World war 1 poetry
During the First World War it is estimated that a total of 10 million people were killed and twice that number were wounded. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918. The war was fought between Britain and her allies and Germany and her allies. Most of the fighting took place in France and Belgium. At first, British people thought that Britain would win very quickly and the soldiers were lucky to be able to fight the Germans. Men were eager to join up because they wanted to impress their families and girlfriends. However, as the war progressed, people realised that it was not going to be that easy. British and French soldiers faced the Germans in their trenches and both sides used bombs and guns to kill each other. When the British side tried to advance by sending men over the top of the trenches, they suffered huge casualties. Altogether 750,000 British soldiers were killed, 2,500,000 were wounded and many were permanently disabled. By the time the war had ended the British people were fed up with the fighting and just wanted to get back to normal. The returned soldiers who were wounded were an unwelcome reminder of the war. During the war writers and poets were beginning to write about the horrors of war rather than the glory.
Two important poets of the war were Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 in Shropshire. He signed up in 1915, but by 1917 he was sent home a nervous wreck with shell shock. He later recovered and returned to France. He wrote many letters home and poems before he was killed in November 1918, aged 25, just one week before the war ended. Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 in London. He joined up in 1915 and fought in France. He wrote poems during the war and after it. He was wounded and suffered shell shock but he survived the war. Siegfried Sassoon died in 1967, aged 81. Both poets wrote about disablement and how this affected the soldiers themselves. They also described the attitude of the British people towards the disabled and often disfigured soldiers. “Does it matter?” and “The one-legged Man” by Siegfried Sassoon, and “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen are the examples I am going to look at. I will be showing how the poets dealt with disablement and the attitudes to returning soldiers in the poems.
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All three poems describe the common war wounds suffered by soldiers in the trenches. "Does it matter?" talks about anyone losing their legs, not a specific person, "Does it matter? - losing your legs?" (Line 1). It also talks about other disabilities such as losing eyesight, "Does it matter? – losing your sight?”(L6), and losing your mind, "Do they matter? – those dreams from the pit?” (L11). This also makes the poem much more general. The other two poems are about a particular person who lost one of or both of his legs. For example, in "Disabled" the loss of the limb is described as “leap of purple spurted from his thigh”. In "The One-legged Man" the soldier is described as “propped on a stick he viewed the August weald” (L1). These two different techniques both work well at getting the message of the poems across.
The poems all use their length well. "Does it matter?" and "The One-legged man" are both quite short, "Does it matter?" has three verses each with five lines, and "The One-legged man" also has three verses, but with four lines in each. This length suits the poems because they both have quite simple messages. Both give enough information to interest the reader, but they do not give so much that the reader is distracted from the point. "Disabled" is a longer poem as it has seven verses which vary in length form three to eight lines. This poem needs to be longer than the other two to make it more effective because it is more of a narrative than the others. It builds up the picture of a man’s life which is ruined by his disabilities from the war. You feel like you know the man more than in the other two poems.
All of the poems are directed at a civilian audience, the people who did not fight, to try and tell them what it feels like to be in the position that the war-wounded are in. "Does it matter?" talks about how people mean well but that still does not make it better for the disabled, “There’s such splendid work for the blind” (L7). “People will always be kind” (L2 & 8) has a particular emphasis as Siegfried Sassoon has used it twice; he is trying to explain that although the able-bodied people will always be kind to those who are not, it is not good enough because they will always have something that the others want. The poem is also being very ironic, “And no one will worry a bit.” (L15) This is as if people are telling the war-wounded that they do not mind them being injured, they will treat them the same. The irony of it is that this actually means that people do not care about the war-wounded soldiers as they are a bad reminder of the fighting that people want to forget.
"Disabled" aims to tell the reader what goes through the invalid’s mind when he sees something he can no longer have, such as women. This poem also tries to show the reader that the now disabled men were once fit, healthy young men with the rest of their life ahead of them. It contrasts well who they used to be and what they have been reduced to. This poem also tells you that the innocent young boy only joined up because he was a little drunk and wanted to impress a woman. It makes the reader wish that he had had more sense and not jumped straight in for the wrong reasons.
