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Wilfred Owen was a renowned war poet who lived between 1893 and 1918. Besides his poetry career, Wilfred was also an English soldier. Most of Owen’s work traces their roots to Owen’s war experiences as a soldier. Therefore, most of his work related to war poetry. It is therefore unsurprising that most of his poetic descriptions related to horror, terror, grief, and sorrow.
Owen’s works were unique from the works of other war poets because his literary narrations were very emotionally charged and tender. In some respects, it is correct to say many of Owen’s works were romantically themed. Similarly, a significant difference about Owen’s work was his heavy use of rhymes and assonance. Other war poets also used these techniques, but they did not practice them extensively as Owen did.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of Owen’s greatest mentors who influenced his poetic style. This paper posits that even though Owen tried to follow Sassoon’s style, he found a niche for himself by writing “romanticised” and tender poetry (Hoffpauir 161). Therefore, albeit Owens’s poetry works are war related, he focused on the pity of war, thereby making his works uniquely distinctive from other war poets.
This paper demonstrates Owen’s tender poetic style by focusing on two of Owens’s greatest works, Futility and Anthem for Doomed Youth. Both poems show that Owen had a special style of writing that set him above other poets. However, this paper demonstrates that even though Owen was a successful poet, most of his works are not significant in today’s modern world.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
Most of Owen’s poems exhibit some unique sense of “tendency” that makes the readers experience an overburdened type of narration, which enacts the devastating nature of war in their minds (Patrick 167). This thematic and stylistic approach manifests in many of Owen’s poems, including, Anthem for Doomed Youth. For example, in the poem, Owen associates the death of soldiers to the death of cattle (Poetry Foundation 1).
He strategically uses the word “cattle” in his narration to show that the soldiers lacked a human identity in the war. The use of this word also erodes any form of individuality to the soldiers’ plight in the war because he portrayed how people saw the soldiers as irrational creatures that should die (more like animals).
In the same narration, Owen says, “Only the monstrous anger of the guns can patter out their hasty orisons” (Poetry Foundation 1). Here, Owen uses the adjective, monstrous, to refer to the nature of the war that caused the death of thousands of soldiers. Owen also says, “Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons” (Poetry Foundation 1).
In this narration, Owen carefully chooses the word, stuttering rifles to show the discontinuity of life (caused by war). Moreover, Owen uses the word “rattle” to show the use violence to fight a broader social or political mission. Symbolically, Owen portrays violence as a tool that most people used to fight innocence.
Owen also uses the word “Orison” to show the limited time that the soldiers had to stay alive. “Neither prayers nor bells could save them” (Poetry Foundation 1). Owen used this statement to show the state of hopelessness that often characterises war. In the context of his poem, he used this narration to show that neither the state nor the church could save the soldiers from death.
Coincidentally, when Owen died, in 1918, his parents received the news when the church bells were ringing. The coincidental and deliberate remarks by Owen show how tenderly his poems tried to symbolise some of war’s greatest horrors. Church bells for example, provided a “romantic” narration of death, at least symbolically.
Interestingly, in the same understanding, Owen uses the church bells to not only symbolise death, but also to show the state of hopelessness that the soldiers faced during war.
For example, he said, “No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells – Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” (Poetry Foundation 1). Owen used these statements to show the state of despair and agony that characterised war.
Through the symbolism of tender objects of worship, Owen detested the fact that the church/state could not provide the dead soldiers with a decent funeral to commemorate their service to the state. For example, he says, “What candles may be held to speed them all” (Poetry Foundation 1). Here, Owen uses candles as a tender object of worship to express his frustrations regarding why the soldiers could not get a decent funeral.
This statement shows Owen’s disappointment that the world paid little respect for the lost lives, as few people could light candles to commemorate the lives of the lost soldiers. Certainly, Owen carefully used candle lighting because of its symbolism of departed souls. In respect to this understanding, Owen says that unfortunately, the society does not treat soldiers to this important ceremony (commemoration).
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Therefore, people do not light any candles for the departed souls, “only the glimmers in their dead eyes show their last communication to the living” (Poetry Foundation 1). He also says, “the dead soldiers would also not get a pall (white sheet) for their coffins, as the only respect that they will get will be the recognition of the paleness of their beloved friends and family” (Hammond 42).
Besides candles, Owen uses flowers to explain the sorrow that characterises death. He dreads that the dead soldiers will not receive flowers for their funeral; instead, only the few people who loved them would cherish their memories as a tribute to their departed friends and family (Jochimsen 56).
Comprehensively, Owen uses carefully chosen words that express a very tender undertone to his narration. The use of flowers, choir, and candles to express horror and death only affirm this point.
Futility is one of Owen’s most celebrated works. The poem questions the point of living if one is going to die anyway. Owen’s insights especially focus on the Second World War era where he participated as a soldier. Surrounded by death (from his colleagues, of his enemies, and his possible death), Owen questions the point of living because he did not see the point of being born and dying only a few years later.
This was an existential crisis (Baker 125). True to his tender and romantically themed style, in the poem, futility, Owen uses the sun as a motherly personification of care. The first line of his poem says, “Move him to the sun” (All Poetry 1). Owen uses the sun as a giver of life by giving it a motherly and nurturing attribute to the wounded and dead soldiers.
