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 bold, insofar as it imparts motivation and agency to things like "fingers" and the "earth." Moreover, the pervading use of irony imbues the poem with a sense of mixed or opposing emotions. The poet also personifies the homecoming itself, which he describes as "howl[ing]." Here, too, the poet uses carefully chosen adjectives that can be attributed to more than one subject. For example, the recipients of the deceased are likely "howling" as well.
While the poem's tone is ironic and tragic, the style has a marked stream-of-consciousness effect. The second line ("they're picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home") suggests that the speaker thoughtfully considers how to qualify the "them" that serves as the object of the first clause. He then decides that the appropriate qualifier is "those they can find." The poem suggests that there are likely other fallen soldiers whose bodies lay unclaimed, not having been found. This paratactic word order (as opposed to the syntactic, "they bring home the bodies of those whom they can find") conveys the steep limitations brought on by war.
The poem's final line, "they're bringing them home now, too late, too early" also exemplifies a stream-of-consciousness narration. The poet employs a device formally called "asyndeton," or the lack of a conjunction where one is expected or required. This suggests that the poet realizes as he speaks that there is in fact no good time to bring the soldiers home, as the soldiers need not have been there in the first place.