“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” ~Christopher Reeve

Focus: In what ways Sebastian Faulks present the idea of heroism and courage in his novel ‘Birdsong’?

Sebastian Faulks, a British novelist is perhaps best known for his historical novels set in France, one of these being ‘Birdsong’, a modern novel written in 1993 two years after the end of the First Iraq War. The novel is written in third person to give an omnipotent view of the action and brutality of war. In the opening of the novel Faulks sets the scene of a pre-war society, examining the courses of the war using historical Literature movements such as Romanticism and Gothic. The second part of the novel concentrates on the war and the brutality faced by the soldiers before moving into the third and final section exploring the ‘new generation’ and a sense of the future.

The novel possesses the ability to depict a sense of heroic nature with a number of characters, the first ones being Azaire’s workers. In the opening chapters of the novel, Faulks depicts the character of Azaire as being a typical upper-class businessman, having no sympathy for his workers and motivated by money: ‘greater use of machinery and a consequent loss of jobs’ the character of Azaire establishes the social tension that were prevalent in Europe and also highlights the competition in trade. The structure of the opening chapters show the worth of the lowers classes which also works as a sense of foreshadowing the use of the soldiers. It is because of Azaire’s uncompassionate nature that the workers then strike against him, suggesting a sense of a heroic nature: ‘I beseech you to support my people. We must stand together in this matter or we will all fall’. This is the first glimpse of heroism Faulks gives to the reader showing the exploitation of workers in contrast to the uncompassionate upper classes.

Primarily, Faulks uses the characters of the soldiers in the second part of the novel to evoke the sense of heroism and courage. Focusing on a number of soldiers specifically such as Stephen and Jack, profound emotions of the novel are voiced. At the novel’s climax both of these characters are trapped underground by a German explosion and it is at this point that Jack and Stephen discuss their perceptions on the worth of life and love. What is spoken by Jack in his last moments certainly evokes emotion to the reader: ‘My world was in his face…I treasured each word he gave me’. Emotion is evoked to the reader through Faulks’ ability to create Jack’s speech in broken, incomplete sentences and allowing his idiolect to switch, changing from blunt to something more lyrical: ‘he was from another world, he was a blessing too great for me’.

Upon the reader’s first knowledge of Jack Firebrace, we see that he thinks of himself being ‘immune to death’, imaging that he will inevitably survive the war but also that death can no longer touch him after the experiences and brutality he has had to face. This thought is quickly dissolved through the letter from his wife Margaret, informing him of their only child, John’s illness: “has been very poorly indeed and the doctor says it is diphtheria”. The very wording of the letter heightens his – and our – apprehensions, enlightening us on not only the life of a soldier but also that of the civilians. The reader shares the experience of the death of his son with Jack, enhancing our attachment to the character and subsequently upon Jack’s death, Faulks is able to evoke emotion from the reader having throughout the novel, continuously referred back to the actions of Jack Firebrace.

Just like the reality of war, death comes quickly and therefore Faulks very rarely pauses for individual deaths, in fact the only extensive narrative death the reader sees is that of Jack Firebrace. The soldiers at the front have learnt not to be shocked, not even to be emotional, at any particular person’s death, and the manner of narration has to reflect this. Deaths are narrated through the eyes of particular characters with a numbed factuality. From Stephen’s original platoon, only three men remain alive at the front. “The names and faces of the others were already indistinct in his memory.” Faulks is able to depict to the reader the realisation of war, in that death comes quickly and so this very rarely depicted in depth. This is a universal fact of war with Faulks not only informing the reader of World War One but also all other wars, including the First Iraq War that finished two years prior to ‘Birdsong’ being written.

During the third and final part of the novel, the reader is given a glimpse at a new generation. Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter seeks to find out more about the war and what was endured. Elizabeth represents the modern, ignorant civilian yet she educated the reader on the shock horror of the war and tries to remind us that the actual dates of the war make it feel like a lifetime away, giving time structure in the novel, however also bringing about a universal truth: that was in any time and century offers sacrifice: ‘People don’t always appreciate what sacrifices were made for them – still are made for them – by the armed forces’.

