In the world of poetry, the most inspirational topics are often the most tragic. War is one of those subjects that evoke a bottomless well of stories, opinions, and emotions. “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter of 1941” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” are two examples of poems centered around battle with different perspectives on war itself. In the poem “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter of 1941,” author Sharon Olds gives an account of a visit to a burial site where hundreds of dead bodies lay, victims of the siege on the city of Leningrad in World War II.
The image is further darkened by the fact that since the ground is frozen, the corpses are unable to be buried. The overall effect created by this poem is to show the brutality of that time on and off the battlefield, as well as to convey the message that there is no hiding from the truth: the world is not a perfect place. The use of metaphors and similes, diction, sounds of words, and most importantly, the overall tone communicates harsh details. Though distributed throughout the work, these features are sometimes concentrated in specific sections; my guess is to create a stronger effect en masse.
Though written without stanzas, I could see this poem being divided into four separate parts. The first part serves as an objective view of the cemetery itself and describing the image before the speaker. The first line “That winter, the dead could not be buried” (1) creates the sort of impact that Olds wanted to have carried throughout the whole poem. This unflinching depiction of truly gruesome scenes is what makes this piece so powerful. Readers are given an image of bodies lying in the cold and then told that the coffins were burned for firewood and that the gravediggers too hungry to work.
This is, to say the least, a very bleak picture. When I read the next section, the “s” sounds filled me with a bit of a chill like I could feel the cold of the winter there. So they were covered with something and taken on a child’s sled to the cemetery in the sub-zero air. (5) This is an example of one of the many tactics used by the author to further draw the reader in and make the poem more of an involving experience and not just some words on a page. The next defining section comes with the description of the corpses themselves, though not in a the same grisly detail-filled way as would be suspected after what had been written so far.
Although the overall descriptions are tragic, they are camouflaged by metaphors and similes dealing with positive messages in an attempt to pull away from this grim spectacle. Corpses wrapped with dark cloth and rope are compared to a “tree’s ball of roots/ when it wants to planted”(8) an image often associated with the beginning of something’s life, not the end. The same lifelike comparison is found in the next sentence when those wrapped with sheets are associated with “cocoons that will split down the center/ when the new life inside is prepared” (11).
Another very positive outlook on the current situation, but also very out of place, especially considering the diction used later to describe the corpses as, “pale, gauze, tapered shapes/stiff” (10). However, the work then takes a complete turnaround and changes positions very quickly, taking the antithesis of the previous comparisons by associating the bodies with inanimate objects “naked calves/ hard as corded wood”(14). It’s as if the speaker is returning back to the reality of the present situation from the temporary escape the speaker had just made with his positive descriptions and allusions to new life.
The use of sounds of words is used once again, but with a sharp “k” sound to emphasize the harshness of the surroundings. But most lay like corpses, their coverings coming undone, naked calves hard as corded wood spilling from under a cloak, a hand reaching out (15) This harsh alliteration gets back to and more closely follows one of the original motivations of the poem, to shock and disturb readers. The last part of this poem, without a doubt, holds its most powerful image and in turn its most powerful message serving as the best example of the piece’s straight forward and introspective tone.
From under a cloak, a hand reaching out with no sign of peace, wanting to come back even to the bread made of glue and sawdust, even to the icy winter, and the siege. (18) Throughout this work, there are a number of references to death and life, ends and beginnings, but this is the only mentioning of a longing to return to life from death. It strongly communicates the idea that any sort of life that the reader is leading, no matter how bad, is a life nonetheless for which he or she should be grateful.
Here these corpses lay and would give anything to be alive, even if it meant living in this awful place under these terrible conditions. It’s better than death. The use of general and formal features explains both the speakers’ attitude towards the scene at the cemetery as well as creates a stance on Gray’s theories concerning the “lust of the eye. ” The two practically overlap because the goal of the work is to recreate the scene that caught the speaker’s eye in the first place. Then relay it to the audience and capture them with the “lust of the poetic ear.
Shock and amazement are prevalent throughout this piece, especially in the end and the sight of the outstretched hand. Though different from Gray’s panoramic and impersonal images of power and destruction, these grisly images evoke the same “lust of the eye” in the speaker and upon viewing them, he tries to delude himself. By comparing the images he sees to more positive visions he can relate to, such as the butterfly cocoon and the trees roots, he feels more comfortable, it calms him. These ideas are but fleeting, though, and he is brought back to realize that the world is no longer perfect.
