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A free verse meditation on the tragic waste and futility of war, Stephen Crane's highly ironic poem, "War is Kind," utilizes incongruous imagery and irony to convey theme.
Certainly, the title itself is contradictory to the message of the poem. For, war is horrific. With verbal irony, too, the speaker of the poem tells the lover, the babe, and the mother not to weep because their beloved are dead since war is a benevolent condition. Other verbal irony is found in lines 20-21 in which Crane juxtaposes contradictory ideas: "the virtue of slaughter" and "the excellence of killing."
With the unexpected outcome of lines 11 in which "a thousand corpses lie" after the previous line lauds the great "Battle-God," Crane creates situational irony.
It is also ironic that war's only "kindness" is death, which is a relief from their suffering and torment.
Dramatic irony is used throughout the poem as the expectations of the soldiers "who thirst for fight" and think of war in terms of the "Battle-God" and the "Swift blazing flag" of "Eagle with crest of red and gold," are anything but the fulfillment Crane's repeated message, "These men were born to drill and die." In truth, there is no glory in dying in war, no glory in being a soldier.
Verbal irony is a contradiction between what is said/written and the meaning that is actually intended. The title itself is a perfect example of verbal irony. War is not kind. There is a similarity between verbal irony and sarcasm, but they are not identical terms. Sarcasm is often more derisive. But there are cases where a phrase or term is both sarcastic and verbally ironic. "War is kind" might qualify as both.
In some sense, we might argue the entire poem is designed to point out situational irony. Situational irony occurs when the result contrasts with an expected outcome. As the poet juxtaposes the refrain "war is kind" with horrific, unkind events, he points out the irony that young men are convinced to go to war and women and children are comforted with the reflection that "war is kind"—when in truth it is anything but. The poet continues to emphasize this situational irony by using more verbally ironic phrases like "virtue of killing."
The case for dramatic irony is less clear. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that a character or characters are unaware of. One could argue that we (readers) know that war is not kind, because the poet is offering us images of death, destruction, and pain. The characters in the poem, however, are constantly being told that "war is kind." If they are comforted by that reflection, or if they believe it, then in a sense we the readers know something they do not. That said, one gets the feeling that the characters—the men who go off to battle, the women they leave behind, and the children who won't know their fathers—already understand that war is not kind at all, and that there is little glory in the notion of "being born to drill and die." So while verbal and situational irony appear in the poem, it's much more difficult to make a case for dramatic irony.
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