The First World War marked a significant turning point in poetic tradition and history by the revolutionary styles and ideas expressed by the poets. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are probably two of the most well known war poets and their poetry was instrumental in this change. Prior to 1914, much poetry was written about wars such as the Crimean War in 1854-56 (The Charge of The Light Brigade by Tennyson who says, “Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred. ) but the great majority of the poets had not experienced war first-hand.
Thus, they reinforced the poetic tradition of glorifying war and death. Both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who both fought through most of the First World War, use their poetry in the hope that they can give a more realistic impression of war than the pre-twentieth century poetry. Both Owen and Sassoon present World War One as unheroic, in direct contrast to pre-twentieth war poetry such as The Destruction of Sennacherib by Byron. At the very beginning of Dulce et Decorum est Owen describes the soldiers as ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’.
That image is the complete opposite of what we would consider to be a heroic and romantic figure, an attribute that was always given to soldiers in pre-twentieth century poetry. Owen goes on to describe the soldiers as ‘knock-kneed’ and ‘coughing like hags’. Neither of these images can be associated with the glorified, smartly dressed soldier that would be fixed in almost all of the minds of women and children back home. The comparison of the soldiers to hags is not a pleasant one as hags are often scruffy and dirty. The mention of the coughing portrays the many illnesses that soldiers suffered from in the trenches.
Although both of them present war as unheroic, they do so in very different ways. The style of Owen’s poetry which is much longer and contains more description than that of Sassoon’s, allows him to expand on the simple description of the horrors of war that he experienced. In Dulce et Decorum est, he describes in graphic and horrific detail the death of a man who was not able to fit his helmet in time during a gas attack. He uses words such as ‘flound’ring’ ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. The word ‘flound’ring’ gives the impression of the helplessness of the man.
The onomatopoeic effect of these words gives an image that adds relaism to the horror of war. This makes it more realistic and moreover, more chilling to read. Owen goes on, in the final stanza of this poem to describe the dead man in greater detail. His varied use of language allows him to create shocking imagery which means that the reader can visualise the man. Owen uses phrases such as: “watch the white eyes writhing in his face” and “the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” The first of these phrases is particularly chilling as it makes the reader think of snakes writhing in his face.
This gives the impression of a crazed person, driven insane by what he has seen and what he had suffered before dying. The alliteration of the ‘w’ is also effective as it emphasises the phrase. Owen wants to present the reality of the First World War and in slowing the reader down, he makes them think about what he is actually describing and change the way in which it was brushed over before World War One. The second phrase is also shocking and the use of the onomatopoeic word ‘gargling’ makes it all the more visual and makes the reader feel more chilling.
This image of a man choking on his own blood because of gas is very unheroic and it is this that Owen wants to portray – the unheroic nature of war however brave the soldiers may be. This is in comparison to many pre-twentieth century war poems where they emphasise the heroic nature of war such as in a speech in Henry V where Henry says that the man who survives the battle will ‘remember with advantages what feats he did that day’, emphasising the heroic nature of war. Owen’s second poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth also presents World War One as unheroic and unromantic.
The very first line of his poem epitomises Owen’s feeling about the young men sent off to war. “What passing bells for those who die as cattle? ” The use of the word ‘cattle’ immediately robs all glory from the idea of war as a whole. The simile compares how cattle are slaughtered for meat to soldiers dying for their country. This is a very unheroic comparison and is effective in what it is trying to portray. On the other hand, in the two poems by Sassoon that I have chosen to discuss, Sassoon does not present World War One as unheroic.
His poems, which are short and concise, deal more with the unfairness of war and protest against the generals and commanding officers. However, in The General, Sassoon briefly presents the soldiers in an unheroic way, telling us that Harry and Jack ‘slogged’ up to Arras, instead of the quick, efficient marching of the soldiers that had been frequently portrayed prior to the First World War such as is described in The Charge Of The Light Brigade where Tennyson conveys the riders riding quckly by the phrase, ‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. The rhythm of these lines show the quick pace of the soldiers.
Sassoon’s poetry presents the unfairness and inequality between the front-line privates and the generals who sat in comfort behind lines. Sassoon attacks the establishment of the country and the tone of his two poems is very sardonic, making fun of the generals in quite a light-hearted way but with a pointed message to his poetry. In The General Sassoon presents “The General” as incompetent and responsible for the deaths many men. “Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. ” The very last line of the poems refers to Harry and Jack who are named in the poem. This makes the general’s attitude and incompetence more poignant and personal to the reader. “But he did for them both by his plan of attack. ” This short last line is to the point and cuts right to the quick. Sassoon does not play with words like Owen but presents World War One is his poetry in the most succinct way. The majority of his poems are no longer than three short stanzas whereas Owen’s can be eight verses long.
However, Sassoon’s message is just as worthy as Owen’s is. Base Details is probably Sassoon’s best poem for attacking the generals as using harsh humour it describes them sitting in luxury hotels while men are starving on the front-line with rationed food. He presents the generals of the First World War as ‘scarlet’ and fat. Although the poem is short, he describes the generals so effectively that we have an image of the generals in our head which does not conform to what we might expect, or certainly not what was generally thought of generals before the war.
