The Great War, also known as World War 1, started in 1914 and lasted through to 1918. Many people think that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, triggered the start of WWI but there were many events that led up to the war such as colonial and economic rivalry, misunderstandings in diplomatic communications and unresolved previous disputes.
Many war poems are about warfare in the trenches. Conditions in the trenches were terrible. Rain and cold were constant problems. Artillery fire destroyed the drains, so the battlefield became quagmires of mud – often, men drowned in the mud. Sanitary arrangements were unsatisfactory, and disease killed as many men as the enemy. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered and, in dirt, even a small wound often led to blood poisoning, gangrene and death.
There are many different views and opinions on war and some of these are conveyed through various poems. I will compare poems from different poets and explain each of their views on war. I have chosen three poems.
The first poem I have chosen is by Wilfred Owen, an important war poet who was a soldier himself. It is titled ‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’ which translates as ‘it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s own country’. This is incredibly ironic as the subject matter of the poem greatly contradicts this statement.
Owen writes about the conditions in the trenches and the effects on the minds of soldiers. He describes him and his fellow soldiers as ‘knock-kneed, coughing like hags’ cursing through sludge. The use of the simile ‘coughing like hags’ helps us to create an image of the soldiers in our minds. The poet uses imagery throughout this poem, often negatively. He explains the effects on the soldiers’ sanity and dreams. He writes about one of the soldiers not putting his gas mask on quick enough during a gas attack and ‘yelling out and stumbling’ as he suffocates. Owen describes the soldier as ‘flound’ring like a man on fire or lime’. This simile creates a negative and painful atmosphere by referring to suffering and death. He tells us that in all his dreams, the soldier that died ‘plunges’ at him, ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. Many soldiers must have had nightmares following the deaths of fellow soldiers similar to those described in this poem.
The structure of Dulce et Decorum est has an unusual rhythm and does not flow smoothly when read. It is written similarly to a story, but still has characteristics of a poem such as stanzas and rhyme. Every second line rhymes in the poem. This poem teaches about the pain and suffering of the soldiers and the effects death can have on a person.
Irony is a huge part of this poem and the most important part of the poem is the last line that says ‘The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ At this point, Wilfred Owen reveals his opinion of the saying by referring to it as a lie.
The next poem I have chosen is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Does it matter?’ In this poem, Sassoon uses the rhetorical question ‘does it matter?’ at the beginning of each stanza. The poem is particularly about injuries and harm caused during war, both physical and psychological.
This poem is also very ironic, similar to ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. Sassoon uses irony to convey his hatred towards war. He asks ‘Does it matter? – losing your legs?’ He achieves a very sadistic mood to the poem without using any negative language. He continues to say ‘For people will always be kind’ which is quite a positive thought. However, irony transforms these words into a painful and depressing thought. Again in the second stanza he uses this technique and asks ‘Does is matter? – losing your sight?… There’s such splendid work for the blind’. These lines create the same emotions as before. The repetition of the question forces people to think about what terrible injuries that soldiers had to suffer.
This poem has a very good rhythm and it is repeated in all the stanzas. The rhyme of the poem is complicated as the first and last lines rhyme, and the second and third lines rhyme.
The attitude towards war and the use of irony is similar to Owen’s poem as they both create an impression of hatred towards war and both use irony to show and emphasise their points. However, the structure, rhythm and rhyme of the poems are quite different to each other. Sassoon’s poem is more rhythmic and has a repeated structure of stanzas. Perhaps the short stanzas could create a short, shocking idea or image in the reader’s head, without too much explanation and description, creating a dramatic effect. Owen’s poem, however, doesn’t have these qualities. Maybe his poem is to be read as a story and to be analysed closely and the reader may have to understand the poem more before recognising the message that Owen is trying to convey, making the poem altogether deeper and more meaningful. Sassoon informs us of the consequences of war (injuries and death).
The last poem I have chosen is ‘Break of day in the trenches’ by Isaac Rosenberg. The main theme of this poem is cosmopolitan sympathies. Rosenberg writes about the consequences of having these cosmopolitan sympathies (sympathy for both sides – friend and enemy). He does this through dialogue to a rat. A soldier picks up a rat from the trench and tells it ‘Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew your cosmopolitan sympathies’ meaning that the rat is the only thing that could touch both an ‘English hand’ and ‘do the same to a German’. This poem is very symbolic of war. Rosenburg makes a reference to poppies which strongly symbolise war, life and blood (colour). He also makes a reference to No Man’s Land (‘sleeping green’) which was the most dangerous part of trench warfare.
‘Break of day in the trenches’ only has one stanza whereas the poems of Owen and Sassoon each have several stanzas. It can also be read as a story rather than a poem, similar to ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ as it doesn’t have a particular rhythm or rhyme. Rosenburg also has a negative view on war as he refers to ‘whims of murder’ and ‘the torn fields of France’, referring to the result of war on land.
The poem has a sorrowful atmosphere. Rosenburg indicates his feelings towards rivalry and hatred between two sides (i.e. English and German hand) and by doing this, emphasises how much power war has over men. The phrase ‘the darkness crumbles away’ shows that day is dreaded by men as it means another day of killing and senseless violence. I think that this poem teaches us about how war can make someone so mindless and naï¿½ve to human nature as it can make some people kill a person based on their nationality or beliefs.