It is as he sees it and no more, and that is overall message. There is no escape from the truth. In the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” author Wilfred Owen provides the reader with not just one, but two entirely different views on war, both of which vary greatly from Olds’. Written in an “as it happens” type style, the piece depicts a group of soldiers caught in the middle of a mustard gas attack during World War I. Owen then switches gears and describes the aftermath of the assault with a cynical view not apparent in the first half of the poem.
The purpose and overall effect of this poem is tell the reader that the messages created by the media are wrong and that dying for one’s country is not a glorious thing. This idea can’t be truly realized unless one has looked death in the face personally. The use of tone, imagery, diction, and stanzas are crucial in getting this point across and I have pointed out where and how they are utilized. The first thing that struck me about this poem was the impact created by the imagery used by the author.
Like the Leningrad cemetery, this view it is powerful in scope; only filled more with action and allows less time for reflection by the reader. The first scene is described as a group of soldiers returning from battle “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through the sludge,” (2) Moving as this image is, it is somewhat ironic that the imagery can be so powerful when you consider that due to the gas, the senses of the speaker and his companions are practically inoperable. This somehow enhances what the reader experiences.
I say this because if these soldiers could take everything in, it wouldn’t be any great surprise for them because they were so desensitized to war, a familiar concept felt in Olds’ poem. I often viewed the speaker in the Leningrad cemetery as being someone like a reporter or gravedigger that no longer sees the bodies as the truly lay. He can only see the images that the bodies remind him of. However, by describing normally insignificant events of battle going on around those numbed physically and mentally, the audience is given a clearer picture of what the world they are living in is like. Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots/ Of disappointing shells that fell behind” (8).
Bombs fall around them and they pay no heed. This ignorance lasts not for long though. “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling/ Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time” (10). This surprising interjection of action breaks the ambience of the background noise and the silent solace in which they marched. Inventive and unorthodox diction is responsible for making some of the most profound statements in this section that much more noticeable.
Not only for the scenes these words help to create, but to make the reader stop and question their usage. The use of the word “ecstasy” to describe the fumbling of the gas mask caught my eye. Whether we should view this as comical or just plain hopeless leaves the audience uncertain what to feel and in a way temporarily pulls the reader away from the seriousness of the current situation. “But someone still was yelling out and stumbling/ And floundering like a man in fire or lime” (12).
Gripped with a fear for his own life and the gravity of the moment, the speaker can do nothing but watch his comrade “guttering, choking, drowning” (16). Another example of how the power of the diction fuels the fire of the emotions already being felt by the reader. It’s after this point that the speaker reaches his breaking point and realizes that things will never be the same. The stanzas, which had been similar in length and mostly objective, take a dramatic turn in the last half of the poem. After watching his companion die, a new stanza starts only two lines in length.
As in the first poem, the last part of the work takes a turn to make an overriding point with just one image. In these sentences, the speaker stops reflecting on the past and talks about the present. “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (16). We realize that for the speaker, this war has never really ended for him, but just keeps getting replayed over and over in his head. He knows he’ll never be able to shake that image and expresses his feelings in the final stanza.
In this last and most important paragraph, time slows down and the memory burned into the speaker’s head comes bubbling to the surface, as fresh as if he had seen it yesterday. He accounts, with gruesome details, the body of a dying soldier flung in the back of a cart. A man whose slow death he had been witnessing for the past few minutes and was unable to help. He was now on his way to being just another statistic and the all the speaker could do was watch. “And watch the white eyes writhing in his face/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;” (20).
It is here that his tone becomes obvious and he relays to readers his belief about war and that the glory so often talked about is absent when it comes to dying on the battlefield. As General Patton once said, “No man ever died for his country. Go out and make some other man die for his country. ” Both of these poems strongly emphasize the aftermath of war more than the grand spectacle itself. It’s this shared factor that in a way negates what Gray says about the “lust of the eye” and becoming separated from the world by the panoramic and jaw dropping sight of battle.
Though neither of the poems disproves this idea, both Olds and Owen focus on a different “lust of the eye,” one having more to do with what is seen at the end and not so much during the conflict itself. The images of the dead create a lasting impression in the reader’s minds that as uncomfortable as it may be, must be a thousand times worse for a material witness. It gives me a whole new respect for veterans. I no longer appreciate just what they did, but what they have to live with.