All of the poems by the writers above share a common theme, the horror of war, but vary in their interpretations and views. “Peace”, by Rupert Brooke, puts across the idea that war is not as bad as people believe, but an opportunity to prove oneself worthy. In contrast, “Strange Meeting” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, both by Wilfred Owen, are very different poems. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is filled with passive bitterness towards the war, while “Strange Meeting” describes an encounter that leads to a reflective monologue on the horror of war. Finally, “In Flanders Fields”, by John McRae, portrays the consequences of war, and the sheer loss of life that comes from it. All the poems put across the horrors or glories of conflict in their own ways, but they all remain focussed on the idea of war, while portraying the respective ideas of the writers. Firstly, the key features of each poem.
“Peace”, by Brooke, is a pro-war poem subtly encouraging people to fight, and was published as part of 1914, a sonnet sequence. He first describes war as a divine intervention to be looked upon positively, shown by “God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour”, describing how God has allowed people to partake in such a thrilling time. This religious attitude towards war was influenced by his belief in “muscular Christianity”, Christianity that was active, not passive. Brooke then describes how war has improved the people of the world, with lines like “And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping”.
As a Christian, Brooke felt that morality had gone from the world, and felt that war could be the thing to rejuvenate it, as shown throughout the first stanza. He then continues with a more encouraging message, similar to Pope in “Who’s For The Game”. With “Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move”, he is encouraging men to join up and portraying those who do not as the weak of the world, while further describing them as “half-men”. The following line, “And all the little emptiness of love” reemphasises the idea of morality being lost, but could also been linked to his personal life, where he was disillusioned by love and often struggled in relationships.
The second stanza of the poem is more directly related to the horrors of war, describing its effects on those who partake in it. In the first line, Brooke depicts how war has relieved those who have been disgraced, “…We, who have known shame, we have found release there”, the release being the sense of relief that war has bought, despite all its horror. Brooke then describes how the pain of war is not a bad thing. He sees his generation as fortunate, as they have the chance to escape this immoral world for a better life in heaven, which is where the theme of swimmers leaving behind the sleepers links back into the poem. However, he then moves on to the actualities of death, how “naught (is) broken, save this body, lost but breath”. This shows Brooke perceives the horrors of war to be not as bad as they seem, as only physical life is lost, with the soul remaining, “Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s peace there”. In the final couplet, Brooke cements the beliefs presented, stating that the agony suffered is only fleeting, that the only enemy is Death itself, “But only agony, and that has ending/And the worst friend and enemy is but death”.
In contrast to the positivity on the surface of “Peace”, “Anthem For Doomed Youth” by Owen is a much bitterer poem. The title starkly portrays how the soldiers of the war are in such peril, the “Doomed Youth” suggesting that all the soldiers have no hope, that they will die in the end. The first stanza of the poem is a simple parody of a funeral, with Owen mocking the idea of the funeral that the soldiers deserve. “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” Is asking who will be the ones to mourn these people, and what reward they will get for the ultimate sacrifice that they are making. Owen answers the question extremely sharply, deriding the attitudes of the time towards the war with “Only the monstrous anger of the guns/Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”.
The “only” at the start of both lines implies the long monotony of war and the death, as if death has become so accepted that no just actions are taken upon it. He continues his cynical tone with lines like “Your hasty orisons” and “No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells”, sceptically disparaging the ideas of glory for the dead soldiers. The muted reflection of the poem continues for the rest of the stanza, Owen using more funeral imagery like “mourning”, “bugles” and “sad”. He also uses aural sense imagery, for example the “shrill demented choirs of wailing shells” and “Bugles calling for them from sad shires”, to put across the horrors of war in a very effective but understated way, showing more how the effects of the war on so many are so terrible, rather than the physical elements taking centre stage. The second stanza moves more towards the idea of the home front, linking in with “Peace” with the direction of the message, but taking a completely different view.
The second stanza has a considerably more sombre pace to it, similar to how the home front would have been during the war, full of anxiety and nervous anticipation of news, be it good or bad. The stanza begins with the line “What candles may be held to speed them all”, another example of the funeral imagery that has continued on from the first stanza. This refers to the lighting of the candles in remembrance of the dead, but being so many dead, no number of candles held aloft can remember such a great loss of life.” Another example of this is used further on in the stanza, “the pallor of girls brows shall be their pall”, where Owen personifies the pall, or coffin cloth, almost giving their deaths a sense of meaning with someone who will be with them, in complete contrast to the cynical dehumanised funeral imagery of the first stanza.
The final line of the poem, “And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds”, is indicative of the custom of drawing blinds down when there is a death in the house, a direct reference to the deaths, while the “slow dusk” can refer to an idea of repetitive drawn-out disappointment, with the families of the dead looking for anything to hold on to. Owen in fact changed the second stanza for the final version of the poem, changing the “them” and “their” from “you” and “your”. This makes the tone of the poem much more mutedly reflective than it would have been, as the “you”, being more direct, would have imparted a much stronger sense of bitterness upon the stanza and therefore the whole poem.
