In this essay I will explore how Wilfred Owen expresses powerful emotions through powerful language in his war poetry. I will focus on the three poems “Dulce et Decorum est”, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Parable of the Old Man and the Young”.
Wilfred Owen grew up in England and moved to France as a young adult where he taught English. The First World War broke out when he was still in France and, along with thousands of other young men, he joined the army with a feeling of duty towards his country.
It was not long before he found out the terrible realities of war, which inspired him to write his anti war poetry, to communicate his feelings to the governments and “stay at home war enthusiasts”, and to warn “children ardent for some desperate glory” what it is really like to go to war.
After suffering shell shock, Owen was sent to Craiglockhheart hospital for treatment. This is where he wrote “Dulce et Decorum est”.
“Dulce et Decorum est” describes a gas attack on a group of tired and wounded soldiers that are making their way back to their post after an exhausting day in the trenches. One man fails to fit his gas mask in time and dies, “drowning” on his own internal fluids.
It is an attack on the suggestion that “it is sweet and honourable to die for your country”, directly aimed at Jessie Pope, who wrote war propaganda. She is addressed sarcastically in the last stanza as “My friend”.
The message of this poem is clear; if the people back home saw “in some smothering dream” this scene, they would not think it “sweet and honourable to die for your country”. Owen’s point is put across strongly in this poem by the sheer horror of the soldier’s death, which is described in gory detail. The descriptions are generally brought to life with the texture of words and grizzly sensual imagery such as “cursed through sludge”, “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” and “floundering like a man in fire or lime”.
The first line uses a simile, comparing the men with “old beggars under sacks”, and continues in the second line, “coughing like hags”. Along with the sensual imagery, “Bent double”, “knock-kneed” and “we cursed through sludge”, a feeling of the men’s’ fragile agony is conjured. In line three the flares are personified as “haunting”. This gives the reader an insight of the dim, ever present fear at the back of the men’s hearts.
They now begin to “trudge” towards their “distant rest”, words which fill the reader with the despair felt in the face of the painfully slow journey to base.
The second half of the first stanza further impacts the suffering of the men, “blood shod… drink with fatigue… deaf even to the hoots of” comrades that “dropped behind”. The word comrade is replaced in the poem with “Five-Nines”, showing how people are de-humanised in war.
It feels like it couldn’t get worse, but the grim, sombre atmosphere of the first stanza is dramatically changed in the second to an “ecstasy” of panic; “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” The phrase “clumsy helmets” shows Owens anger at the quality of life-saving equipment in the First World War. Owen compares the mist of being in the gas as “under a green sea”. The man who is “yelling out and stumbling” is “drowning” as though the green sea were real.
Owens choice to write in the first person is bought into full power in the short third stanza, “He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”. Instead of this being in the battlefield it is “In all my dreams”, showing how the memory is ever haunting. This also explains why Owen had begun to create a dreamy atmosphere in the previous lines: “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light”.
The last stanza is addressed to Jessie Pope, “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in”. The simile of the man’s “writhing face” with a “devil’s, sick of sin” and the aural imagery of the “blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” gives the scene a gruesome and vile reality.
This graphic scene culminates Owen’s main point and gives it power and credibility. “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
The whole of this poem is like an extended version of this famous saying that was said originally by Horus from ancient Rome. The title means, “It is sweet and honourable”, which is only half of the saying. The last line gives us the rest, “To die for your country”. In between is the main body of the text, which contradicts the saying. In this way Owen lets us see how ridiculous the “old lie” really is.
“Dulce et decorum est” has a bitter and resentful tone, that is directed towards those who glorify war. Owen feels these strong emotions on behalf of the “children ardent for some desperate glory”.
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” expresses a powerful message in a very different way from “Dulce”. Owen wrote it with the help of Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockheart hospital.
“Anthem” compares the deaths of soldiers in battle with middle to upper class funerals of the period. It is a sonnet, which is a fourteen line poem, most commonly used to describe nature or as a love song. Using the sonnet form gives the poem a bitter irony, which is its general tone along with a strong feeling of pathos. The rhyming is made up of perfect and half rhymes and is structured AB AB CD EF FE GG, in typical Shakespearean sonnet form.
The poem is made up of a series of comparisons. “Passing bells” are compared with the “rapid rattle” of the “guns”, “choirs” with the “wailing shells” and “bugles” from “sad shires”. The “candles” with the “glimmers” of tears in the eyes of the bereaved, the “pall with the “pallor of girls’ brows”. The “flowers the tenderness of patient minds”, and “the drawing down of blinds” with “each slow dusk”.