 Michael Gorra, writing in the ‘New York Times’ commented that the parts of the novel set in modern-day England were ‘weak’ in comparison to the rest of the novel: ‘…it is as if Mr Faulks had bled his own prose white, draining it of emotion in order to capture the endless enervating slog of war’ Gorra is not the only critic to make such comments, with many others thinking that the modern-day sections of the novel are much less powerful but to some extent this interpretation is inevitable, given the events that happen in the trench warfare sections and so the third part of the novel can be argued to act as relieving the reader of the demand and emotion involving Stephen, Jack and Weir.

In conclusion, Faulks successfully displays the heroic nature of both a pre-war society with individuals such a Lucien LeBron through their courage to strike against working conditions and pay, making reference to the miner’s strikes that took place in Faulks time. He also particularly shows the heroic and courageous nature of the soldiers during the war with particular emphasis on characters such as Stephen and Jack Firebrace. Finally it is through the character of Elizabeth in the third sections of the novel that we are reminded of the sacrifice made by these soldiers as well as being given hope for the future with the novel ending optimistically. As noted by Anthony Campbell: ‘By any standards, Birdsong an impressive achievement: not light reading, but it will stay in your mind long after you close the book.’

‘The good man is the friend of all living things’ – Wilfred Owen analysis

The good man is the friend of all living things” ~ Mahatma Ghandi

Focus: In what ways does Wilfred Owen present his thoughts and feelings about war through nature and agricultural language in his poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and other selected works?

Wilfred Owen, regarded as being the leading poet for the First World War, is eminent for his blunt and unequivocal views on war he is exceptionally successful in conveying the harsh reality and brutality of not just World War One but of war on a universal scale. In his poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ Owen passes judgement on his experience of war and uses the poem as a lament for the dead. Written in a sonnet format with a rhyme scheme very close to that of Shakespeare’s, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’s’ form reflects Owens’s anger with its use of irony through the sonnet format – commonly associated with a love poem, Owen uses the sonnet form ironically. The title of the poem suggests this idea of irony through the use of ‘Doomed Youth’ as a double conflict with common a connation of ‘Youth’ not being ‘Doomed’

One of Owens’ most used techniques is his ability to convey his thoughts through the idea of nature and agricultural language. Owen was believed to be greatly influenced by Romantic poets such as Keats and therefore we see that nature plays a significant role in Owens’ works. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ Owen compares soldiers to the treatment of cattle in farming markets; ‘What passing -bells for these who die as cattle’. This immediately compares the young soldiers to the slaughter of animals and provokes the idea that these men are being treated like animals. The use of the ‘cattle’ adds to the poem as a whole as it plays on Owens’ original idea that war dehumanises people. Owen uses this agricultural langue as England was largely an agrarian county at this time also it reminds of Owens’ rural upbringing.

This idea of war dehumanising people can also be seen in Owens’ ‘Arms and the Boy’ where we see the idea of nature and creation being compared to the unnatural actions of war. In this poem Owen conveys how the weapons and soldier are not only in a partnership but the weapon seems to be controlling the young ‘boy’ this can be seen through the personification of the blades ‘hunger for blood’. Whilst it has been claimed that ‘Children were much in Owens’ mind'[1] During Easter 1919 when he wrote this poem I feel that Owen is more concerned with the proliferation of weapons and how young recruits respond to having them is Owens’ concern in this poem. This is shown through the contrast between natural and manmade objects that Owen uses in ‘Arms and the Boy’.  In the third stanza we see that Owen contrasts the natural weapons of animals against the unnaturalness of war and weapons; ‘And God will grow no talons at his heels’ here Owen reminds us of the difference in purpose, provoking the idea that man made weapons are associated with grief and death – killing for killings  sake.

The idea of how young recruits respond to weapons can also be seen in the sound devices used. Alliteration is used in close triplets to imitate the noise created by the use of the weapons; ‘blind, blunt, bullet-heads’ the repetition of this ‘b’ sound reflects the harsh sound made by the weapons being used. It is these triplets of sounds that govern the rhythm of the poem rather than the actual syllables in each line. This alliteration can also be seen in Owens’ ‘Miners’ where he discusses the idea of these soldiers sacrificing themselves for civilians at home to be able to live comfortably; ‘murmuring of their mine, and moans’ Owen uses this alliteration to create sound as he develops the idea and image of those who have died in tunnel collapses. We see that in ‘Miners’ Owen takes upon the Big Bang Theory and earth pre-mankind, this can be seen in the first stanza with Owens’ reference to ‘a former earth’. In this stanza we see Owen discuss the time it has taken to create earthly materials such as coal.

