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Wilfred Owen's Poetry

Examination of a range of Wilfred Owen ’s Poems. Determined what his purpose in writing these poems is and how his style and technique promote that purpose.

It could be said that all of war poet Wilfred Owen 's work has a discernible purpose; this being the destructive capacity of war, and its ultimate futility. However, by examining a range of Owen 's poetry it also becomes clear that over time, this purpose has matured and developed, Owen still maintaining an emphasis on the injustice of war but incorporating individual and universal significance into his verse. What remained constant throughout Owen ?s career as a war poet was his ability to communicate his purpose successfully to the reader, through his style and technique. Some of his first poems, S.I.W and Dulce et decorum est demonstrate Owen 's initial purpose in protesting against the war by means of definitive style and technique. Later on, poems such as Disabled showed his purpose had shifted, concentrating on the individual suffering of war victims, this purpose also enhanced through his style and technique. Owen 's later works again demonstrated evolution of thought and purpose. In poems like Futility and Spring Offensive Owen 's purpose is centred around conveying to the reader the abnormality of war, his style and technique consolidating this purpose.

Within Owen 's early poetry his purpose can be found easily, as much of the intended meaning lies on a surface level. Anger and disgust were the fundamental sentiments that permeated these poems, his intent; to reprimand those at home who ignorantly urged the doomed soldiers on to war. Two early poems whose style and technique largely illuminate this purpose are Dulce et decorum est and S.I.W. The title of S.I.W is a prelude to understanding the poems content and ultimately Owen 's intent. Lengthened, S.I.W stands for Self-Inflicted-Wound, and as the title suggests the poem is about a young soldier who literally self inflicts a life damaging wound to avoid any further suffering on the battlefield. Owen ?s perspective is that of an objective observer, and he expresses no pity, only understanding through his account. Owen illustrates the pressure being exerted upon the young man through three directions, the inescapable horror of battle, ? misses teased the hunger of his brain?and death still seemed withheld, ? his militaristic duty to country, and his demanding father ?father would sooner him dead than in discharge.? The mood of the poem is dispassionate as Owen conveys the soldiers dilemma without emotion, but severe and unfeeling clarity. Ultimately the action of the poem progresses to a point where Owen emphasises the soldiers ? reasoned crisis of his soul, ? and the afore mentioned pressures culminate causing the soldier to commit suicide ? Not sniped, No? (later they found the english bullet).? Owen?s palpable bitterness towards the soldiers predicament can be detected in the last two lines of the first stanza:
For torture of lying machinally shelled
At the pleasure of the worlds powers who?d run amok
In these lines one of Owen 's strongest criticisms is detailed, in that he felt millions of soldiers were loosing their lives simply for the pleasure of those few select in higher office. The politicians and world leaders at the time were running ?amok? and using the young men of their respective country, like pawns on a chessboard. Another protest Owen observes is that of those at home being kept in the dark about the hell of the war, the last line demonstrating this ? And truthfully wrote the mother, ?Tim died smiling ?. The mother of the soldier, Tim, is kept ignorant of her son?s horrific experience, the result of his gruelling moral dilemma simplified in the immaterial phrase ? Tim died smiling.? This hard portrayal of the soldier?s death crystallises Owen 's purpose, which was to convey to the reader the inequity of the soldiers predicament, the hollowness of duty, and the reality of war. The poem is divided into four unequal parts, the prologue, the action, the poem and the epilogue, each division explaining a stage the soldiers progress; from home to battle, to his final demise. The rhyme is variable, is some sections there is evidence of pararhyme (Face-Disgrace, Nurse-curse, Hut-Butt), however in others there appears to be no rhythm.. These variations in the rhyme scheme really help to augment the final dramatic impact of the poem. Within the first Stanza, Owen captures the soldiers feeling of despair through an observation based simile:
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sand bags after years of rain
Through this device, Owen cleverly makes the comparison of a well made sandbag to a fortified and skilled soldier. Much like the best made sandbags, even the soldier had a limit to his tolerance, and all the training and bolstering of spirit could not prevent the seams of his sanity being abraded by the war. The ?years of rain?, represent the incessant barrage of death, destruction, and his fathers words ringing in his ears: ? Death sooner than dishonour that?s the style! ? His resolve liquefies like sand leaking from a bag in the face of the seemingly infinite war. Through this image Owen conveys to the reader the absurdity of the soldiers situation; in that he is expected to somehow prevent the erosion of the war on his psyche, and just as one cannot prevent the best made sand bags from ruin, this is also clearly an impossible task. Owen stresses the innocence of the soldiers apparently ?vile? crime by showering the reader with a fusillade of pain evoking images in the fifth stanza. Owen talks of a ?slow grazing fire, that would not burn him whole?, producing a vivid picture of a fire which burnt flesh gradually making the process more tortuous. The word grazing, implies a leisurely, deliberate attempt to inflict pain, as if the fire was savouring the soldiers discomfort. Owen seems to personify death as a cruel and sadistic tormenter, which afflicts the soldier only to ? keep him for?promises and scoff. ? These images almost justify the soldiers suicide. The last image Owen gives the reader is that of ? Tim?smiling?, suggestive of the gory visage which a soldier wore after being shot in the mouth, lips blasted into a grotesque smile. This final picture is ironic, in that the soldier found the release he had so desired , grinning in his relief. In this last image, Owen forces the gruesome picture of the dead soldier onto the reader as if making an accusation, blaming the reader for the fact that the soldier could only find content in death. In S.I.W, Owen 's style and technique are effective methods of conveying his purpose, the reader left with a strong sense of Owen 's condemnation of the war, and possibly with a hatred towards it themselves.

