With Detailed Reference to Three Poems, Compare and Contrast the Poets’ Presentation of War Through Their Choice of Language and Forms.
The poems compared in this essay are from the times of the First and Second World Wars. The three poems were written by poets who had fought as soldiers and experienced the war first hand. Two were written by World War I poet Wilfred Owen: ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. The other is World War II poet Kieth Douglas’s poem: ‘Vergissmeinnicht’.
While fighting with his regiment in France, Owen is known to have experienced some of the most terrible elements of the First World War. For example: leading his regiment into battle only to fall into a shell hole and be trapped in the hole for three days, shortly after this experience he was diagnosed with shell-shock. Douglas fought during the Second World War in North Africa. He served as a camouflage officer and towards the end of war fought as a member of a tank squadron. ‘Dulce’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ describe experiences the poets had, however ‘Anthem’ is considered a lament for soldiers who died during WWI.
In both ‘Anthem’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ references are made to the partners of the soldiers who have been killed in war. ‘Anthem’ states “the pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall”, meaning that the pale faces of the wives and partners of soldiers who have been killed at war will be the dead soldiers’ palls upon their coffins. Likewise the concept of a bereaved partner of a dead soldiers features in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’as Douglas describes an enemy soldier’s body that had been killed the day before:
“Here in the gunpit spoil,
the dishonoured picture of his girl”
By mentioning the partners of the soldiers killed in war, the poets emphasize how the war affects not just the soldiers but also a great number of over people. This also gains sympathy in the reader towards the heartbroken women. The women are referred to in both quotes as “girls” which accentuates their juvenescence which again gains sympathy and pathos in the reader.
Douglas clearly describes desert warfare; he mentions the sight of a “soldier sprawling in the sun” which makes us think of a burning hot and therefore uncomfortable environment. The idea of this hot, uncomfortable environment is furthered by the mentioning of a corpse having “dust upon the paper eye”, perhaps because the conditions have dried out the eye or stuck the dust to it. In ‘Dulce’ Owen also portrays an uncomfortable environment writing that the soldiers “cursed thorough sludge” giving imagery of a muddy field, perhaps muddy because of heavy rains. In both poems the poets describe the environments they are in. Though the two environments the poets fought in were very different: the European trench warfare of WWI and the desert warfare of WWII. Even so, both poets portray their environment to give the reader a sense of discomfort and unease.
‘Vergissmeinnicht’ and ‘Dulce’ describe journeys taken by the poets and their fellow soldiers. At the beginning of ‘Dulce’ Owen describes his group marching:
“…we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge”
Douglas begins ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ similarly introducing the journey by his group that is taking place:
“Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over nightmare ground” .
By writing the poem as a journey the reader feels as though he is there travelling through time. It also has the affect of giving the poem a sense of order which adds suspense.
‘Dulce’ and ‘Anthem’ both make references to the youth of the soldiers involved in the war. In ‘Dulce’ Owen attacks the writer of recruitment poetry Jessie Pope, he declares that if she knew the true horrors of war she would not “tell children ardent for some desperate glory” to join the army. We know that the people being recruited were adults not children, so by calling them children Owen emphasizes their juvenescence. Likewise in ‘Anthem’ Owen compares the soldiers to the choir boys that could be found at a Christian funeral holding candles,
‘ Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.’
By calling the soldiers “boys” Owen stresses the fact they are young, by drawing attention to how young the soldiers are Owen and Douglas emphasize the soldiers’ innocence which evokespathos in the reader.
In the final stanza of ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ Douglas writes:
“For here the lover and killer are mingled
Who had one body and one heart”
By juxtaposing “lover and killer” Douglas shows how in war love and hate become mixed up despite them being paradoxical ideas. The same idea of war mixing up the ideas of love and killing is shown in ‘Anthem’. Anthem is written in the form of a Ptrachan sonnet, sonnets are love poems and yet ‘Anthem’ talks of the horrors of war. By writing a sonnet about ideas of war it tells us that the two concepts have become mixed up. By the poets mixing concepts to do with love and war it shows the reader that war is sinister, as it mixes up two concepts which are usually very different
‘Dulce’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ are both written in the first person plural. This has the affect of causing the reader to fall into the writer’s point of view as the poem is told from Owen and his comrades’ perspective. Unlike ‘Dulce’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ which tell personal stories being experienced first hand, ‘Anthem’ is written in third person and talks of the affects of the war more generally. For example ‘Anthem’ asks: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”, Owen does specify which soldiers he is talking about, perhaps this implies that he is talking about all the soldiers involved in the war. By referring to all the millions of soldiers involved in the war Owen brings to the attention the sheer amount of people dieing in the war which gives the reader a negative feeling towards the war. This is unlike ‘Dulce’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ which talk about specific deaths giving the reader a sense of personalization which brings out sympathy in the reader.
‘Anthem’ ends with the line:
“And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds”
The “drawing down of blinds” represents death and the end of a funeral. Owen also ends ‘Dulce’ on a note of death as the last word is “Mori” which means: death or die in Latin. Similarly the last two words of “Vergissmeinnicht” are “mortal hurt”, the word mortal describes anything subject to death so “mortal hurt” represents death. All three poems finish on this note of death which accentuates the idea of death being an end.
‘Vergissmeinnicht’ and ‘Dulce’ are titled in a foreign language. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is taken from a Latin phrase: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. Latin is seen as a very refined and intellectual language. ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ meaning ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’ is used by Owen to show the irony of the phrase and how it is not true. The title’Vergissmeinnicht’ on the other hand, is used to convey a sense of personalization. This is because as the soldiers find the corpse of a soldier they notice a photograph near it, the photograph is of the dead soldier’s lover and on the back of the photograph is the inscription ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ meaning ‘Forget me not’. The title of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ on the other hand juxtaposes the idea of an anthem which is normally a song of praise, patriotism or devotion, with the idea of doomed youth. The juxtaposition of ideas to do with religion and the idea of “doomed youth” catches the attention of the reader drawing them to read the poem.
In ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, Douglas writes about an enemy soldier who fired at his tank:
“…As we came on that day, he hit my tank with one,
Like the entry of a demon”.
In ‘Dulce’ a corpse is described as having a hanging face “like a devil’s sick of sin”. In both poems there is a simile involving evil creatures. The affect in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ of comparing the firing at a tank with the ‘entry of demon’ is to strongly underline the force that hit his tank. However in ‘Dulce’ this creates horrific imagery of a evil devil-like face.
Various pieces of military equipment are personified in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ and ‘Anthem’ for various effects. In “Vergissmeinnicht” the dead German soldier is said to be “mocked at by his own equipment”, here the mocking of the dead soldier by his equipment compares how he is more useless than his non-living equipment which can still function. In ‘Anthem’ Owen writes of “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” and “demented choirs of wailing shells”. Personifying the shells appeals to the reader’s sense of sounds of the battlefield as well as what it looks like. Throughout ‘Anthem’ there is a theme of the contents of a traditional Christian wedding being represented metaphorically as different objects in war. Knowing this, we can see that the “stuttering rifles” portray the muttering sounds of the prayers of people at a funeral.
In ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ Douglas writes “Look. Here in the gunpit spoil”. The word look is singled out by itself and a caesura follows immediately after it, this makes the word seem very important. The word “look” is also an imperative so it instantly makes the reader want to “look” and imagine what is being described. By reaching out to the reader’s senses Douglas causes the reader to imagine the sight he describes in his poem. Similarly in ‘Dulce’ Owen writes “If you too could hear, at every jolt, the blood”. By saying “If you could hear” Owen challenges the reader to try to imagine the sound of the blood described in the poem.