A similar reflective poem to “Anthem For Doomed Youth” is “In Flanders Fields” by McRae. Rather than using the vivid imagery of war to portray the horrors, he uses description of a cemetery to emphasise the sense of death. Powerful imagery is used to convey this, for example “poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row”. This uses the red of poppies like the red of blood, and the colour of white crosses as that of innocence, to show that so much innocent blood has been shed, physically signified by the rows of crosses. In the fourth line, “the larks still bravely singing” is indicative of hope for the war to end, a stark contrast of the reminders of death that run throughout the poem. Despite this “hope” they are “scarcely heard amid the guns below”, showing that the war is shattering hope and peace, drowning them out with violence and pain.
The second stanza puts the death into perspective. The lines “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved…” show that these men who died were simply people, not objects pushed around by armies but men who lived normal lives before having to make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause that they were fighting for. The final stanza also has one of the most vivid images of the poem, the idea of the torch that “To you from falling hands we throw”. The torch is like a beacon against oppression, but could also be representative of victory, as if the soldiers of Flanders Fields have done their duties, and now it is up to the rest to carry the fight through, as illustrated by the first line of the stanza, “Take up our quarrel with the foe”. The penultimate two lines are a message stating that the honour of these dead must be upheld by victory, as if the mission will not be completed unless the reader acts upon the poem, “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders Fields”.
The final poem is the most complicated of the four, “Strange Meeting” by Owen. It has a dream-like atmosphere running through it, with the first stanza beginning the idea of a strange journey. The first line, “It seemed that out of battle I escaped”, could be indicative of death, and the stanza continues to set the scene of this meeting, wherever it may really be. The idea of a “dull tunnel” that “titanic wars had groined” supports the possibility of not just this war but all wars and conflicts, titanic or not, being represented by this poem, shaping the poem in the way that they shaped the tunnel.
The second stanza elaborates on this setting of scene, describing surroundings of “encumbered sleepers”, referring to the dead, encumbered not by kit but by suffering and pain. The image of “one sprang up, and stared/With piteous recognition in his eyes” is the idea of a man that the speaker has killed previously, his eyes so desperately calling for pity is an extremely powerful one, giving the reader the sense of shock that Owen wanted to convey, and can be used as a stark turning point in the poem. As well as this, the speaker’s identity being unknown furthers the effect of the poem.
If Owen had positively identified himself as the speaker, this could be seen as an individual experience. This would reduce the effect that the idea of common pain of war provides, the unidentified speaker making the poem reach out further, turning it from a terrifying personal experience into a universal one that is equally so. Owen then begins his third stanza, and opens with the line “With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained”, “vision” implying the continuation of the dream-like state, and the pains being the legacy left on him by the war. Owen contrasts this with the pains not being caused by guns or physical wounds, “no guns down the flues made moan”, “No blood reached from upper ground”. Following this, the monologue delivered by the man who has been killed ensues, and this contains many of the key points of the poem.
Beginning the monologue, the idea of a paradox is introduced, the line “strange friend” being completely unexpected. The motifs of hopelessness and loss, for example “the undone years”, “the hopelessness” underline the horrors of war, how it took away so much for what were in relation such minute gains in many battles. As well as this, the poem has a very much reflective air, helped by Owen’s technique of linking past and future together. Examples of this reflection are “Was my life also, I went hunting wild” and “I would have poured my spirit without stint”. This reflective theme links with that of the second stanza of “Anthem For Doomed Youth”, as he again uses metaphorical ideas of horror to put it across, rather than clear physical examples. Another powerful image in the poem is the idea of “the pity war distilled” and “(The) Wisdom was mine, I had the mastery/To miss the march of this retreating world”.
The idea of pure pity for war and for the dead is a powerful one, but more so is this “retreating world”, possibly the idea that a world shattered by war, as described by “Now men will go content with what we spoiled” will become the norm, and people will regress into this “spoiled”. The next line, “None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress”, furthers the idea of disillusionment of this world that the two have been left in. The final lines of the stanza are even more sombre than the rest of the poem, with the comprehension of death by both, as they have done all they can to stem the said “trek from progress”. “Let us sleep now” shows this, and is another idea of how to portray the simplest and most feared horror of war, death. The final key feature of it is how no blame is placed upon either man, as if war has bought them together, united by “the truth untold”.
Another key factor of the portrayal of horror is the writer’s own attitude to war and whether they are reflected in the poems. Firstly, Brooke. Despite the pro-war theme of “Peace”, with war being seen as an opportunity for a generation, his own views were very contrasting. His quotes “Increasing resentment (at the idea of volunteering)” and “Half my heart is in England and the rest is looking for some home that I haven’t found yet”, referring to how he wanted to be a soldier, but could never bring himself to do it, reflect this strongly. Despite the positive tone of the poem, it is notable that Brooke wrote “Peace” in 1914, before battles like The Somme, before anyone was truly aware of what World War One would be like.
