Wilfred Owen World Literature Analysis - Essay

Wilfred Owen World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Before his death, Owen wrote a brief preface for the volume of poems that he had hoped to see published while he was still alive. It is in this preface that Owen specified his beliefs as a war poet. “This book is not about heroes,” Owen wrote, and he added that he is “not concerned with Poetry.” Owen believed that too many of the war poems written in the past had been glorifications of war, praising soldiers as if they were heroes dying noble deaths. Owen intended to write antiwar poetry; he would flout convention and take words and phrases that earlier poets had used to romanticize war and alter them so that they told the truth: War is a senseless waste of young lives, and is not about the making of heroes. Owen wanted readers to be shocked by the violent and bloody meaninglessness of war, but he also wanted them to feel sympathy for all the dead and dying. As he put it, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” If people could be brought to feel sympathy for the loss of life on both sides of the conflict, maybe they would be less eager to continue the deadly fighting or to start another war once this one was over. Owen did not want his readers to be consoled: He intended his gruesome-but-true depictions of death in battle to stand as a warning to his generation that war must be stopped. Nevertheless, Owen hoped that there would one day come a time, perhaps for future generations, when his poems could serve as a consolation, helping people who had learned their lesson to mourn the dead and get on with life.

A poem such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth” shows both sides of Owen the poet: his intent to give shocks as warnings, and his desire to evoke the reader’s sympathy for suffering. The poem begins as if it were going to be a traditional Christian elegy mourning the dead, but then it shifts abruptly to emphasize the un-Christian brutality of a soldier’s death in battle: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” Owen makes striking use of onomatopoeia (words whose sound imitates their sense) to describe the ironic prayers these fast-dying soldiers receive on the battlefield: “Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/ Can patter out their hasty orisons.” The repeated sounds of the letters “r” and “t” represent the jarring effect of gunfire, totally at odds with the solemn service that these men might have received had their deaths been truly sanctioned by God. Owen uses the octave (first eight lines) of this sonnet to argue against religious leaders who persuaded young soldiers that they were dying for a holy cause.

The sestet (last six lines) of the sonnet then proceeds to change the mood from shock to pity, as the poem shifts its emphasis from the brutality of death in battle to the sadness of those at home who mourn their dead brothers, sons, and would-be bridegrooms. Owen again displays his gift for poetic effects, but now they are more subtle and subdued as befits a scene of mourning. When he writes that “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,” his wordplay is very serious and sensitive, suggesting that the whiteness of grief-stricken faces is a truer sign of sympathy for the dead than any orthodox religious rite. The last line of the poem, with its heavy stresses on the opening words and its long, drawn-out syllables, beautifully conveys natural human sadness at the loss of these men’s lives: “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

Unlike his fellow war-poet Sassoon, whose ironic and satirical verse inspired Owen to write more realistically about the horrors of war, Owen often introduced another dimension into his poetry: the pity of war, a deep sympathy for the suffering. Even when Owen would use disturbing diction (choice of words) and ugly sounds, as he often did in his characteristic off-rhymes (“flashes”/“fleshes,” “winds”/ “weaned”/“wounds”), he still tried to save some room for tenderness and compassion, as if looking forward to the world of brotherhood that might be created if all wars were to cease. In his poem “Dulce et decorum est,” Owen mocked the deadly sentiment expressed by the Latin poet Horace that “It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland,” exposing this belief as a lie. Yet in other poems, such as “Strange...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)