“Anthem” is written in the third person, which gives it a misty distance. It takes us from the battlefield to the funeral and then to the village in mourning which, along with the distance, gives an epic feel.
The octave begins with a question that introduces us to the theme of the poem and invites our curiosity. “Those who die as cattle” dehumanises the soldiers and shows how much respect the authorities really have for them: as much as they would respect cows in a slaughterhouse. “Stuttering riffles rapid rattle” is an onomatopoeic alliteration which gives more life to the guns. The guns “patter” out the mens’ “hasty orisons”. The word “patter” is onomatopoeic and suggests the sound of bullets hitting flesh. Owen refers to the “choirs”, “passing bells” and “prayers” as “mockeries”, emphasising his bitter dislike of the pompous culture and suggesting that a funeral like this would be an insult to men who have sacrificed so much. Again, “the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” is a personification that makes the aural imagery more vivid.
The whole of the octave is made up of aural imagery apart from the last line, which changes the scene from the battlefield to the “sad shires” from which “bugles call” for the dead loved ones. This line introduces us to the sestet, which is made up of visual imagery.
Once again the sestet begins with a question, “What candles may be held to speed them all?” The silence of the sestet emphasises the suffering of the bereaved. The “holy glimmers of goodbyes” in the boys’ eyes, The “pallor of girls’ brows” and the “tenderness of patient minds” all conjure painfully sad images of a family and loved ones of the “Doomed Youth”. The last line seems to take us back to the battlefield and compares it with the house in mourning. “Each slow dusk” gives the feeling of the sun taking hours to set on the shameful and sad scene of the field, devoid of life at the last hour of the day, yet full of death.
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” gives its powerful message to “stay at home war enthusiasts” by the sheer bitter irony and pathos of the comparisons.
In “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, Owen uses another technique to convey his message with power. Abraham has prepared to kill his son as a sacrifice for God, yet at the last second an angel appears from heaven and says that he can kill the ram of pride instead. Abraham favours the ram of pride and kills his son Isaac and “half the seed of Europe” instead. This is a blatant take on the story from the bible of Abraham; the difference being that in Owen’s version Abraham kills Isaac. Owen makes reference to the sonnet tradition in this poem, but this time the twist is in the form itself. It is a sixteen line poem and the only gap is between the fourteenth and fifteenth line, clearly defining the “correct” sonnet form the two extra erroneous lines. Abraham “slew his son” in the last two lines, which symbolises how the story is fundamentally flawed.
The language is biblical, which gives the poem an authority because the church is a powerful organisation. Using “and” a lot as well as words like “clave”, “spake”, “slew” and phrasing like “and as they sojourned both of them together”, “and lo” and “the old man would not so” emphasises the comparison with the biblical version.
“The parable” is metaphoric, and each component in the poem represents something. Abraham symbolises the authorities and those with power over the majority. Isaac represents the young people of Europe, the future hope, “the seed”. The knife is symbolic of the power to destroy “whether it is pride or a generation of young”. The angel represents the ability of man to choose, his faculty of reason or his conscience. The “ram of pride” of course symbolises the pride and arrogance of the authorities and nations.
Instead of building an altar Abraham “builded parapet and trenches there”.
The fundamental flaw of Abraham in “The Parable” (symbolised in the structure) is symbolic of the breaking and ignoring of ancient wisdom.
When Abraham is proved to be faithful and the angel announces “lay not thy hand upon the lad”, we are filled with hope, giving the last two lines a bitter bathos.
The message of this poem is that our society has not learned from past mistakes and ignores ancient teachings of wisdom. The power of this message lies in tragic metaphors.
It is clear from his poetry that Owen feels disgusted by humanity’s atrocities, and by those who create and promote them. He also feels great pity and compassion for the suffering that is caused by war.
In these three poems structure plays and important role. In “Dulce” the confused and broken up stanzas obliterate conventional forms and are symbolic of the contorted, deranged scene of human cruelty they describe and the poem’s revolutionary anti-establishment message. “Anthem” fills the conventional sonnet form with unexpected comparisons that create a tone of bitter irony and resentment towards the authorities as well as bitter sadness. “The Parable” splits from the sonnet form in the last two lines, showing the arrogance of the establishment and their deliberate ignorance of ancient wisdom.
Wilfred Owen skilfully crafts language, form and symbolism in these three poems. His emotions about war are powerfully expressed in his work and communicate a message that demands the reader’s empathy.
Nothing (apart form circumstances) has changed since Owen’s day and his message is still fully valid as an urgent wake-up call for humanity.