In fact, Brooke’s opinions on war are similar to Owen’s, but are comparatively much less bitter. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a good example of this bitterness towards the “mockeries” that young men receive in exchange for giving their lives for Britain. Despite this, Owen also stated that his subject was “war, and the pity of war”. This is evident in “Strange Meeting”, where no blame is placed on either man, leaving them united in their struggle against war. As well as this, Owen was influenced by Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow Craiglockhart patient. Sassoon was extremely disillusioned, as shown in works like “The General” and “Suicide in the Trenches”. Furthermore, Sassoon helped compose “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, co-ordinating changes, for example “our guns” became “the guns”, showing the all round horror of war that someone as bitter as Sassoon would want to portray.
McRae has less of this bitterness, but the reflective theme of “Strange Meeting” is similar to that of “In Flanders Fields”, and equally powerful. McRae was a war physician, so would have experienced death first hand. However, in 1915 when transferring posts he said “all the god dam doctors in the world will not win this war, what we need is more men”. Therefore it can be seen he was in favour of war and wanted to fight, his poem linking with this while also not. The third stanza, referencing “Our quarrel with the foe” shows how he was in support of people continuing the war, but the first two much more sombre stanzas, “We are the dead” could imply that he was disillusioned with the horror. It is clear though, that attitudes of poets directly affect how they write poems on particular subjects.
Another aspect of the poems is their form and poetic devices used. Firstly, “In Flanders Fields” is a rondeau, one of the French “formes fixes”. It is a poem of thirteen lines, each with eight syllables, and importantly two refrains, each of four syllables. These refrains are made use of by McRae with the sharp repeat of “In Flanders Fields”, at the end of the second and third stanzas. McRae also uses a powerful metaphor, the torch that is “throw(n) from falling hands)”, to show victory and at the same time the idea of continuing the great sacrifice that the previous soldiers performed. In contrast to this, “Peace” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” are both in the sonnet form. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter is used by Brooke and Owen, creating a jaunty rhythm, which has good effect when contrasted against the grave tone of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and also when accompanying the positive attitude emphasised by Brooke in “Peace”.
Another technique used by Owen in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is sense imagery, something that he consistently used. The “stuttering rifles rapid rattle”, “the shrill demented choirs of wailing shells” are both powerful aural images which give the reader a sense of how confused and terrible war was, and what these men who “die as cattle” had to go through. Alliteration and onomatopoeia are also used by Owen for a similar effect, the “rifles rapid rattle” being the best combination of sense imagery, onomatopoeia and alliteration in the whole poem. The use of metaphors is then extended in the second stanza, as well as contrast. “Flowers” and “glimmers” are positive words against a background of pain and suffering provided by the rest of the stanza, and these positive words could be metaphorically covered up by the “drawing-down of blinds”.
“Peace” features use of metaphors to convey the horrors of war as Brooke sees them in the poem. That of swimmers and sleepers is repeated throughout the first stanza, allowing the reader to understand the distinction between those who will fight and who will not. He also uses powerful generalised adjectives, for example “a world grown old and cold and weary”, to illustrate what a bad state the world is in. An extra syllable on ten of the fourteen lines is also important to the poem, as it is always a “soft” syllable, therefore keeping the poem downbeat and in line with its tone.
This is hendecasyllabic, and Brooke deviates even more from convention in form. Instead of the traditional resolution in the sestet to what is posed in the octet, there is simply a continuation of the question and answer, allowing Brooke to better explore the ideas that he wants to get across. As well as this, line ten of the sonnet, “Oh! We have found no shame, we have found release there”, is a full Alexandrine, iambic pentameter with two extra syllables, so having six pairs rather than five. This at the start of the sestet, with the euphoric “Oh”! sounds as if it signifies a change in tone of the poem as Brooke at the same time moves into the crux of his argument, how agony is fleeting, and death is not as bad as it seems.
The final poem, “Strange Meeting” also includes use of metaphors, but the key feature of it is Owen’s use of his own pararhyme, or “near-rhyme”. This, for example “years/yours” and “wild/world” allows Owen to have a greater vocabulary, furthering expression without being limited by rhyme and form. The poem is divided into three irregular stanzas, which works with the structure, having the main monologue all in its own stanza of unrelenting power, with two sharper stanzas building towards the “main event”. Finally, Owen also uses the powerful rhythm of iambic pentameter to provide strength to a somewhat gentle poem, and the powerful visual sense imagery of “piteous recognition in his fixed eyes” and “much blood had clogged their chariot wheels”, to put across the ideas that war is a terrible thing, and that all men can do is attempt to stop it.
In conclusion, the poets above use various techniques to put across a very generic theme in their own ways. This can be affected by their own beliefs in the subject, as well as other aspects of the poems like their form and metre being vital to how the ideas of the poems are portrayed. Despite this, it is still clear that the most important tools to creating a successful portrayal of any subject, war or not, are the words written down on the page.