Another early poem which features a similar purpose to S.I.W is Owen 's famous Dulce et decorum est, a piece which is once again made meaningful by Owen 's style and technique. Much like S.I.W , the significance of the poems title is paramount to understanding Owen ?s intent. The title is ironic, a Latin mantra used during the war to tempt soldiers into battle, roughly translated into ?It is noble to die for one?s country.? Ideally, it appealed to a man?s sense of duty and challenged allegiance to one?s country, in due time persuading hundreds of men to enlist . Owen mocks this concept during the poem, ultimately rendering the notion of patriotism injurious and detrimental to man. This was intended to shock civilians at home, who were convicted that war was in fact noble and glorious. Stanza one sets the scene as Owen describes a number of soldiers limping back from the front; their blood caked feet trying to negotiate the mud. ? Drunk with fatigue ? and almost dead Owen tries to paint a picture of lethargy induced by the ever threatening presence of death.. The remainder of the poem focuses on a soldier who couldn?t get his gas helmet on in time, in this Owen defines his perspective as a comrade of the unfortunate soldier:
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea I saw him drowning
Continuing, Owen seems to look back on the event as it were a recurring nightmare, the ? haunting flares ? of the Five-nines foreshadowed by the haunting image of his dying friend. In stanza four Owen attacks those at home who uphold the continuance of the war, unaware of its realities and unaware of the horrors which they are inflicting upon those who they urge to join up. In the last four lines of the poem, Owen directs this message to an individual referred to as ? My friend. ? This individual can be identified as Jessie Pope, the female author of several patriotic poems which epitomised the exact glorification of war which Owen despised. The mood of Dulce et decorum est is angry and condemning, the accusatory tone in the final stanza similar to that in S.I.W. Owen 's purpose is clearly conveyed through this accusation, in that he felt war was not glorious and the act of encouraging innocent soldiers to participate in it was brutal. The penetrating cynicism of the last few lines is indicative of this, Owen bluntly stating that the popular epitaph was in fact, a lie :
My friend, you would not tell with such hight zest
To children ardent fro some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
The poem consist of four unequal stanzas, the first two are in sonnet form and the second looser in structure. Rhyme is also employed however much like the structure slackens, and in some areas rhyme relaxes to introduce a dramatic moment. The para rhyme is fairly constant, and the steady rhythmic quality it brings to the poem enhances the heavy, ponderous image of the war which Owen tries to convey . Simile and metaphor are also devices which are used to adequately communicate Owen ?s concept of war, within the first stanza the powerful phrase ? blood-shod ? dehumanises the trudging men. The word shod connotes horses not humans, the term leaves the reader with the feeling that Owen was comparing the soldiers to animals, instinctive hunters thirsty for blood. The underwater metaphor used in conjunction with the soldier succumbing to poison gas is effective in its comparison to a soldier drowning. The two lines which impart Owen 's feeling of helplessness as the soldier ?drowns? are pervaded with an eerie panic as the soldier grasps at Owen for assistance, receiving none.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning
Following the soldiers death Owen makes use of stark imagery, enough to jolt the reader into shock. Owen describes the effect of the bumping wagon in which the half-dead soldier is thrown ? the blood?gargling from his froth corrupted lungs.? Similar to S.I.W, this use of coarse imagery helps communicate Owen 's purpose, in adequately conveying to the reader the horror which people like Jessie Pope have made these men endure. The poem is designed to strike a blow to the conscience, as Owen seems to angrily demand of the reader an explanation for all this suffering. In both poems, through his technique and style Owen ?s purpose can be seen as a deliberate attempt to destroy the idea that sacrificing a life for ones country, is neither a noble, nor rewarding act.

