Go back to the Owen page for more texts and other resources.

A Comparison of the Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Herbert Read and the Value inherent therein

Differences in the themes and techniques employed by the two poets.

"A man's brains splattered on a stretcher-bearer's face..."
(Isaac Rosenberg, "Dead man's Dump")

Images like this are not too far off the truth of the reality of the First World War. In these times this was the harsh truth people had to face. They lived with this sort of thing if they were in the field, and did not hear about it at all if they were not. This was the Historical reality of these times, and the Social reality was that if you were a man, and you were fit, you went to war, there was not any argument about the fact. Some tried to dodge the conscription, but this was mainly unsuccessful and most ended up going to war and getting killed. These were the realities of the times. Much of this reality was recorded by the war poets. Some of this poetry was an attempt to simply record the events for later generations. Some of the other poetry however, was designed to shock and startle. This kind of writing was very effective in achieving its aims, and much of it shocked its readers into new ways of seeing or understanding, thereby altering attitudes and values. The content of these poems was not the only deciding factor in their shock value, the technique was also quite important. Two poets in particular stand out, and the differences between not only the content of the poems but the technique as well, are quite stark. These poets are Herbert Read, and Wilfred Owen.

The social reality of the time of the first World War was one of nobility, class distinctions and elitism. High born children were expected to to attend primary, secondary and tertiary schools, and excel at all of these. The middle class families owned their own businesses and were generally well-off, and although they still needed to work, the amount of work needed to be done was very little. The working class families were considered to be rubbish, they were downtrodden, oppressed and generally disregarded. This meant that they had little time for Education, as they had to survive first. In times of war however, as these were, all fit men, regardless of class distinction, between the ages of 15 and 50, went to war. Even in these times of war however, the class distinction still remained slightly. The upper-class men went to Officer training, the middle class men usually were higher ranking soldiers and the lower-class men were always the cannon fodder. As soon as the first World War began most of these class distinctions, and even the social reality of that time, broke down. There was simply and not enough the reason to continue this pointless bickering, as it would only lead to the destruction of one's country.

The first World War was a revealing one. Old alliances came to light, the new ones forged at the drop of a hat. As soon as one country became involved, it could drag every one of its allies in with it, and often did. England and Germany, before the first World War, had been on reasonably good terms. The problem however, was that England and Germany both had alliances to opposite sides of the conflict, they therefore became enemies. Back in the days of the first World War, England saw itself as the peace keeper, it was then what America is now, the superpower. It was the one that tried to keep the peace, not so successfully in this case, as it ended up the main part of the Allies.

The attitudes of the times were very pro-motherland, no matter what country one came from. The desire, mostly, was to serve and protect one's home country in any way possible and most of all to protect the women at home. This stemmed from a natural protective instinct in the men of the country. All the men wanted to prove themselves in some way and the war was the perfect opportunity. They would all return as "heros". This, unfortunately, was not the case, as most of these would-be "heros" perished quite quickly during the course of the war and those that didn't usually ended up so mentally scarred that they could not even string a coherent sentence together, not that they could have beforehand, given their lower-class status.

The values of that olden day society were such that society was still highly honour-based, especially in England and especially among the upper classes. Honour and a good name, as much as the well-being of one's family were among the most important things to the average Briton. Honour and a good name were reasonably easy to achieve, one just had to join the war and regardless of whether they died or not they would always be posthumously remembered fondly and as a 'great man'. On the other hand, if one went to war, the third great value stated above would be extremely hard to ensure, as one would most likely end up dead, thus not being able to ensure the well-being of one's family, and moreover, that person's family would likely decline, as the men, the 'bread-winners' were all dead and the poor helpless ladies of the house had no-one to lookafter them, as all these ladies liked to do was sit around and read gallant and heroic poems written by the publicised poets.

The most influential poets of the times were ones that served in the army. These were the so-called War Poets. They could relate personal experiences rather than just the chivalrous drivel that all the other non-war poets seemed to spout continuously. Herbert Read was not involved in the war, and simply wrote mostly the aforementioned drivel. Wilfred Owen, however, was involved quite heavily in the war, and wrote his poetry accordingly. These poets had slight similarities with other poets also, Herbert Read and Rudyard Kipling wrote similar poetry in attitude, as they were both mainly misinformed, and Wilfred Owen was much like Siegfried Sassoon, who was involved in the war and could also relate his experiences rather than just spout rubbish.