The title of the poem can be read on different levels – the first being the simple meaning of the word as in headquarters, or on another level, the meanings of ‘in short’ or ‘unworthy’. This emphasises their unworthiness of the elevated positions that they hold. Sassoon’s first line seems to sum up all that he is trying to say: “If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,” This one line immediately gives us a humorous image of a general which is almost like those we see in cartoons today of blustering, half drunk generals sitting in offices wheezing with a pipe in hand.
In Base Details Sassoon continues his theme of their unworthiness by describing the generals’ table manners which according to him, are disgusting. He presents them as ‘guzzling and gulping’. These onomatopoeic words give the effect of pigs eating at a trough, especially ‘guzzling’. It also conveys them ‘stuffing their faces’ when the soldiers on the front-line are risking their lives day after day with little to eat. We associate these words with animal behaviour and this is indeed what Sassoon is trying to present.
He also presents the generals as nai?? e and frivolous, spending the war in the ‘best hotels’ and when their presence was required after a battle they brushed off the importance of war calling it a ‘scrap’. Sassoon’s bitterness is also displayed when the general says ‘I used to know his father well’. This emphasises his bitterness effectively towards the upper classes and old boy network, angry that whether you survive the war depends on class and connections. This bitterness is integral to many of his poems and is also evident, in a less direct way, in The General. Both Owen and Sassoon present the loss of youth in their poems.
In Dulce et Decorum est, Owen is bitter towards those who tell ‘children’ – a word which emphasises their youth – the ‘old Lie’ ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ or in English, ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’. The use of the Latin here emphasises the traditional nature of war and the patriotism that the Latin evokes in men. The idea of the loss of youth is more evident in Owen’s second poem, Anthem For Doomed Youth, where the very title shows all that Owen thinks about sending boys off to war. He himself was only twenty-two when he joined the army and thus would have known about how terrible it was.
The words of the title, ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ has the theme of a funeral and says how not only youth itself is doomed but youth as an idea. Owen also mentions, in the second stanza, the words ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ which stresses once again the youth of the soldiers and perhaps of their nurses or their girlfriends. Only Base Details mentions the loss of youth in Sassoon’s poems saying near the end that ‘youth’ is ‘stone dead’. Taken out of the context of the poem, this phrase is disturbing – the loss of a whole generation of men and also the loss of innocence of those who survived.
In context, the phrase becomes even more disturbing, that more of the fat, drunk generals of sixty, have survived the war, while boys of seventeen have died. The whole line reads: “And when the war is done and youth stone dead” The casual nature of this line is shocking and represents how Sassoon pictures the generals’ view of the loss of millions of boys. A whole generation has been lost or affected so badly by the war and the majors would ‘toddle’ safely home to bed where they could die. The word ‘toddle’ is very visual and humourously conveys the generals ‘waddling’ back to England as they are so fat.
It also shows their child-like nature and their frivolity. The bitterness that Sassoon feels is clearly evident in this poem. In contrast, The General mentions nothing of the idea of youth but concentrates more on the inept nature of ‘The General’. These poems are very different to the nature of those by Rupert Brooke, a young soldier who was killed at the beginning of the war and had experienced little fighting. The first stanza of his poem Peace he describes how wonderful it is that he is alive at this time and he can fight for his country “Now God be thanked Who has matched us with his hour”
He also describes going to war ‘as swimmers into cleanness leaping’, very different to the dirty and horrific conditions that Owen describes. Owen and Sassoon differ very greatly in the structure of their poems – Owen tends to write longer, more detailed poetry whereas Sassoon writes short and succinct poems. Anthem for Doomed Youth is a sonnet which is traditional style of poetry but the themes that Owen deals with are very modern, contrasting with the style that he has chosen to use. However, the rhyme scheme of a sonnet does not always remain true to its traditional form such as in the last stanza of Anthem for Doomed Youth where it is e. . f. e. g. g.
The rhyme scheme of Sassoon’s poetry is very simple and direct, which reflects the nature of his poems. He generally uses alternate rhyme, except the last lines where he uses a rhyming couplet such as in Base Details ‘dead’ and ‘bed’. In The General the last three lines have the same rhyme – ‘Jack’, ‘pack’ and ‘attack’. The rhyming couplet gives emphasis to the end of the poem. Sassoon’s poetry is short, pithy and succinct, conveying one or several points in maybe two or three short stanzas such as The General, which is only seven lines long compared to Owen’s poetry which is usually longer.
The style of Sassoon is more colloquial, using soldiers’ slang such as ‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack. ‘ and tends to be more vitriolic such as ‘And speed glum heroes up the line to death. ‘ Conversely, Owen uses descriptive and elaborate words that convey the atmosphere and images that the poems evoke, such as his unforgettable and shocking description of the dead man in the third stanza of Dulce et Decorum est.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon present different aspects of World War One – Owen, the conditions and horrific deaths of the ordinary soldiers in contrast to Sassoon’s pointed and bitter attack against the majors. They do this in very different ways and despite Sassoon’s influence on Owen, their styles are extremely contrasting but no less effective. Their poetry helped mark a radical change in the way war poetry was written and it is their presentation of their themes that effected this shift.