‘No mockeries now for them, no prayers nor bells;’ Owen shows himself to be cynical of the Christian religion, as he can not see how a loving God could have anything to do with so many deaths. In fact, Owen served three years as a parish assistant. Wilfred Owen died aged 25 on 4th November 1918, a week before the end of the Great War. He was completely unheard of at the time of his death, and only five of his poems had been published. Now he is revered as one of the greatest war poets of all time, and has been nominated the national poet of war.
In this essay, I will be comparing one of his most celebrated works, the sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ with two of Shakespeare’s sonnets (the renowned ‘Shall I compare thee …?’ and ‘Let me not) with John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’. These poems are all sonnets, and for the most part follow a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. Sonnets are often employed when writing about a solemn subject, which is common to all poems I will be looking at, as the formal structure can often echo the mood.
In both of the Shakespearian sonnets we are looking at, he wrote in the form, which is so much associated with him, known as ‘the Shakespearian sonnet form’. This celebrated form has fourteen lines and is written in three quatrains, these with a regular ‘a,b,a,b, c,d,c,d, e,fe,f,’ rhyming scheme, and the penultimate and the last line being in the form of a rhyming couplet. The other two poems take on some all together different forms: John Donne’s Death be Not Proud is written in the ‘Italian’ or ‘Patrician’ form. It has two quatrains that follow an ‘a, b, b, a’ rhyming scheme and then a single quatrain with an ‘c, d, d, e’ rhyming scheme followed by a rhyming couplet. The rhyming couplet is in fact a feature common to all the poems, as Wilfred Owen’s anthem for doomed youth, follows a ‘semi-Shakespearian’ form. It again has three quatrains the first two with an ‘a, b, a, b’ and ‘c, d, c, d’ rhyming scheme, whilst the last quatrain differs slightly as it has and ‘e, f, f, e’ rhyming scheme. The sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet. All of the poems I am studying share a common metre, iambic pentameter, although, it is not consistent throughout all of them.
Shakespeare was writing in the 16th centaury and Donne about a century after. As a result archaic spellings are present in both the works of William Shakespeare and John Donne. In Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee …?’ some examples of his use of archaic ‘old-English’ spellings are, ‘Maie’ and ‘Sommer’. It is interesting to note that in ‘Let me not’ Shakespeare effectively uses negative vocabulary (‘not’, ‘no’, ‘never’, ‘although’) with the effect of assuring that the positive seems true. He uses the negatives to prove that the points he is making are well-founded.
John Donne (1572 – 1631) wrote ‘Death Be Not Proud’ in about 1610, in the Elizabethan period. It is however difficult to date the writing of his poems, as none of them were published in his lifetime. It is thought that all his songs and sonnets were written between 1590 and 1617. Donne wrote a group of sonnets which are referred to as the ‘Holy Sonnets’, of which ‘Death Be Not Proud’ is one. He was a religious man, ordained in 1615, and became a royal chaplain in the same year.
In the poem there are lots of examples of archaic spellings, and multiple uses of words like ‘thou’ and ‘thee’. There are also some unusual spellings like ‘poore’ and ‘stroake’. Donne was very experimental with genre, form and imagery. His work lacks conventional metric smooth sounding poetry, or the descriptive clichï¿½s of other poets of the time.
As Wilfred Owen was writing much later, during the First World War, there are no instances of archaic spelling. His vocabulary, however, is quite traditional, and there are many usages of phrases that are no longer used in society today, such as: ‘shires’ and ‘pallor’. He uses a lot of unusual and complex funeral and death related vocabulary, and this can be difficult to comprehend, as many of these traditional proceedings are no longer in practice at modern funerals.
Throughout Donne’ sonnet, he is personifying death. We can even see this in the title, ‘Death Be Not Proud’, as well as examples like ‘some have called thee mighty and dreadful’, as he is attributing a human quality to death. Donne uses apostrophe when he directly addresses death, such as when he commands death to ‘be not proud’ and condescendingly calls death ‘poore death’. This extended personification and usage of apostrophe are the most predominant literary devices he uses. I think that Donne’s personification of death is a very effective as it successfully puts across the message of his sonnet, because it enables him to mock death.
