Words of War: Poetry of the First World War
Poetry and War
The old saying says that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” This is a clichéd phrase that has been repeated often throughout the years, but can it actually be taken seriously in light of war poetry? Although the soldiers in World War I did not fight with swords, their experiences in combat were beyond terrible, and some might say, beyond words. Poetry, however, is a very powerful art form, strong enough perhaps that when written by someone who has seen the horrors of war, can convey the reality and hell of warfare.
Utilizing their personal experiences and firsthand accounts of the battlefield, World War I poets like Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen were able to reconstruct life in the trenches and on the field to a group of readers who had been seduced into believing the tales of honor and glory of the Great War. Propaganda ran rampant during wartime in Britain, promoting the war and glossing over the truth about how hellish the fighting really was. Although poetry is an unusual way of conveying war, the use of stomach-turning descriptions, colorful verbs that transport the reader to the moment of action and death, and terror roiling through every stanza, these powerful poets were able to bring to life, for readers then and even now, the bloodshed and horror of World War I.
It is interesting that poetry can be such a powerful vehicle in revealing the ugly truth about the war, considering that the two elements, poetry and war, are so inherently different. James Anderson Winn says:
War dismembers bodies and the people who lived in them, making whole in verse what was destroyed on the battlefield. The technology of warfare tears people, armies, and cities apart; it divides in order to conquer. The technology of poetry binds together all the ways that words can move us; it combines in order to enrich. […] War obliterates the past; poetry feeds upon the past. (1)
Poetry and war are very different from one another, one a work of creation and imagination, the other of destruction and death. This does not mean, however, that these two opposites cannot be brought together for a greater purpose, such as helping the reader see past the propaganda and false hope of glory to find the gruesome truth just beneath the surface.
Poets and Propaganda
During the time of World War I, realist poets like Rosenberg and Owen rejected the ideas of the propaganda, which manifested itself in many forms. The church itself presented the war with the ideas of “might, majesty, dominion, and power of God” (Winn 18). Besides the influence of the church and government, even some other contemporary poets were writing about the war as if it were a great and noble thing. Most of these writers had never set foot on the battlefield, and their poetry was used by military leaders and politicians to further promote the war (Winn 20). Both Rosenberg and Owen wrote poetry that stood out from the idealistic “knighthood” of battle and gave people a glimpse of the true hell that World War I really was, and used grotesquely descriptive language, sharp verbs, disturbing similes, and kennings to make the war come alive for those who had not experienced it firsthand. Even today, it is nearly impossible not to shudder in shock, fear, or disgust when reading poems like “Dead Man’s Dump” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
"Dead Man's Dump" by Isaac Rosenburg
Isaac Rosenberg’s poem, “Dead Man’s Dump,” is an immensely sensual poem that describes fighting in World War I in a way that is so disturbing that it wakes up the reader, plucking them from their comfortable armchair and depositing them onto the battlefield. The language and imagery used by Rosenberg is strong and vivid. He steers clear from usual adjectives and instead ensnares the senses with kennings like “God-ancestralled,” “war-blotted,” “blood-dazed,” and “quivering-bellied.” Kennings have been used in various epics and poems before Rosenberg, most notably Beowulf, and are much more effective in describing the battle scenes than simple descriptions of the all-too-common death and war. For this war in particular, Amity J. Brown insists, “These deaths surpass humanity’s expectations for horror and destruction and require novel descriptions” (101). Rosenberg’s unique employment of ghastly compound adjectives presents the horror of war in a new way for readers that might have become accustomed to the same retellings of death in newspapers and books.
Rosenberg does not sugar-coat the death and destruction that reigned on the battlefield. His “bizarre images constitute a faithful rendering of the strained, unnatural conditions of trench-warfare” (G.B. 278). He speaks of crunching bones in the second stanza and of “a man’s brains splattered on / A stretcher-bearer’s face” (55-56) in the ninth. His language, even when not directly recounting the war, is grim. The shells cry over the soldiers huddled, bones broken and surrounded by the dead. The earth is “fretting for their decay” and the onslaught of bullets is like a swarm of “swift iron burning bee[s].” The imagery is very real, and through his master of the craft and his firsthand experience fighting, Rosenberg is able to bring back the ceaseless explosions, the timeless waiting in the trenches, the bleeding pangs, and the “howling and flying” of the soldiers with their weapons.
