Bruce Dawe’s renowned 1963 poem "Homecoming" is an elegy to the Australian troops who fought in the Vietnam War, in which Australia participated from 1962 to 1972. It is estimated that 60,000 Australians participated in the war, wherein 3,000 were wounded and over 500 killed. The poet himself was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), where he served from 1959 to 1968. He published "Homecoming" immediately after leaving the RAAF, though the Vietnam War would continue until 1975, resulting in a tenuous victory for the Viet Cong.
The poem is comprised of twenty-five lines without stanza breaks. The poem exhibits no regular meter, although it includes several rhetorical devices, including irony, antithesis, anaphora, and simile.
Irony is present in the title itself. The word "homecoming" is traditionally a celebratory occasion, whereas Dawe's subject is decidedly somber. There are notes of both antithesis and irony in the lines "in mortuary coolness / they're giving them names." This post-mortem naming process inverts the traditional scene of naming newborns. One could argue that the image of a "frozen sunset" presents an oxymoron. Dawe's ability to play with language makes his readers pause and think at greater length about the subject under discussion.
The anonymity of his subjects is one of the most notable stylistic features of Dawe's poem. He describes the soldiers as "curly heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms." None of the individual soldiers are named, nor are their backgrounds, family, or roles in the war ever treated by the poet. They are simply anonymous bodies which differ only in physical appearance. This anonymity is reinforced further by the absence of any specification as to the identity of the repeated "they."
The poet uses anaphora, or the repetition of a phrase at the start of successive clauses, in "they're picking them up… / they're bringing them in… / they're zipping them up….” This repetition contributes to the tone of monotony that persists throughout the poem. Dawe paints a picture that is somber but also tedious and tiresome.
The poet uses similes, too, at several points in the poem. He likens jets to "whining… hounds." He likens telegrams to "trembling leaves." The first of these similes is a form of personification; while dogs are not human, they are animate beings used to describe the inanimate jets. The "telegrams trembl[ing] like leaves on a withering tree" is an especially evocative line, and it is no surprise that the poet calls his readers’ attention to it by means of the obvious alliteration. The telegrams (which presumably announce the soldiers’ deaths) may cause their readers (the soldiers' families) to "tremble," and the soldiers themselves have "wither[ed]" like the tree.
The poet is adept at coupling unusual words, such as "sorrowful quick fingers" and "old ridiculous curvatures of earth." These ironical couplings of words are thought-provoking and...
(The entire section is 717 words.)