He also uses rhythm, rhyme, and metre to make his poem flow nicely and sound pleasant to the ear. In lines five to six, he uses a metaphor, by calling all paintings and drawings of death ‘rest and sleepe’. In line eight, there is an example of synecdoche, as, Donne means the whole body of the men will be able to ‘rest’ rather than just ‘their bones’. This aids his religious contrast between body and soul. When Donne says ‘Why swell’st thou then’, he means why is death swelled with pride and it is a rhetorical question, designed to make death question it’s reasons for being proud. The last line is very complex, ‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shall die’, as Donne uses ‘death’ and the word ‘die’ to mean three different things. The first ‘death’ means death in its normal context: physical death. The second is the personified death, and it has the effect of a name. And ‘die’ means ceasing to exist.
Throughout ‘Let Me Not’, Shakespeare uses a varied and effective range of literary devices. The hyperbole in this sonnet is prevailing, and Shakespeare uses it to convince the reader that love is unchanging. Throughout the poem he also personifies love, like in line six when he says:
‘That lookes on tempests’
At the end of the first quatrain Shakespeare uses repetition, which reinforces the unchanging nature of love:
‘Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove’
Shakespeare uses a metaphor in line seven, when he depicts love as a northern star to a boat.
‘It is the star to every wondering barke’
This is a beautiful example of imagery, and a very effective metaphor as conveys the Shakespeare’s point that love is eternal, and it will exist forever, never altering.
In ‘Shall I Compare Thee’ Shakespeare again uses literary devices to great effect. He begins it with a question, which he proceeds to answer in the remainder of the sonnet:
‘Shall I compare thee to a summers day’
In line five Shakespeare uses metaphor, to describe the sun; he calls it ‘the eye of heaven’.
He personifies a summers day, in line six:
‘And often is his golden complexion dimm’d,’
This is another example of clever imagery, for often we say that someone’s face is ‘clouded over’ with anger, or thoughtfulness, and this is effectively the opposite. Shakespeare is saying that, often on a summers day the sun can, unfortunately, be ‘dimm’d’ by clouds.
Of the four sonnets I am studying, I think that Wilfred Owen has used the most literary devices in his writing, to convey his powerful message. In his sonnet, Owen uses an extended metaphor; he is comparing the normal funeral proceedings, in peacetime, with the hasty and inappropriate goodbyes said to the soldiers who died for our country and future. He begins both stanzas with rhetorical questions, like Shakespeare does in his opening line of ‘Shall I compare thee’. He compares the soldiers to cattle, which is a very powerful image that would make anyone think twice about the inhumanity of the deaths in war.
In line two, Owen personifies the guns, giving them the human emotion of ‘monstrous anger’.
Line three: ‘Only the stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle’, is a clever use of both alliteration and onomatopoeia to create a ‘gun-fire noise’. This immediately gives the poem a far more atmospheric feel.
He personifies the shells by calling them a ‘Shrill demented choir’, and the shires by saying they are ‘sad’, as well as the bugles by saying they are ‘calling’ the soldiers. The personification highlights that some things are beyond human control.
In line eleven, Owen uses a metaphor to describe the tears of a dead soldier’s friends and family, he says that they are ‘holy glimmers’.
There is one theme that is included in all four of the sonnets: and this is the concept of immortality, and the afterlife. Shakespeare lived in a time where religion was incredibly important and the huge majority of the population followed the Christian religion. In Shakespeare’s poem, ‘shall I compare thee’, he talks of how his writing gives his love immortality, as her beauty and nature are captured in Shakespeare’s ‘eternal lines’ that ‘gives life’ to her.
‘Let Me Not’ talks of the undying nature of love, and discusses how true love ‘alters not with his breefe houres and weekes’ and last’s until the doom day or in Shakespeare’s words ‘bears it out even to the edge of doome’. Shakespeare is saying that love, like poetry is immortal.
Johne Donne was a man of strong religious convictions, and his belief in God and the afterlife are shown throughout the poem. He says that death ‘canst …kill me’, a reference to heaven, in which he believes. He is saying that death is not the end; rather that it is a middle stage, before ultimately being reunited with God or before your ‘soules’ are ‘deliverie’ to God. He says death is ‘a short sleep’ before ‘wee wake eternally’. John Donne is undermining death and saying that death, who thinks himself ‘mighty and powerful’, is in fact a ‘sleep’ which is ‘pleasure’.
Although Owen served some time as parish assistant, his poem contains the least reference to the afterlife. There is however a mention of afterlife in the second stanza, when Owen says:
‘What candles may be held to speed them all?’
