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Futility in World War One Poetry

By juanpab1988 Feb 23, 2009 1569 Words
The statement that all the poems considered could have been entitled “Futility”, I believe is predominantly correct, as a large majority of poetry produced at this time was highly critical of the war and of the goings on, that especially from people actively engaged in the war and fighting in the trenches and on the front line, would have been documenting about the horrors of war. As expected there is a common element of death and/or misery found in the majority of war poetry, especially the ones that I have considered. Generally, the poems that are the most famous from this time are poems written in the trenches by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others.

Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are two of the most prominent poets who saw action in the First World War. Wilfred Owen like many others, had gone to war believing it had a just cause and that it was his duty, like millions of others, to join up and fight for his country. Sassoon lost his brother early on in the war and the death of his close friend was to be the final straw for him. He had encountered some of the most turbulent fighting and saw combat in the bloodiest battles, but following his friend’s death, he published his famous declaration against the war, which ultimately led to his spell at Craig Lockhart, in which he questioned the continuing involvement in the war, despite him believing the fighting could be ended.

The war also affected Wilfred Owen to a similar degree. Moreover, the experiences that he witnessed during the war, was to completely change his outlook on it. He witnessed first hand how ruthless the great war was, he saw countless people dead and disfigured and saw front line action throughout the conflict. He himself suffered shell shock to such a degree that he had to spend time in an Edinburgh hospital.

‘Dulce et decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen, is one of the most famous of the World War One poems and it is critical of the war itself and its name is taken and is written as a narrated iambic pentameter which expresses Owens’s negative attitude to the war just as much, if not more so, than his poem ‘Futility.’ ‘Dulce et decorum est’ is roughly translated into English as ‘how fitting it is to die for one’s country’ and this ideal had been used as propaganda by the British during WW1, trying to get people to sign up for the war. What Owen is saying is that there is nothing glorious in dying in this war, the title is a play on words due to the nature of the poem and it certainly contrasts the idea of it being great to die in war. His poem highlighted the reality of war.

Owen uses a range of poetic techniques throughout the poem, he uses in-depth detailed descriptions and uses imagery that allows the reader to fully grasp what it is that he has seen by using phrases such as “the blood, Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” and “Obscene as cancer”. This poem is visually descriptive, although it does convey impressions through other senses too. It includes words, which describe sounds such as ‘gargling’ and ‘guttering’. It has words that describe taste, like ‘bitter as cud’ and other such like words. These descriptive words are very effective and help the reader to see what the poem is describing. Dialogue is used to bring a feeling of panic. This is used in the first line of the second stanza and exclamation marks are also used to show the tone of the voice and to emphasise “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!”

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
Owen uses assonance in this poem as well, descriptive language is again used to stress what is going on ‘stumbling’ fumbling,’ ‘drowning,’ ‘chocking,’ ‘guttering’ and ‘floundering’. These help the reader to see the horrors of what the young soldier went through and as to why it came to have such an effect on Owen.

Owen uses an array of devices in his poems, in ‘Dulce decorum est’, he breaks up the poem into three parts, to stress the full horror of what the soldier is going through as at the end of first stanza, the young man is dying. The first stanza of the poem is written in the past tense, as it explores Owen still coming to terms with the experience while he was in hospital recovering from injuries , when the gas attack begins. In the poem Owen uses lots of poetical devices such as similes, metaphors, alliteration and assonance to convey his loathing of war.

The evocative language, allows the reader to grasp the horror that a gas attack inflicts on someone, it was just one of the horrifying events that Owen witnessed while fighting in the trenches and on the front line and is one of the key factors. Owen uses repetition to emphasise certain words, for example he repeats the word ‘drowning’ because he wants the reader to really think about what he is saying, and by leaving the word ‘drowning’ at the end of the line it makes it more dramatic than at first

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

The idea of futility is clearly expressed here by Owen, he is saying the brutality of the way this man has died. In his eyes proves it is not fitting to die for one’s country, such a barbaric way for someone to die, and then what they do with the body “Behind the wagon that we flung him in”, so casually, due to how frequently people died in this war. The death of a solider lost the effect that it would have on any other person not serving in the trenches as it was commonplace and was not a glorious way to die. This poem has been seen by many as a direct response to Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. He is having a go at the people that tell the ‘lie’ it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country and Owen is expressing that it is not, it is in fact, undeniably, futile as there will be no glory for them in death. The poem then goes on to give a grotesque image ‘of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’ to further emphasise how shocking and gruesome the scene of the solider dying was.

‘Futility’ is a poem written by Wilfred Owen, in which he is critical not only of the war but of God as well. Whereas sonnets generally take a joyful or happy tone, this is not, as it is littered with irony. It tells of how the death of a soldier close to Owen had died and this leads him to question what they are doing in the war and ever increasingly has questioned not only that but questions God as well and how the life giver the sun, does not give life to the dead soldier who isn’t coming back, as he is ‘lifeless’.

Sassoon uses sarcasm and clichés, making ironic comments throughout his poetry to present his displeasure at the war. Sassoon had signed up on the very first day and likewise with many others and was a strong supporter of what the British were trying to achieve. As time went on and he saw the horrors of war, he became discontented with the war and became a strong objector. His poems were very critical of the goings on, not only in the war but at home as well. He strongly criticises the general public in his poem ‘Suicide in the trenches’ which tells the story of a young soldier who took his life while on the front line,

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Sassoon like many others had become discontented with the war and uses dark satire in his poems, similar to what Owen does in ‘Dulce et Decorucm est’ and for a similar effect. They both found that the War was a futile one and were dismayed and displeased with the jingoistic poetry of poets like Jessie Pope and other poetry that was used as pro-war propaganda like ‘The Soldier’ By Rupert Brooke. This portrayed an unrealistic reality about the war, in the eyes of Sassoon and especially Owen who considered these poems were having a detrimental effect, as it was used as part of the recruitment drive to get people to sign up for the war, with false pretences. It is widely acknowledged that Owens’s poem Dulce et Decorum est was originally going to be addressed to Jessie Pope as it is completely contrary to the poems that she wrote including one of her most famous poems, "The Call" in which she uses a lot of rhetorical questions, for example “Who'll earn the Empire's thanks?” and “Will you, my laddie?” Is repeated numerous times, throughout her poem.

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