It is with reference to ‘a former earth’ that then links with one of Owens’ most famous poem, ‘Futility’  resembling the form of a sonnet however split into two seven line stanzas ‘Futility’ depicts the scene of a soldier who has recently died in battle. Owen seems to ponder nature’s power to create life and how this contrasts to the mass killings in war. We see in the opening that Owen creates a scene; in this case it is one of a dying or perhaps already dead soldier. He uses the sun metaphorically in which he hangs his thoughts. ‘Move him into the sun’ this can be seen to the reader as a command however we feel that the movement must be gentle just as we feel the command has been quietly spoken. Owen then moves onto personify the sun as its ‘touch’ awakens the soldier. We see that in the first stanza Owen again uses the idea of nature and agricultural language, and in this particular poem he uses the semantic field of farming with the use of words such as ‘fields’ and ‘seeds’  this then gives an ironic contrast as we feel that nature itself is now turning on mankind.

In ‘Futility’ Owen personifies the sun as it awakens the soldier, a similar technique can also be seen in ‘The Show’ where an environmental hell is depicted with Owens’ personification of the battle field; ‘warts that might be little hills’ From this we are given the grotesque sights of the battle field which subsequently puts in shock with what was endured and suffered from soldiers. The form of ‘The Show’  takes up irregular and illogical stanzas, however with the use of half-rhyme although separated lines they share one rhyming couplet, for example lines 10 -13; ‘hill/holes’ This use of half rhyme can also be seen in ‘Exposure’ where Owen continues his use of landscape and nature when discussing the brutality of war; ‘silent/salient’ Owen here uses half-rhyme and also the harsh sound of ‘s‘ to depict the conditions faced by these soldiers and how the weather itself has now become an enemy.

In conclusion Owen takes on the idea of the Romantics by using landscape, nature and agricultural language in many pieces of his work. He compares and contrasts the image of nature to that of the war and using this to show the treatment of soldiers and the sickening actions. I feel that with his use of agricultural language Owen successfully shocks the reader into the reality of war and subsequently opens our minds to realise what has been and is still being fought for.

Wilfred Owen – The Show

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

 

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped

Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

From gloom’s last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,

All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,

Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.

Written in the November of 1917 ‘The Show’ depicts the scene of battle during the war. As a reader we immediately get the impression that this poem will be specifically about a battle during the war as it’s title ‘Show’ would suggest. In the poem, Owen takes the point of view of a spirit, surveying a battlefield from a “vague height” with “Death” flying beside him. From this vantage point, Owen sees horrific sights across a landscape he compares to the moon; ‘cratered like the moon’ This comparison shows similarities to Owen’s ‘Futility’ where he depicts the image of the sun awakening the dying soldier.

Owen’s motive in this piece can be seen to shock the reader into the horrors of war, he does this by using plain language to specify certain aspects; ‘slimy paths’ this ensures that we as the reader, are given a clear  and precise image into what Owen is trying to convey to us. Owen also uses a heavy half-rhyme to give a harsher edge; ‘killed..hills’ it is with the use of half-rhyme that Owen ensures that as a reader we are constantly linking each stanza together without having to read back,

The form of the poem takes up irregular and illogical stanzas, however with the use of half-rhyme although separated lines they share one rhyming couplet, for example lines 10 -13.

Another way in which Owen achieves his motive in writing is by  the use of three repulsive images; an environmental hell, bodily sickness and humans seen as less than human. Images that are seen in a number of his works such ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’.

An environmental hell is depicted with Owen’s personification of the battle field; ‘warts that might be little hills’ From this we are given the grotesque sights of the battle field which subsequently puts in shock with what was endured and suffered from soldiers. This personification of nature can also be seen in ‘Futility’ where Owen personifies nature and how it is turning against them.

