‘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.

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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. 

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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