religious motifs, Owen concentrates on what will happen after the war with the suffering of the friends and family left behind.
The sestet similarly to the octet opens with a rhetorical question “What candles may be held to speed them all?” and has sound manipulation of the words to create a rhythmic quality. In particular, the sestet is filled with sibilance, which almost creates a steam like sound, as though the narrator’s life is slowly dissipating into the atmosphere, and slowly coming to a halt, phonetically sounding similar to the way a steam train would have sounded whilst stopping at a station. We see this in the quotation “their flowers the tenderness of silent minds”.
Finishing the poem, Owen installs a metaphor “and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds”, This metaphor rounds of the piece nicely because although in literal terms it is talking of the end of the day, we can also see that pragmatically it represents the end in the life of the narrator. For this reason, this metaphor is evocative and ties in to the suffering and pity of war.
Another poem that Wilfred Owen uses to expose the truths and pity of war is his famous piece “Dulce Et Decorum Est”. In this poem, Owen emphasises the dehumanisation and horrendous circumstances experienced by soldiers in the First World War, refuting the message espoused by many that war is glorious and it is an honour to die for one’s country. Owen achieves this using the gruesome imagery of a gas attack, accompanied by irony and rhythm.
Starting with the very first line, Owen introduces a simile comparing the soldiers to “old beggars”, in the attempt to show that war prematurely ages the men, and isn’t as glorious as propaganda portrayed it to be. He adds further emphasis to this through the simile “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags”. As the men are compared to hags, this quotation shows their loss of masculinity and therefore undermines the patriotic stereotypes of the time that war was heroic and masculine. Whilst at the same time by describing the men as “knock kneed”, Owen is revealing the decrepit state that the exhaustion and violence of war has caused these youthful soldiers, thus evoking pity and sympathy from the reader.
To evoke our pity further about the extreme and unnecessary suffering in war, Owen uses first person to make us feel a part of the action, using “we” and “all”, but also through his visual and sound imagery Owen depicts the physical and mental agonies of the soldiers, conveying the exhaustion, misery, pain and futility of war. For example, he uses alliteration of “m” in “men, march” and “many”, to allow us to hear the marching of the soldiers, as well as conjuring up images of missiles hitting the ground. In addition to this he uses onomatopoeia when describing the dying man who is “guttering, choking, drowning”, which has the effect of making the poem more chilling and shocking, as it is as if we are there experiencing the scenario ourselves.
As well as describing the debilitating effects that the war has had on the men, Owen uses the graphic descriptions of an unexpected gas attack to demonstrate the tragedy and traumatic experiences of trench warfare. The change of pace in “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” is a stark contrast to the slow, laborious pace of the march as reflected in the long sentences of the first verse. The punchy one syllable words encapsulates the panic and urgency felt by the men, and the exclamation marks mirror their alarm as a way to reflect on the unexpected and abrupt nature of the attack. From this moment on the imagery becomes gruesome and nightmarish and the horrific consequences of this attack are made painfully clear as Owen conveys the suffering of an individual soldier who failed to get his gas mask on in time.
After failing to fit his “…clumsy helmet” on in time, a soldier is described as “floundering like a man in fire or lime”, this simile is extremely poignant and highlights the extent of the soldiers distress and suffering. By likening the soldiers suffering to being in “fire or lime”, Owen allows us to understand and comprehend the extreme agony the soldier is experiencing, but also through the vivid imagery of the two, Owen allows the reader to glimpse at the traumatic situation. Also through the description of the man’s “white eyes writhing in his face” and his “froth-corrupted lungs/obscene as cancer”, Owen paints horrific images in our head and emphasises further just how atrocious and terrible war really was, hidden behind patriotic jingoism.
The poet strengthens his message of the pity and horrors of war in the last verse by emphasising the suffering of the soldier by referring to “the wagon that we flung him in”. The use of the word “flung”, not only creates a profound emotional response as it suggests a dismissive and violent action of the soldiers even in their most silent times, the word also indicates that death and tragedy is commonplace to the men, and just another part of their lives. This shows how desensitised the men have become due to the nature of their experiences and the horror that occurs in their day-to-day lives.
Like ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ has a bitter irony underlying it, as seen in the last lines when he attacks those promoting war patriotism “my friend, you would not tell with such high zest”. Here Owen is referring to propagandists who were exhorting young men to join the war effort, and sucking them in to their inevitable deaths. The use of ‘my friend’ is deeply ironic and emphasises his anger as he holds these people accountable for what he and so many others had to endure, claiming that if only they were to witness the atrocities of war then they would realise the extent of the ‘old Lie’.
Furthermore, irony lies in the title, which Owen alludes to in the final line of his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est pro Patria Mori”. Instead of being a rousing and patriotic call to war, the poem is in fact the exact opposite. The use of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the title (translated as “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”) is contrasted to the description of the appalling death from mustard gas. This is done in the attempt to reveal to his audience that war is not at all a great and glorious thing to die for one’s country, like Horace and other propagandists were portraying. Instead, Owen implies that this “Lie” only brings pain and suffering.
Therefore, through his works such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Owen successfully conveys his attitude towards war and reveals the true pity of war hidden behind propaganda at the time. Through his use of imagery, rhythm and other effective techniques, Owen successfully conveys the true nature of war and allows us to experience the suffering and horrors that he and his fellow comrades alike endured in World War 1.