The poems of these poets are at different points along a continuum with the most graphic and truly warlike poems are situated at the negative end, and the pacifistic, idealistic and ludicrously chivalrous poems at the positive end. Wilfred Owen's poems are the furthest towards the negative end of the scale, as his poems are the most graphic and vile of all the poets stated here. Siegfried Sassoon's poems are quite near Wilfred Owen's, but they tend to be not as graphic and at times quite sarcastic so therefore they are also situated quite close to the negative end. Rudyard Kipling's poetry tends to be short, concise and, although saying some truth in his poems, he tends to avoid the garish cruelty and destruction of war, so he would be rated around the middle of the continuum. Herbert Read was a pacifist, and he revealed that in his poetry, which usually tended to, while giving some facts, go on and on about the mystical things like the "Meditation of a Dying German Officer" and a "Dialogue between the Body and the Soul of the Murdered Girl". Such things are clearly nonsense and just proves that Herbert Read had no idea what war was really like and simply tried to make it sound like he did by being mystical and spouting highly dubious material.

Firstly the poems written by Herbert Read, when compared to the ones written by Wilfred Owen, suggest quite an 'airy-fairy' nature residing within this man. This is demonstrated by the poem "Meditation of a Dying German Officer". This poem, which bears more likeness to a novel, is all about a German officer who is, obviously, dying. He is meditating on grand, mystical subjects like the meaning of life, religion, life and death. During this meditation, the officer hears gunfire and decides he will "cling to that sound and on its widening wave lapse into eternity". This idea is clearly ludicrous, as eternity is usually associated with eternal life, and yet this officer is using gunfire, a signus of death, to cling to life. Obviously this so-called poet Mr Read was taking some sort of intoxicant while writing his poems, although they could hardly be called such. Questions must arise as to the integrity of these pacifistic poets, as they all seem to use unecessarily grandiose language to describe things with which they have no aquaintance.

More evidence of Mr Read's intoxication can be presented in the form of more quotes from his poems. For instance, when our dear dying German officer is asking rhetorical questions of his best friend Heinrich, he is also relating death to him. He is telling Heinrich that "the void is icy" and that Heinrich's abstraction "freezes the blood at death". He also relates that although the bond Heinrich shares with the things that are close to him is rich, the bond "between two human hearts is richer. Love can seal the anguished ventricles with subtle fire and make life end in peace". This is clearly Mr Read's long-winded way of telling the reader that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about and that his mental health may not be in a prime condition. Another of his poems, "Dialogue between the Body and the Soul of the Murdered Girl" also exhibits Mr Read's possible mental instability. Evidence of Mr Read's condition can be found in the first two stanzas of this poem. In the first stanza the girl's body says "I speak not from my pallid lips, but from these wounds" to which the girl's soul replies "Red lips that cannot tell a credible tale". This is clearly just gibberish that reveals quite clearly that Herbert Read has absolutely no idea what he is on about. Obviously wounds cannot speak, and if they cannot speak, then how are they to tell a credible tale in the first place? The soul of this murdered girl is stating the obvious, and no doubt some of the more abstract of readers could drag some sort of meaning from it with tools with likenesses to fish hooks and torture devices. And yet another thing, souls cannot talk. This is a well known fact, and even the incinuation that they can is abhorrent.

Herbert Read's poems would not shock the reader in the least, his poems would be more effective as bedtime stories for children, as the poor children would end up comatosed with boredom. As these poems do not shock or startle in the least, they would not shock the reader into new ways of seeing or understanding anything and would not alter attitudes or values about anything except reading poems by Herbert Read. For all the flowery and idealistic language Mr Read used within his poems, his poems were quite pointless, and the total sum of their worth is a dictionary of sorts for flowery, idealistic, mystical, grandiose and unnecessary language used mainly for writing english essays.