Although in most of his poems Owen maintained a passionate dislike for armed conflict, after a period of time his focus shifted from the battlefield to individual victims of war. Owen 's purpose became to illustrate the intense suffering of those victims, and to demonstrate how the war had ruined their lives. Disabled is a poem with one such purpose, and Owen 's technique and style largely convey this. Within the poem, Owen paints a poignant picture of a young soldier, removed from the battlefield possibly at a hospital in his home town ?legless, sewn short at one elbow.? In the poem, Owen adopts the persona of the young soldier as he reflects upon what he was before the war, and what the war has left him with, or rather taken from him. He is described as having energy and vitality in his pre-war days, the warmth of this memory contrasting starkly with the isolation he find himself in upon his return. Along with Owen 's portrayal the boy?s former life, he refers to the events leading to the boys recruitment. He mentions that the boy was once thought ? a god in kilts? not only does this demonstrate the soldiers total physical change, but also indicates that he because a member of one of the Scottish regiments and almost enlisted for reason of vanity. ?To please his Meg? is also cited as another reason for the boy enlisting, Owen still retaining some bitterness towards the more ardent female patriots- as in the latter part of the poem, Meg is nowhere to be found. Another criticism lies in the following line: ? smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years?, the sadness of the soldiers plight is heightened as it becomes clear he was underage when he enlisted as therefore is still very young. In the last stanza, the picture of despair is made complete by the soldiers total passivity, his future will be to ? do what thing the rules consider wise. ? He is expected to ? spend a few sick years,? ? take whatever pity ? others chose to offer him and then tragically sit in a room ? waiting for dark. ? Owen conveys to the reader the sadness of a once healthy athlete, reduced to a state of helplessness and dependency on others. Although there is a shade of anger in Owen 's tone, as the young soldier he remains reserved, bitter and faintly resigned to his dreary future. Disabled is similar to Dulce et decorum est and S.I.W, in than its purpose is partly to reveal to the reader the suffering of war. However, within Disabled, this suffering is intensified by Owen 's focus on an individual. More than wanting the reader to feel sorry for the Disabled soldier and others like him, Owen wanted to expose those at home for what they really were- unsupportive. Despite society?s eagerness to send him to war as he was drafted with ?drums and cheers?, the same society appeared reluctant to embrace him with the same eagerness upon his return ? Some cheered him on but not as crowds cheer goal.? The ?giddy jilts? which he had so longed to please by joining up considered him a ?queer disease? after his injuries, this showing that he suffers not only from the physical loss of his arm, but also the psychological scar of rejection. In essence, the young man?s life had been ruined by the war and Owen points the finger towards society, accusing them of forcing him to go. Perhaps they could have made his life a little more whole by offering companionship, however instead they inflicted another damaging blow by isolating him even further upon his return. In his purpose Owen communicates to the reader how lives can be dramatically ruined by war, and society is to blame for their actions both before and after. The structure of the poem compliments this purpose, as it is loose with irregularities in stanza. This unorthodox approach helps Owen to convince the reader of the soldiers story, and make the reflections more real. Owen 's use of contrast continues throughout the poem, and each stanza contains images in direct opposition to one another. Within the first stanza there is a contrast between the solidity of the soldiers situation, and the movement of the town at night. Beauty and disease contrast in stanza two, youth and old age in the next but the most impressionable is the contrast Owen creates in stanza four. As the reader is already aware that the soldier has lost an arm and his legs, it is a surprise to hear that prior to the war the boy was proud to have an injury and was carried shoulder high for it:
One time he liked a blood smear down his leg
After the matches carried shoulder high.
This sharply contrasts with his current predicament, as instead of a ?blood smear? he sustains a life threatening wound. Irony is another technique used to promote Owen 's purpose, a good example of this is in the second stanza wherein the boy refers to the old times ?before he threw away his knees?. As well as providing a very powerful image, the line is laced with irony. Only a very negligent individual would throw his knees away, however the boy did not commit this folly, rather it was committed for him. Imagery does play a large part in the poem, the images accompanying his lack of female companionship particularly effective. Owen seems to hone in on the point that the boy is incomplete, and will never really be a man. The ? leap of purple which spurted from his thigh,? although indicating an arterial wound, also can be seen as a symbolic euphemism for ejaculation. Very cleverly Owen again puts important contrast into this small phrase. In the sense of ejaculation, this image promotes life and the creation of it, in a different sense, it can also imply a loss of blood, or loss of life. Owen makes extensive use of repetition, the last two lines of the poem demonstrating this:
How cold and late it is? Why don?t they come
And put him to bed? Why don?t they come?
This repetition equates to monumental depression, the anxiety the boy is feeling as he waits for somebody to put him to bed. The pitiful image of the young man, dreaming of his warm past in a cold lonely room is a haunting one, and Owen uses it effectively. In Disabled, Owen looks at the cosmic experience of war, and convey s to the reader the horror of the individual battle which continues long after the primary conflict. Although different from Dulce et decorum est and S.I.W, in Disabled Owen still making use of style and technique to convey this purpose.