Relative to this view, Owen says, “Always it woke him, even in France, until this morning and this snow, if anything will rouse him now, the kind old sun will know” (All Poetry 1). Owen uses the sun and the snow to show the extreme sides of life – life and death. He uses the sun to symbolise the “warmth and life,” while he uses the snow to symbolise “cold and death.”
Concerning the role of the sun as the giver of life, Owen says, “Think how it wakes the seeds, woke once the clays of a cold star” (All Poetry 1). Therefore, Owen draws the comparison between the sun and life by saying that if the sun gives life to the seeds, it may also give life to the soldiers.
Therefore, if we carefully analyse Owens’s narration, it is easy to point out the tender relationship that Owen draws between nature and humanity. Slawek (314) also says it is easy to see how Owen sensationalises the dysfunctional part of the human body with the wholesomeness of life. In other words, as he explains “dead” parts of the human body (like eyes); he tries to show how they fail the overall goal of life – to live.
Essentially, Owen does not understand how the sun gives life to the seeds, but through his tender connection between nature and humanity, he believes that the sun can give life to the warm body of a soldier. He says this because he believes that man is a product of clay, which comes from the ground.
Therefore, just as the seeds emerge from the ground (through the help of the sun), the sun should also give life to man. Concerning this assertion, Owen says “full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir, was it for this the clay grew tall” (All Poetry 1).
The narrative that the clay grew tall stems from biblical excerpts, which show that God made man from the ground, and from dust, man, grew tall and conquered the earth. In this narration, Owen shows that clay symbolises man.
However, since man dies, Owen wonders, is life pointless? Albeit Owen sticks to his emotionally charged poetic style in futility, Cordery (50) says that futility is overly rhetoric and lacks authentic emotion. His over-reliance on far-fetched thoughts provide the basis for this criticism
Futility and Anthem for Doomed Youth are two of Owens’s greatest works. These works both show Owen’s unique tender and romantically themed style because they are highly sensitised to appeal to the audience’s consciousness. The use of candles, the church, and choir to explain death demonstrate one way that Owen uses emotions to romanticise his work, through the expressions of ideas in an emotionally charged context.
This analogy is especially true for the poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility shares the same style because Owen uses a lot of symbolic language to explain the futility of war. His development of the tender relationship between nature and humanity provides one such evidence of his unique style.
For example, when Owen uses the sun to symbolise life and the snow to symbolise death, he draws an unusual and tender comparison of nature and war. These unique stylistic approaches distinguished Owen from other literary poets.
From his unique literary style and the critical acclaim that followed his works, it is correct to say that Owen was largely successful in his poetic life. This success also explains why people regard Owen to be among the most successful war poets that ever lived (Johnson 41). Indeed, it is unsurprising that even though there were many publications of war poems; few got the high level of patronage that Owen’s poems received.
Similarly, from Owens’s powerful influence in war poetry, many modern pieces of art have been re-enacted from Owen’s works. For example, Benjamin Britten, a modern war poet, used nine of Owens’s works to develop his poetry collection (Johnson 41). Songs have also been made of Owens’s works.
For example, in 1982, a New York musical group made a rendition of the Poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth, and performed it in Fredonia, New York. In the same year, Virginia Astely, a singer, composed a song titled, futility (based on Owen’s poem, futility).
Owen’s works have lived through many decades, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, when war was a common part of the civilised world. Today, these works do not have the same significance as they did a century ago. Indeed, writing from a background of conflict and despair, Owen spoke of the agony and the anguish that befell most of his colleagues in the war.
His work still has some significant importance in today’s modern world, but this significance cannot compare to the earlier centuries when many nations rose against one another in war. Indeed, today, there are fewer dramatic wars as there were in the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries. Owen’s works will therefore lose their significance in today’s modern world.
However, Kerr (295) differs with this view because he says Owen’s lyrical compassion still has the power to command modern day’s war injustices and provide the determination that should motivate soldiers to undertake their duties today. Nonetheless, the relevance of his work only applies to a war context.
All Poetry 2013, Futility. Web. <https://allpoetry.com/poem/8456361-Futility-by-Wilfred-Owen>.
Baker, Ahmad 2012, The Theme of ‘Futility’ in War Poetry. PDF File. 8 July. 2013. <http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Abu_Baker2.pdf>.
Cordery, Gareth. “Owen’s Futility.” Explicator 45.1 (1986): 50 – 54. Print.
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Johnson, George. “Purgatorial Passions. The Ghost (A.K.A. Wilfred Owen) In Owen’s Poetry.” Midwest Quarterly 51.2 (2010): 152-168. Print.
Kerr, Douglas. “The Disciplines Of The Wars: Army Training And The Language Of Wilfred Owen.” Modern Language Review 87.2 (1992): 286-299. Print.
Patrick, Jackson. “Wilfred Owen and the Sublimity of Warfare.” ANQ 24.3 (2011): 167-174. Print.
Poetry Foundation 2012, Anthem for Doomed Youth. Web. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47393/anthem-for-doomed-youth>.
Slawek, Tadeusz. “Dark Pits of War: Wilfred Owen’s Poetry and the Hermeneutics of War.” Boundary 14.2 (1986): 309-331. Print.