"The One-legged man" plans to shock the reader. Apart from a few hints there is nothing to show that the person is a war victim who has been disabled in a horrific way, the tone of the poem seems cheerful and “looks on the bright side”. Unlike the other two poems, this one seems to concentrate on what the man does have, rather than what he is missing out on. He has part of his life back, “Splendid to eat and sleep and choose a wife,” (L9) something that most people would take for granted. This makes the reader feel glad that the man is happy, and it makes them feel that their life is special and not to be taken for granted. However, in the very last line there is a nasty twist, “And thought: “Thank God they had to amputate!”” (L16), this implies that being permanently disabled is better than what he was facing at war, it was worth it. This is ironic because although losing a leg is a terrible thing that no one would want, this man is glad because it means he cannot be sent back into the trenches to be killed. Although this poem seems to have a happy tone to it, it may actually be the most bitter of the three poems because the man does not seem sad or angry about the fact that he is crippled.
Tone is important in a poem because it puts across how the poem is meant and how the person in and the writer feels. All three of the poems have quite a bitter tone to them and how unfair it is that soldiers have had their lives ruined forever when they were only trying to do something good. "Does it matter?" has a very sarcastic tone,
“Does it matter? – losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,” (L1-2)
Siegfried Sassoon is asking the reader if, as long as people are kind, it does not matter if you lose you legs. The answer to the question is yes, of course it matters. The poem is saying sarcastically that no matter how nice and kind and polite people are it will never make up for what the disabled have lost. In contrast to this, the tone of "The One-legged man" seems at first to be carefree and fortunate, “comfortable” (L8), “right” (L7), “blithely” (L11). It is so happy that you may not even guess that it is a war poem. Then, with the nasty twist at the end, “Thank God they had to amputate!” (L12) the poem takes on a much more sinister feel to it. The soldier had paid a price to have the good things that he enjoyed and valued.
“Disabled" has a very angry and morbid tone,
“Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands;
All of them touch him like some queer disease.” (L11-13)
The young man is angry with himself for deciding to join the army and fight, the thing that has ruined his life. This angry, unfair tone is emphasised because Wilfred Owen uses a lot of contrast between what things used to be like and how things are now,
“And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,-
In old times, before he threw away his knees.” (L9-10)
“…younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace” (L15-16)
This says that life was better before the disablement when he was young, happy and carefree. Now he can do nothing, he is like an old man. The poem is also quite sad as the man has had his whole life taken away from him he has to watch all the things that he can no longer have. It also has a self-pitying tone,
“How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?” (L45-46)
The man is just thinking about what he wants; “they” should be there for him whenever he wants.
The language that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen use in the poems is one of the most important factors because it really puts the point that they are trying to make across to the reader. In "Does it matter?" by Siegfried Sassoon and "Disabled" by Wilfred Owen repetition is used. "The One-legged man" does not repeat anything. In "Does it matter?" the title is repeated at the beginning of each verse, it is a rhetorical question that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them think whether or not it would matter to them. Another line that is repeated is, “people will always be kind,” this really makes the point that it does not make a difference how kind they are; the soldiers will still have their war-wounds. In the last two lines of "Disabled", “Why don’t they come?” is repeated. The effect of this is that the young man sounds desperate, he relies on others. Again it is a rhetorical question that interests the reader.
I have found all three of these poems to be successful in their own way when dealing with disablement and the attitudes to returning soldiers. My personal favourite was "Does it matter?" by Siegfried Sassoon, it works best for me because I think that the sarcastic and ironic tone makes it very bitter, yet true. It is simple and to the point, I think that the repetition of the title is very effective as it draws the whole poem together, gives it structure and keeps the reader interested. World War 1 ended or ruined the lives of millions of men, but they will always be remembered through poetry such as these poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.