‘How do any two or three poems deal with the themes of mourning, loss, or memory?’ Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth and Futility.
The first Word War which took place mostly in Europe from 1914 to 1918 left millions dead and shaped the modern world. After World War I poets started to write about their experiences. Most of these poets had been soldiers who wrote the poetry to reflect the horror of their experiences in an immediate and realistic way. Trench warfare in particular and the chaos of war in general were the source of the poems indignation and disgust. The high death rate and the horrific conditions suffered by those fighting in the trenches meant that the concept of ‘heroic sacrifice’ in service to one’s country became meaningless. Patriotic poetry was therefore replaced with poems that were to symbolize the futility of war, protesting against the waste of life and forcing its readers to engage emotionally with reality. Within this essay I will look at the effects the war had on soldiers who fought in the trenches and how they dealt with the unimaginable numbers of deaths they encountered daily. I will explore the way they were able to cope with the grief and loss and how attitudes towards death and mourning changed as a result of the war. Throughout this piece I will focus on one particular soldier, Wilfred Owen, and the poetry he wrote about the loss of lives and the effect that his writing had on the mourning and memories of those left behind.
In writings on World War 1, the enactment of grief is often overshadowed by the drama of battle, as in the wider conflict where loss is born; grief leaves no one unaffected by its devastation. Writing, whether in the form of poetry or letters, allowed the soldiers to share their anguish as a way of coming to terms with their harrowing loss and sense of guilt as survivors. Before the war there was a system of both public and private grieving and mourning. Mourners wore black and the period of mourning was dependent upon the relationship to the deceased. Funerals could be elaborate affairs depending on social class and many of these conventions were shaped by religious and Christian beliefs which enforced a public respectability in the grieving process. After the war broke out however, death in combat demanded that soldiers and their relatives express their grief in a new way. Without the remnants of a body, or the ritual of a funeral, their descriptions through their writings were more than just words. The details of death which soldiers conveyed, offered an emotional comfort to families, but at the same time their words would also scar those families for life. Surrounded by unimaginable numbers of their comrades who had died prematurely, soldiers fumbled to find a voice to convey the meaning of such circumstances. Letter writing for many became a way they could attempt to control the chaos which surrounded them, but a few soldiers began to make sense of it all through poetry.
Some critics believed Wilfred Owen to be the most individual and best of the war poets. He forged a new kind of elegy upon the anvil of modern industrialised warfare. The best of Owens poems were to be written between the summer of 1917 and autumn 1918 after meeting another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, at Craiglockhart Hospital. Owens poetry after his experiences in the trenches moved his poems towards a powerful realism where the observations are disturbing, for him the war was a tragedy and beneath the surface disgust, lays a pity and compassion that raised his poetry above simple propaganda. Some of his poems from the war help us to rethink the elegiac triad of; mourning poet, mourning reader, and mourned victim, suggesting that even in war elegies; both poet and reader may partly create the victimisation they mourn. He brought a profound but sceptical understanding of the resources available to the mourning poet in the sonnets ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Futility’; he...
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