The second part of the poem veers away from the urgency of the actual fighting and focuses instead on the dead and dying. Death is all around, so much so that instead of seeing the carnage as individual people, the soldiers must think of them in terms of “this dead” and “the older dead” (Brown 102). As the speaker shifts his focus, the action seems to slow down for the reader as the image of a newly deceased soldier becomes takes over the poem. In the twelfth stanza, the speaker literally runs over another dead man: “Here is one not long dead; / His dark hearing caught our far wheels, / And the choked soul stretched weak hands / To reach the living word the far wheels said.” The implication of the ground being so littered with the dead that the living cannot avoid stepping on them or running over them is very bleak, showing the hopelessness of the fighting in World War I, which is a far cry from the glory the propaganda promised new recruits.
"Disabled" by Wilfred Owen
If “poetry is in the pity” (qtd. in Grierson 543), then one of Wilfred Owen’s most pitiful poems is not one of trench warfare, gas attacks, or a sea of the dead. Instead, it focuses on the war’s impact on a single person, physically, mentally, and emotionally in “Disabled.” The man in the poem has been physically handicapped in battle, rendered “legless, sewn short at elbow.” He sits in the park and watches life go on around him, and realizes that he will never again be able to do what the others can. In fact, as he observes, no one bothers to talk to him. It is as if he is not even there: “All of them touch him like some queer disease.” As sad as the initial setup of the story is, there is even more heartache to come as the reader learns about this veteran’s past.
Owen once again shows his utter contempt for the way propaganda draws in young men as a way of gaining honor and glory by telling this soldier’s story. Just like many men drawn in by the colorful, lying posters and propaganda put out by politicians, he joined the army for shallow reasons. “It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, / He thought he’d better join. He wonders why… / Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts. / That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg.” After they smiled and “wrote his lie,” he was sent off to war, thinking he would be okay and not fearing even though he was just nineteen years old. What he found was nothing like he expected, the hell of trench warfare, bombs, guns, and gas attacks as described in “Dead Man’s Dump” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Upon returning home, he found that not many “cheered him home,” at least, “not as crowds cheer Goal.” Even after experiencing the horrors and losing his legs overseas, this boy was met not with the cheering he deserved, but rather with “a solemn man who brought him fruits / Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.”
The future predicted for the character is also grim. He will “spend a few sick years in Institutes,” merely following what society thinks would be best for him after his experiences and “take whatever pity they may dole.” Owen uses a strong emotional appeal that makes the reader think like the man who the poem centers around. When they have to consider his position – alone, legless, traumatized, and ignored – and what caused him to fight in the first place, there is certainly pity to be found. “Disabled” also could serve as a warning to other young men like this, who are searching for honor or acceptance. Not all is as it seems, and the media’s rendering of World War I was not fully covering what was really going on in the fight.
"Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen is another contemporary of the Great War who, although already a poet before, turned his art to reflect his grim views on the war. Unlike Rosenberg, however, “the waste of war afflicted him even more than its horrors; it moved him less to indignation than to pity” (Grierson and Smith 543). In his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen employs many of the same techniques used in “Dead Man’s Dump.” Like Rosenberg, Owen’s effective use of diction acts as a vehicle to bring out the awful images of the living death of trench warfare. Through his poetry, he identifies with the people he wrote about and “experienced with them” (B.D. 235). “Dulce et Decorum Est” certainly has a sense of immediacy that causes the reader to feel as if the action is taking place at that very moment, rather than Owen simply recounting the events. This is exhibited perfectly in the second stanza: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” Even after the initial statement is over, the urgency is still there as the soldiers fumble for their helmets.