Bodily sickness can be seen through his description of the soldiers; ‘long-strung creatures crept’ with this alliteration we find the soldiers are now unidentifiable through the brutality of the war. Being described as ‘creatures’ does not give positive connotations and so makes us believe that they are no longer human.  This also gives the image of the humans now being seen as less than humans.

The poem ends with Death personified; ‘and Death fell with me’  and the army of wounded all merging into one bizarre image in which Death, is manifestly the winner.

Futility – Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

 

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

 

Written in May 1918 ‘Futility’ depicts the scene of a soldier who has recently died in battle. Owen seems to ponder nature’s power to create life and how this contrasts to the mass killings in war.

The poem resembles the length of a sonnet however is not structured as one, being divided into two seven-line stanzas.

We see in the opening that Owen creates a scene, in this case it is one of a dying or perhaps already dead soldier. He uses the sun metaphorically in which he hangs his thoughts. ‘Move him into the sun’ this can be seen to the reader as a command however we feel that the movement must be gentle just as we feel the command has been quietly spoken. Owen then moves onto personify the sun as its ‘touch’ awakens the soldier. We see that in the first stanza Owen uses the semantic field of farming with the use of words such as ‘fields’ and ‘seeds’  this then gives an ironic contrast as we feel that nature itself is now turning on mankind. 

It is in this first stanza that the reader feels a sense of melancholy however each sense of movement is gentle and can even be seen as reverent. This tone can be characterized inline three with ‘whispering’ giving a soft sound. The tone continues throughout the first stanza as we see in line seven; kind old sun’  which again suggests softer emotions. We see in the first stanza that the sun is awakening the soldier, this can also be seen however to parallel the Christian Resurrection.

In the second stanza the reader is invited to share Owen’s thoughts. The semantic field of farming continues through however Owen also uses oxymoron; ‘cold star’ seeming normally contradictory terms, Owen uses this to describe Earth and through this scientific language, seems to make an ironic contrasts to that of his earlier words of the Christian Resurrection. It is also here that we see Owen’s use of assonance with ‘clays’ and ‘cold’ which then emphasize his scientific language to give a greater contrast to that of the religious language seen in stanza one. 

A common device seen in many of Owen’s works is that of para-rhyme and it is noticeably visible in ‘Futility’; sun – sown, once-France, seeds-sides and snow-now, this then helps to disturb the natural rhythm of the poem and adds a melancholic sound. 

The question that Owen seems to asks is that so much has gone into the creation on mankind and the Earth and yet nature herself seems to do nothing to help them or save them suggesting that even nature has now turned against them. The poem ends fittingly with a question to the reader; ‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s peace at all?’ which then causes us to reflect on everything we have read. We too ourselves begin to question the very same thing as Owen as to why the sun/nature now seems to do nothing. 

Characteristics in the opening of ‘Birdsong’

The opening of the novel ‘Birdsong’ is filled with characteristics of Literature movements. The novel shows elements from both Romanticism and also Gothic. 

Romanticism: 

Throughout the opening of ‘Birdsong’ characteristics of Romanticism can be found. During the period of which Romanticism was at its peak folk law played a prominent part in the movement. This was where by which people were beginning to listen to the music and poetry not just of those who studied and were professional at the art but those of ordinary people (folk). This was all part of the bigger picture of those of a lower classer or lower profession beginning to break social normality and speak out.. This characteristic can be found in the first section of ‘Birdsong’ through Azaire’s factory and its workers, particularly when they decide to strike: “I ask you at least to sign this declaration of support for your fellow-workers” It is this idea of the lower classes speaking out that complies with the characteristics of Romanticism. 

Another characteristic of Romanticism that can be found in ‘Birdsong’ is the level of Nationalism that can be seen in the novel. It is the idea of patriotic feelings that can be seen through individual characters or in the language that convey to the reader a sense of Nationalism. French Nationalism can be seen in the opening of the novel, in the language used to describe the city of Amiens. It is depicted as a picturesque,  pre-industrialization place: ‘On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows’ It is with this use of language that the reader can feel a sense of nationalism, which can also be seen through Azaire’s factory and the way in which he manages it particularly in his meeting with Meyraux: “The government want us to rationalize our operations, to try to bring more of them under one roof” French Nationalism can be seen by the reader here and Azaire strives to make more of a profit by cutting the wages of his employees and by doing this making France’s economy greater. 

