The Poem

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“Exposure” examines the sensations of soldiers slowly freezing to death in the trenches of World War I in a poem of forty lines divided into eight stanzas. The persona of the poem adopts the identity of all the soldiers as they huddle against the wind and snow on the war front waiting for something to happen. As the cold sets in, sentries and ordinary soldiers watch confusing flares in the frontline fortification from which they have withdrawn for the night. Gusts of wind moan on the barbed wire of no-man’s-land like dying men, while guns rumble in the distance, apocalyptic portents of other possible wars. The numb soldiers ask, “What are we doing here?” but nothing happens.

Dawn itself, traditionally a symbol of hope, is ominous as “clouds sag stormy,” the men grow colder and wetter, and the new day marshals its cloudy troops to usher in a new day of fighting for the soldiers. Suddenly, bullets fly but are tossed about by the wind, which appears to be a more powerful instrument of death than the artillery.

In the fifth stanza, the snow and cold send the soldiers into a numbed reverie about home. The bemused soldiers ask of their freezing selves, “Is it that we are dying?” In stanza 6, their disembodied ghosts visit the banked, early-morning fires of home and observe crickets on the hearth and mice playing while the household sleeps; however, the ghosts feel shut out of this domestic scene and must turn back to their own slow deaths on the front. Faith in the comforts and certainties of home clashes with the conviction that God intended for these men to die in cold misery. The love of God itself is remote and seems to be dying.

The last stanza observes that God’s frost will freeze the mud in which the soldiers find themselves, and it will freeze their hands, foreheads, and, finally, their eyes in their final act of dying. The next morning, burial parties with “shovels in their shaking grasp” will half recognize their comrades, who died of exposure while nothing in particular was happening in the war. They were felled by wind, snow, mud, and the seeming indifference of God rather than by wounds caused by bullets and bayonets.

Forms and Devices

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“Exposure” exemplifies one of Wilfred Owen’s most noted techniques: the use of slant rhymes, such as wire/war, grow/gray, and us/ice. Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins also used this type of rhyme, as does Welsh poetry, but Owen seems not to have been familiar with any of these traditions. Slant rhyme and assonance bring out the jarring sensations of war and move “Exposure” and Owen’s other poems away from more refined poetic forms of earlier centuries.

Owen also eschews elegant language, preferring to record more stark images such as “mad gusts,” “twitching agonies,” and “flickering gunnery.” The only images that are nurturing and warm are the ones that depict the fires of home in stanzas 6 and 7, and they stand in ironic contrast to the freezing soldiers. Indeed, the warmth of home seems to mock the realities of war, since civilians “believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;/ Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.” This clash of home-front experience and battlefield reality is also echoed in Owen’s poem “Futility” in its vain hope that “the kind old sun” of childhood will know how to rouse a dead comrade.

The stillness of slowly freezing to death becomes a counterpoint to the progressive verbs in the poem: “watching,” “twitching,” “massing,” “shivering,” “wandering,” “fingering,” “shrivelling,” “puckering,” and, finally, “dying.”...

(This entire section contains 494 words.)

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As in other Owen poems such as “Greater Love” and “Arms and the Boy,” the occasional attractive word such as “nonchalance” is used ironically to depict the carelessness of the wind as it tosses snowflakes around and “knives” the soldiers.

The heroic “war music” of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), or William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (c. 1597-1598) and Henry V (c. 1598-1599) is absent from Owen’s war poems. Instead, an eerie keening of wind on wire in “Exposure” and “the shrill demented choirs of wailing shells” in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” are in evidence, a cacophony of dissonance and loss. The English composer Benjamin Britten recognized these musical possibilities in Owen’s poetry in his choral masterpiece War Requiem, an elegy to the dead of both world wars first performed in 1962.

“Exposure” depicts a gray landscape broken only by the dull brown of dawn and the white snowflakes and ice. The “pale flakes” are personified as they “with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces,” as blind as the “snow-dazed” soldiers and the dead with their eyes frozen. This bleak landscape is highlighted by the streaks of unnaturally colored phosphorescent flares. Again, the warm colors of home are contrasted with the moonscape of no-man’s-land. At home, fires are “glozed/ With crusted dark-red jewels,” and a kind sun shines on all. The soldier is only permitted a glimpse of home and must soon turn back to his task of dying in a strange landscape bereft of family and the love of God.