Wilfred Owen, on the other hand, tells more truth than the average reader would like to know. The average reader would be content to simply know the sort of things that Herbert Read has told us; absolutely nothing. Wilfred Owen's poems send very strong messages to readers about the war, and they are also truthfully gruesome and grotesque. Specific examples of these texts include "Dulce Et Decorum Est" and "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo". The first of these is written with disgusting descriptions and images contained within. The second is written as a story, a chronicle of sorts, telling the reader all that the soldier goes through in the path of war. It paints the soldiers as almost inhuman.

The first poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" shows us men "bent double, like old beggars under sacks". It also relates to us how exhausted the soldiers were, as "men marched asleep". These were the real soldiers, they are not glorified, rather quite the opposite, they are made out to be similar to the most pathetic they can be. This, however, is because they had been through horrors that no-one should have to witness. These soldiers had to deal with dangers every day. A soldier always had to be listening out for an officer to call "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!". There would be "an ecstasy of fumbling, fitting the clumsy helmets just in time". Wilfred Owen portrays the soldiers' life with remarkable detail, and relates this to us through use of various poetic techniques evident in both poems.

The various techniques include his chosen rhyme scheme, his rhythm was also very appropriately chosen as each poem was true to itself in its own right. The techniques were as much a part of the impact as the language used. For instance, Owen proved his brilliance in these poems with language like "And watch the white eyes writhing in his face" and "The blood come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs". Either Owen was brilliant or truly twisted, why else would he join the war? If he had also put as much effort into fighting as he did into writing poetry, he might just have won the war singlehandedly for England. If Owen had actually seen such events it is no wonder he was as twisted as this. Owen used many techniques in creating his works of genious, some of these include his own technique, called pararhyme, he uses rhyme quite well, his final lines are always quite important and assonance. These all feature quite frequently in his poems. The poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" uses a standard rhyme scheme for the most part; a, b, a, b...etc. The poem "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo" strictly follows the same rhyme scheme.

The poem "Apologia Pro Poemate Meo" shows us the minds of the soldiers. It shows us that the soldiers have been so dehumanised that they "Found peace where the shell-storms spouted reddest spate". This is an incredibly unlikely situation, as one would probably be cowering in a hole "where the shell-storms spouted reddest spate". These soldiers have gone past the last threshold of fear and no longer feel it. "For the power was on us as we slashed bones bare". These men were turned into killing machines by the war, this is the sole reason why they would have survived at all. The poem tells us how all emotion and thought revolve around the war and its elements. Owen has even introduced love into this poem about the most horrid of things, although only for two lines, it confuses the reader, and further makes them wonder about the mental state of either the poem's subjects or the author. These soldiers have not even humour left, as "You shall not hear their mirth:You shall not come to think them well content By any jest of mine.".

This poem would certainly stand a good chance of quite radically changing the values of its readers, as they no longer will think of the soldiers as grand heros destined to die gloriously in battle, they will begin to think of inhuman killing machines, out on the battlefield, simply rending flesh apart. Wilfred Owen's poems epitomise the war, especially the two mentioned above. They describe the horrible, disgusting, gruesome nature of war in the thick of the war. No longer shall people standing idly by think how noble the soldier is, they shall know the truth about war, and the truth about how one must lose oneself during the war in order to regain oneself later.

These two poets show the contrast of the times, one shows the complete and utter unknowing nature of the average person, while the other demonstrates how war affects the human psyche. Some writers use poetry as a means of recording the social and historical realities of their time. They may also attempt to startle or shock the reader into new ways of seeing or understanding, thereby altering attitudes and values. Wilfred Owen was one poet who was very successful in this respect, he described the war in a rarely seen form, and was the most outstanding of his time. Herbert Read on the other hand was most likely taking some form of drug while he wrote his poems, as they make absolutely no coherent sense whatsoever. The War Poets were and still should be the most respected of poets, as they suffered through the worst hardships of history simply to create the world as it is today, to fight for the right of freedom and create such beautiful texts deserves great merit. When one fights for a just cause, their soul is set free.

"These men are worth Your tears."
(Wilfred Owen, November 1917)

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us