Along with dark diction and irony, another literary device utilized by Owen in his war poetry, “Dulce et Decorum Est” in particular, are similes. For example, in the very first line, Owen makes the image of the soldiers “bent double” in the trenches much more vivid to the reader by adding “like old beggars under sacks.” “Old beggars” is certainly not a positive choice of words, and adds to the grim atmosphere of the poem. A majority of the poem, in fact, is made up of similes. In the second stanza, Owen says, “But someone still was yelling out and stumbling / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.” Even more disturbing is the simile in the final stanza, which speaks of “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin.” The similes, combined with ghastly imagery of “…the blood / Come gargling from the froth-covered lungs” and “guttering, choking, drowning,” create a terrible picture of the true terror and pity of war that Owen fought so hard to unmask.
Perhaps the most important part of this poem is what is not even in English – simply the title is a statement that displays the darkness of battle in comparison to the noble propaganda exhibited in the time. Translated, “dulce et decorum est” means “it is sweet and right.” This is ironic, considering that the poem is about trenches and gas attacks in World War I (Roberts). There is nothing sweet or right about being “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags” or “guttering, choking, drowning.” This poem in particular is a statement against the misleading idea that fighting in this war would be an easy way to achieve honor for one’s country or favor among one’s peers. The full phrase in Latin at the end of the poem, introduced as “The old Lie,” says, “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” or, “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” The promises of glory and honorable death are nothing like what really happened on the battlefield, something that Owen is not afraid to show (Roberts). There is a big difference between dying nobly for your country and wading through trenches filled with rain and blood, wearing no shoes, or choking on gas under “a green sea.”
Rosenberg and Owen were both very similar in their literary approach to the Great War. Both wrote appalling descriptions of life in the trenches, covering the gore and terror of the moment. There is a sense of urgency in both “Dead Man’s Dump” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” suggesting that the action in the poem is happening at this very moment, causing the battle to come alive in front of the reader. While Rosenberg focused more on the unreal amount of deaths and how horribly accustomed the soldiers had become to them, Owen focused more on the pity of war. He saw the war as a waste of life, and even though “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Disabled” are very different stylistically, he is able to show the sad waste through his works.
In a world where terror reigned and war was imminent, there was a great need in Britain for people to fight for their country. There is a difference, however, between one knowing what they are getting themselves into and being duped by propaganda to believe that what they are doing will be something it is not. While the church, politicians, media, and even some other poets promoted propaganda designed to convince people to fight for honor that did not exist in trench warfare, poets like Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen fought to make the truth known. Although their poetry is often depressing and quite disturbing, it is the reality in the words that makes such effective poetry.
These two poets probably would have not been as effective if they had not experienced World War I firsthand. Since they both lived and fought in the trenches, they knew exactly what was going on and had the courage and motivation to stand up for what they believed was right. They wrote the truth about the war, fighting the propaganda and using poetry as an effective vehicle for doing so. This shows that even though poetry and war are very different – one heals while the other kills – poetry can be used to speak the truth of war. Thanks to the talented and brave poets like Rosenberg and Owen, some of the greatest poetry from World War I is able to give readers, even in today’s time, a window into the terrible time in history that we should never forget.
Brown, Amity J. “Rosenberg’s DEAD MAN’S DUMP.” The Explicator 59.2 (2001): 101-103. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 April 2012.
B.D. “Owen, Wilfred.” The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry. Ed. Stephen Spender and Donald Hall. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1963. 235-236. Print.
Grierson, Herbert J. C. and Smith, J. C. A Critical History of English Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946. Print.
G.H. “Rosenberg, Isaac.” The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry. Ed. Stephen Spender and Donald Hall. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1963. 278. Print.
Lusty, Heather. “Shaping the National Voice: Poetry of WWI.” Journal of Modern Literature 30.1 (2006): 199-209. Project MUSE. Web. 21 April 2012.
Roberts, David. “Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est.” The War Poetry Website. Saxon Books, 1998. Web. 22 April 2012.
Winn, James Anderson. The Poetry of War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.