War has been written about many times, from all different angles and perspectives. Each generation has taken the wars it has experienced and put their reactions into novels, stories and poems. For one generation, the Great War was its defining moment, which marked it profoundly. Two writers who explored the devastation of the war in poetry were William Butler Yeats and Wilfred Owen, respectively in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death and Anthem for Doomed Youth. These two poems have very different perspectives on the war, and more specifically on death, but they do share many characteristics.
Yeat’s poem is the personal story of one man, the Irish airman of the title, who flies high above the trenches where the most terrible fighting was. He tells the reader for whom he is fighting, for what he is fighting, and what it all means to him. He says that his countrymen are “Kiltartan’s poor,” but that his efforts will have no effect on their lives. He says that he fights not because he was pressed into service, but because of “a lonely impulse of delight.”
His death, when it comes, will take place “somewhere among the clouds above.” This is very different from Owen’s poem, which serves as a tribute to the many men who died fighting in the trenches. He writes that their only memorial will by on the battlefield, that “only the monstrous anger of the guns,” will mark their passing, not the emotions that their loved ones would feel. He then goes on to reflect upon their deaths, and on what they will miss after having died for their country. This section contrasts their improvised funerals with the rituals normally associated with death.
Despite their different approaches, neither poem displays any partisanship: they do not judge their enemies, nor do they play an important role in the significance of their deaths. In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, the pilot says that “those I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love.” He does not fight for patriotic reasons, but for personal ones. In Anthem For Doomed Youth, Owen does not specify the nationality of those who pass on. The realities of war, which are not dependant on who is fighting, are what engulf them. Despite the fact that he fought on the British side and in other poems displayed animosity towards the Germans, he does not bring blame for death into the poem.
Both poems discuss war and death, but they approach it in very different ways. Owen’s poem is a tribute to the vast number of young men who died in the war, and to what they lost as a generation. The phrase “…those who die as cattle,” indicated that there are many of them, and that they have lost their individuality and are following the desires of their leaders. It also indicated that their sole purpose, like that of cattle, is to be led to the slaughterhouse. This shows that there is no beauty or grace in the war they are fighting. Yeat’s poem is about one individual, who is following his own path in fighting. He says that “nor law, nor duty made me fight,” but a “lonely impulse of delight.” This contrasts with Anthem For Doomed Youth in that there is something positive in his experiences.
Another difference is in how they approach the experience of fighting. Yeat’s poem is solitary and still. There is no imagery of war or of any action at all. He does not discuss the battles that he has been through, and the only reference to combat at all is in his prophecy of death “somewhere among the clouds above.” It seems as if the war is an abstraction for him, not an immediate reality. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, the violence is real and immediate. The last sound the soldiers hear is “the stuttering rifle’s rapid rattle,” and their serenading choir is the “shrill demented,” sound “of wailing shells.”
These same contrasts extend to the language of the poem. There is much more figurative language in Owen’s poem, such as personification (“the monstrous anger of the guns,”), similes (“…for those who die as cattle,”), and metaphors (“each dusk a drawing down of blinds,”). These provide the reader with a much more imposing sense of what happened, as well as driving home the horrors of the battlefield. The complexity of the devices used may also reflect that the poem is written with a third person narrator, presumably the writer. He interprets what he sees with a writer’s eye for detail. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death is written in the voice of the airman, who describes things as he sees them, without embellishment. There is very little figurative language in the poem, and when it is used it is subtle. His remoteness is mirrored in the tone of the poem, which is clear-eyed and unemotional about the situation.
Anthem for Doomed Youth is a sonnet. Hence it has two stanzas, the first of which is an octet, which sets up the situation, and the second is a reflection upon what has been described. This is similar to the structure used by Shakespeare in his sonnets, and it is interesting to note that subverted nature of the form. Traditionally, it was used for writing love poems, or poems on other lighthearted topics. Owen incorporates imagery that would also be appropriate in these poems, with the use of words such as “flowers” and “dusk,” which only drive home the waste of life even more, since he seems to suggest that the young men should have had the opportunity to experience more in life.
The form is also similar to that used in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, which is also a sonnet. In this poem, the last two three lines are also used to reflect upon the situation. The concept of balance is important, since the fourth-to-last line mirrors the last line: “I balanced all, brought all to mind,” is the narrator appearing to begin to make a decision, which is stated in the last line: “In balance with this life, this death.”
These two poems show that although war can take different shapes, it has an unalterable effect upon those who participate in it. They use different tools to communicate their message, but they both show that all war does is waste: waste “patient minds,”, waste ” breath,”, and in the end, waste life.