It has been said that some of Owen 's best works were conceived during his last period of writing, within these poems Owen almost entirely abandoning protest and adopting a tone of resignation, his purpose directed towards the firm belief that war had to end. These poems looked at wider, more universal issues that went beyond the intricacies of war, but rather questioned creation and humanity. Another aspect which emerged in Owen 's poetry was a personal anguish, in that somehow he felt responsible for not having stoped the war by means of telling everybody how wrong it was. The two poems Futility and Spring Offensive both share similar purposes, as they both condense Owen 's universal dispute against war by means of style and technique. Futility begins on a bright winters morning, Owen describing a soldier recently deceased. Owen appears to have known him, or something of his background as he makes reference to his farm in France and the ?whispering of fields unsown.? Within the poem, Owen ponders natures power to create life and the power to retract it. The first stanza is tender, as Owen describes the dead man with gentle care, his tone soft. The second stanza challenges the first as the calm turns into bewilderment, despair and finally muted anger.
O- what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earths sleep at all
During the poem Owen tries to reconcile the miracle of creation, with the evil of creation laid to waste. So much seemed to have gone into making this man, Owen conveying frustration at the fact that his life ended in so little. He begins to question earths existence, and seems to ask some impartial observer whether life actually meant anything ?Was it for this that the clay grew tall? ? Owen 's intent in this poem seems to be to communicate to the reader that life is futile. Futile in the sense that death is inevitable, and futile because answers to life?s biggest questions will always remain elusive. Futility transcends the pessimism and bitterness of Dulce et decorum est and S.I.W, as Owen reflects rather than accuses. The poem has the structure of an elegiac lyric however is the length of a sonnet. There is simplicity in Owen 's diction, the short monosyllabic sentences demonstrating clarity of thought. These techniques promote a smoothness which translate to simplicity, as in essence this is a very simple poem, and Owen 's purpose is not a complicated one. The sun is used a metaphorical framework from life, which is a major theme of the poem. Owen puts the sun in the place of life and god, as was the sun which ? always woke ? the soldier, which ? wakes the seeds?, and the sun which ? Woke once the clays of a cold star. ? There is however an opposing force to the far reaching vitality of the sun, this being death which is metaphorically represented by the snow. In a sense, the first line of the poem epitomises Owen 's purpose, ? move him into the sun ? Owen advises, however this is a futile action because the man is dead and not even the sun can do anything for him. It is for this reason that Owen directs any rage he has left within him towards the sun, as he asks it why it bother to wake the earth at all if it cannot save but one life. The poem Futility is an incredibly sad one, and leaves the reader with a feeling of a tragedy of a life left unfulfilled.