Shakespeare discusses the nature of love in both his sonnets, although his beliefs and thoughts are expressed predominantly in ‘Let me not’. Sonnet 116 ‘Let Me Not’ discusses the everlasting, and never changing nature of love. Shakespeare shows how he firmly believes that love, requited or otherwise, is a feeling that will stay with you until ‘the edge of doom’. True love, says Shakespeare, is an ‘ever-fixed mark’ that does not cease when it is not returned or ‘alter when it alteration finds’. Shakespeare is saying that love takes no notice of the ‘brief hours and weeks’ or the loss of ‘rosy lips and cheeks’, which are taken by time. The poem says that love is like ‘the marriage of true minds’. Shakespeare says love brings the minds of two people together, as marriage legally brings them together. Some think that perhaps this sonnet is addressed to a man. They think that the ‘impediments’ and ‘tempests’ that are discussed in the poem are references to the difficulties facing a homosexual relationship in the Elizabethan age. Personally, I think that Shakespeare is referring to all genres of true love, whether it be love of a man, a woman, or family love.
The other Shakespearian sonnet that I am looking at, ‘Shall I Compare Thee’, talks less about the nature of love, but is a poem addressed to Shakespeare’s love, comparing them to a ‘summers day’. Throughout the sonnet Shakespeare explains why this comparison is not appropriate for his love, as they are far more sweet natured (‘temperate’) and less fleeting, ‘summer’s lease hath all too short a date’. Shakespeare talks about how his love’s beauty will not be lost, as they own (‘owest’) it. He says that they will never die as they now ‘growest’ in ‘eternal lines’, which is this sonnet that he has written about them.
Donne does not talk of love is his poem, as it is purely concentrated on his religious beliefs about the afterlife. Likewise, Owen talks fleetingly about love. In line twelve, he talks about the ‘pallor of girls’ brows’. The girls of whom he talks are the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the soldiers. In this brief line, he captures their grief and worry, about the soldiers on the front. In the next line, he speaks of the ‘tenderness of silent minds’, by which he means the fond memories of the dead soldiers that their loved ones will be thinking of.
Needless to say, war is most frequently mentioned in Owen’s sonnet, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Owen talks of war in realistic and shocking way, shattering all illusions of the nobleness and heroic nature of war. Owen is very keen to show how war robs men of their youth and is an inhumane and totally pointless slaughter of mankind. Especially as at the time there were many people writing propaganda to encourage young men to join the army. Owen wanted to shatter this unrealistic representation of war that they portrayed to people on the home front, and addressed many of his poems to one such propaganda writer, who’s glorified war to the extreme. He talks of how men ‘die as cattle’. This disturbing images reminds us of the holocaust, which was also happening at that same time. Owen describes to the reader the constant monstrosity, and never ending sound of ‘guns’,’ rifles’ and ‘wailing shells’, none of which could ever be escaped by the soldiers out on the front.
In Donne’s poem there is a very inconspicuous reference to warfare: line seven says: ‘and soonest our best men with thee doe goe’. I think Donne is referring to soldiers when he says ‘best men’, as being in the army was a respected job, as it required endurance and bravery. Donne is talking about the deaths of young soldiers in war.
The poem that I find the most powerful is without a doubt, Owen’s ‘Anthem for doomed youth’. It is easily accessible, and his use of irony and sarcasm really puts across the horror of war. His use of rhetorical questions makes the reader think, and the poem effectively makes you question the benefits of going to war, in comparison with the appalling negatives.
Donne’s poem ‘Death Be Not Proud’ is about his religious values and attitude to the topic of death and the afterlife. Donne wants to shatter the almost universal fear of death, that everybody has and show that death is simple a stage before being reunited with God.
Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Shall I compare Thee’ is one of the most famous sonnets of all time. It is beautifully written, and like Owen, he uses a rhetorical question at the begging which he proceeds to answer. His use of figurative language, conjures up some beautiful images, and it is a pungent and touching love sonnet. His other sonnet that I am looking at, ‘Let Me Not’, is a very potent poem about the nature of love. Shakespeare’s strength of conviction comes across very strongly, and his use of simplistic language and the present tense show that he intended to share his views on the common, universal topic of love with everyone.
There are many similarities, both in language, form and themes between these four sonnets. However, each writer had a diverse aim when writing their sonnet and this can clearly be seen. The form of the sonnet was chosen for each of these poems to compliment the formal nature of their topic.