Gothic:

It is not only characteristics of Romanticism that can be found in the novel. It also shows aspects of a Gothic novel through its descriptions of buildings and its portrayal of certain characters:

The Gothic movement is one that took affect on many areas, including literature and architecture. Gothic architecture is something that is described within the novel, most prominently in the description if the Azaire household. It is with the ‘unexpected spaces’ and the ‘red creeper that had made its way up to the roof’ that convey to the reader the image that Azaire’s house is one of Gothic architecture. 

Along with Gothic architecture the novel also features many of the characteristics commonly found in a Gothic novel. A characteristic of a Gothic novel is one where by which a dwarf changes shape, this can be seen through the character of Lisette Azaire. She many not change hugely physical however it is psychologically that she seems to change shape. This can be seen when the Azaire family and Stephen take a fishing trip and Lisette attempts to seduce Stephen: ‘I’m a woman – at least almost a woman. My body is a woman’s  body, not a child’s’ It is through her attempts of seducing Stephen that it is made clear to the reader the Lisette is no longer as innocent as she first appears, our perception of her changes which then links to the characteristic of a Gothic novel. 

Another characteristic of a Gothic novel that can be seen in ‘Birdsong’ is the mental and physical imprisonment that some characters face. This can be seen in the Isabelle’s feminism views that are trapped within her marriage to Azaire. Isabelle is depicted as being a modern feminist ‘Isabelle felt herself grow, and she met no resistance’  however her latent feminism is trapped when she marries Azaire and she is under his physical imprisonment as well as his mental. 

Romanticism

Romanticism first appeared in poetry towards the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the period from 1800 – 1850. It was seen partly as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution that was taking place, however it was also seen as a revolt against the scientific rationalization of nature. It was William Wordsworth who strengthened the movement through his works of poetry and is still today considered a key figure in the Romantic movement. Some of the important romantic poetry characteristics are a passionate display of emotion, interest in the supernatural, idealism and affinity towards nature.

Characteristics of Romantic Poetry:

Imagination is a key characteristic of Romantic poetry and in the words of William Wordsworth himself, ‘poetry is the first and last of all knowledge’  The occurrence of imagination is the essence and focal point of romantic poetry. According to romantic poets, it is possible to attain a transcendental experience by the means of imagination, they believe  that it takes the reader near to the spiritual truth. 

Emotion is also a characteristic commonly found in romantic poetry as reason and logic tend to take a backseat. One thing that it said to be a prominent characteristic in the world of romanticism is emotion. Romantic poetry is said to be one of the best ways to let loose on one’s emotions through words. Emotion is seen to overflow in works of romantic poetry and it is this that transcends the boundaries of logical reasoning. Pain is also seen as the inspiration for this overflow of emotion. 

The Romantic Movement lasted from about 1750 to about 1870 and is often defined as a second Renaissance. 

Wilfred Owen; Introduction to Poetry

The coursework task set for the A2 English literature course entails a three thousand word essay on two texts and a poet. As previously mentioned the two novels that we will be studying for this, are ‘Catch 22’ and ‘Birdsong’. Now we begin work on the poetry aspect of the task. As the theme in all these pieces of literature is World War One the poet being studied is, Wilfred Owen, a leading poet of the First World War One.

Today was introduction to his works, beginning with his poem ‘Futility’, a poem narrated in third person in an almost story-like manner. The poem uses the semantic field of the sun awakening life and this is conveyed through extended oxymorons of religious and scientific language.

Owen’s work commonly features seven poetic devices. These can be seen in a number of his works and are what makes his poems identifiable:

  1. An opening that creates a scene
  2. Use of nature and religious language
  3. Questions – rhetorical
  4. Punctuation that evokes emotion
  5. Contrasts – extended oxymorons
  6. Para-rhyme that add melancholic sound
  7. Assonance

These seven features can be seen in not only ‘Futility’ but many other of Owen’s works and are what helps us distinguish his work from other World War One poets.

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