Another poem which demonstrates a shift in Owen 's purpose in a similar way to Futility, is the equally notable Spring Offensive. Similarly to Futility, in Spring Offensive Owen ?s use of title is candid; unlike some of his earlier poems which are ironic or cryptic titles to suit their poems, Spring Offensive is about an offensive which took place in the spring. The events in the poem take place on both a natural and a supernatural plane, and within the poem Owen tries to explore the effect of battle on a deeper level. The poem starts on a spring day, this implied by the ? May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge? and focuses on a group of soldier who are evidently ?at ease.? Throughout this first part of the poem, Owen employs nature as the embodiment of peace and calm. The soldiers enjoying their rest, appear to forget the atrocities which Owen highlights in Dulce et decorum est, or their friends who have sustained injuries as observed in Disabled. However, later on in the poem the soldiers are called to battle and Owen does once again effectively communicate to the reader the horror of war, as with all his poems:
So, soon they topped the hill and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
Although the horror of war remains a theme in this poem, his purpose seems not to convey to the reader the terror of
? the whole sky burning,? but rather the evil and abnormality of it. Throughout the poem, the action ebbs and flows between natures grace and its disfavour. As mentioned previously, when the soldiers are resting nature is their friend and comforter, but when they engage in battle they almost seem to spur its wrath. In the third stanza of the poem, as the men are walking towards the frontline, nature appears to want to stop their progress and prevent them from the horrific experience which will soon befall them.
Where even the little brambles would no yield
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands
The phrase ?where even?, suggesting that a force of nature more powerful than the ?little brambles? had tried to stop them, yet they persevered. This supports Owen 's belief that war was unnatural, and by resisting nature man is really resisting himself. Those who actually survive the battle Owen describes as ?out-fiending hell itself,? and all its ?superhuman inhumanities.? How could a person elude the preternatural nature of hell, and all its ?inhumanities? without relinquishing their own humanity? In this instance Owen makes the point that to survive in battle, one has to be inhuman, therefore directly goes against their own nature. This is where Owen ?s real purpose reveals itself, as he makes the point that the enemy is not the ?other-side?, nor the machines or the civilians at home, but rather humanity. His purpose being to show the reader that war is wrong, because it forces soldiers to renounce their humanity in order to survive. Similarly to Futility, Owen distances himself in Spring Offensive adopting the perspective of an objective observer, however somehow involves a sense of compassion that I felt was never found in S.I.W or even Disabled. For this reason his tone is measured and solemn, and there seems no trace of hostility, only resigned melancholy, and an urgency in trying to impart his message. The structure of the poem supports his purpose, the six stanzas representing the six stages of the offensive. The poem maintains a broken rhythm, interspersed with rhyming couplets to produce the necessary tension. In the first stanza, Owen makes extensive use of alliteration and assonance to create the calm carefree mood which the soldiers enjoy on their rest. The soft s produced by phrases like ?carelessly-slept,? ?grass swirled? and ?murmurous with wasp? all combine crate a mood of total tranquillity. However Owen uses the same technique to disturb this peace as the soldiers draw closer to batter, the same s is used but instead of remaining soft and smooth Owen uses it to produce harsh, slicing aural images such as ?Sharp on their souls?, and ?stark blank sky.? This contrast helps Owen to promote his purpose, in that when man goes against his nature become vindictive as demonstrated in the transition from the soft s, to the severe one. There is heavy use of simile during the first few stanza to clearly convey the affinity which the men share with nature, in one instance Owen personifies it as a life giving force:
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like an injected drug for bodies pains.
Again, later in the poem Owen contrasts this image with that of nature taking away life , ? Earth set sudden cups/in thousands for their blood .? This also demonstrating natures wrath, instead of nature ?injecting? life into their veins, they set ?cups? for the soldiers blood. As with many of Owen ?s poems, powerful imagery is used to illustrate the savagery of battle, and although Owen 's purpose is not to convey this feeling it still remains an integral part of his writing. Instead of using images of broken bodies Owen looks to nature for his source of disquieting visual pictures. The reader is provided with ? the green slope/chasmed and steeped into infinite space,? and the ? hot blast and fury of hell?s upsurge,? both conjuring images of earth shaking in anger, deliberately trying to make the soldiers fall. In many of his other poems, Owen provided the reader with images that needed little sub-surface exploration but rather had meaning that could be found on a more superficial level. In both Spring Offensive, and Futility the poems are seeped in symbolism, and full of connotative meaning. This technique allows Owen to bring a sense of depth and purpose to the poem, in that the reader has to really explore the poem to extract Owen 's intent.

Through looking at the above range of poems, it become clear that over time Owen 's purpose matured and shifted focus. However, one thing that remained constant in Owens poetry was his prominent style and technique helped to promote each respective purpose. Both S.I.W and Dulce et decorum est shared the thread of protest against the war, each poem enhanced by Owen 's use of imagery and his stark contrasts. The poem Disabled, through its unorthodox structure communicated to the reader the despair of an individual war victim. And finally, Futility and Spring Offensive, two poems whose symbolic sub-structure largely illuminated Owen 's purpose, which was that by man attacking or resisting nature, he was going against himself. Looking at Owen ?s evolution of thought it is clear that his final conclusion was one that is still valid today; war is wrong and the only real enemies we have, are ourselves.

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