Across the ages, war has always been a popular theme in poetry.
While a lot of the best British war poets came out of World War I, the most iconic American war poems are mostly about the Vietnam War. And if we go way back in history, there’s Homer’s The Iliad and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
Why does battle lend itself so favourably to poetic imagination?
Partly, this has to do with the extremities of human experience that only ever arises in times of war, with all the suffering, sorrow, violence, death, but also glory, pride and heroism jam-packed into an emotional capsule that is rarely available in pedestrian life.
War is also a surprisingly malleable topic, in that different voices can leverage warfare to make equally impactful points. Whether you are pro-war or anti-war, you’re bound to create resonance with some people simply by poeticising war.
The danger with pro-war poetry, however, is that it tends to come across jingoistic – sometimes even propagandistic, which is why most of the war poetry deemed ‘worth studying’ today casts a critical eye on large-scale human conflict.
Does context matter when reading war poetry?
The other question to consider when reading war poetry is whether context matters. In other words, is it important to know which war the poet is referring to in his work?
Should we seek to understand the historical events in the poet’s time, or is it possible to appreciate war poetry simply by reading the text itself?
In ‘lit crit’ speak, this is the great ‘historicism vs. textualism’ debate: if you’re a historicist reader, you believe that there’s no way anyone could really understand a WWI poem without also reading up on what happened in WWI.
On the other hand, if you’re a textualist reader, you believe that a poem should be appreciated in its own right, as an artistic creation of words and spaces, unaffected by factors external to itself.
Like so much of literature, the beauty to all of this is there’s no ‘right or wrong’ approach. Wars may differ in terms of causes, geography, time and scale, but no one can deny their common denominator of physical, mental and emotional suffering.
So in this post, I figured it would be a good idea to look at two war poems that don’t necessarily require contextual research for a rewarding interpretation. This is especially important to those who have to deal with unseen analysis in their English exams, which, by virtue of being ‘unseen’, doesn’t quite allow for research anyway…
*I would encourage you to read my analysis alongside the actual texts, which I have linked in the poems’ titles.
Who cares? As long as I’m safe and sound back home…: Wilfred Owen, ‘Insensibility’ (1918)
Like so many of Owen’s poems, ‘Insensibility’ exposes the disastrous effects that war poses on men.
Written towards the end of WWI, Owen describes the cold indifference that years of battle have drilled into the surviving soldiers. Having witnessed countless atrocities at the front line, these battle-worn men are inured to guilt or sadness, even over the deaths of “their brothers” in arms.
To use the word of Horatio in Hamlet, “custom hath made it in them a property of easiness”.
Indeed, the poets seem to be the only ones who care with their “tearful fooling”, but to these hardened warriors, such sentimentality is ‘foolish’, for “Men” are but “gaps for filling”, and “no one bothers” anyway.
The speaker in this poem grows increasingly frustrated with these emotional “dullards”, even going so far as to compare them “as stones”, as “wretched” and “mean” people who have committed an emotional betrayal just as cruel as the physical ruin that war has imposed on men.
You will notice that Owen begins stanzas 1, 3 and 4 with the similar phrases “Happy are men…”, “Happy are these…” and “Happy the soldier…” . This is a parodic allusion to the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-12, which each start with the line “Happy/blessed are the poor/the meek/the merciful…” etc.
The irony, of course, is that while the Beatitudes praise those who are virtuous and humane, Owen’s mock gospel structure condemns those who are uncaring, unmerciful, and completely lacking in fellow feeling –
“Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.”
“Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.”
“Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:”
This brings us to another figurative device Owen uses: the “Happy are those” syntactic structure is an example of hyperbaton, which means the inversion of normal word order.
We see hyperbaton in the last two stanzas, when the speaker delivers what are perhaps his angriest lines in the poem –
“Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.”
(A non-hyperbatonic structure would be “He is not vital overmuch alive” – meaning ‘He is not important enough to be alive’, and “[He is] not mortal overmuch dying’ – meaning ‘He is not human enough to die’)
As well as –
“But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.”
(A non-hyperbatonic structure would be “But the dullards whom no cannon stuns are cursed”, and “They are wretched, and mean/With paucity…”)
By placing the adjectives “Cursed” and “Wretched” before the subject (“dullards” and “they”), Owen allows the trochaic front-stress to land heavy on the reader’s tongue, in effect mobilising us, too, in his censure against the fickle-minded and unfeeling men who have chosen to “ma[ke] themselves immune/To pity”.
Also worth noting is the predominance of half-rhymes in the first half of the poem:
From stanza 1 to 3, there are a total of 8 half-rhyme sets (some in pairs, others triplets), including –
Yet, this half-rhyme pattern is remarkably absent from stanzas 4 to 6, where the only examples are of end rhymes such as “drained/trained”, and half-rhymes “stuns/stones”, “immune/in man”, and “shares/tears”.
What can we make of this diminuendo in rhyme?
First, let’s consider what differentiates the first and latter half of the poem’s narrative. Up till the first line of stanza 4 – “Happy the soldier home”, the speaker’s vantage is still cinematically focused on the violent realities of war –
“… their feet/Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers./The front line withers”;
“The tease and doubt of shelling”;
“Having seen all things red,/Their eyes are rid/Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever” etc.
Come stanza 4, however, the perspective zooms out from the actual war scene, and instead lands on this dummy target of the forgetful ‘dullard’. As the soldiers are about to depart from war, the memory of their dead “brothers” is still fresh, albeit fading; the camaraderie they share is still present, even if hanging by a limp, half-rhyme.
Once they leave, however, this emotional connection is immediately severed, and mirrored by the broken sonic unity in the latter half of the poem.
There’s war? How sad… by the way, what’s for lunch? Carol Ann Duffy, ‘War Photographer’ (1985)
Duffy’s ‘War Photographer’ bears echoes of Owen’s ‘Insensibility’, not least in its biting, ironic comparison of the photographer to “a priest preparing to intone a Mass”, and of “his dark room… as though [it] were a church”.
Like Owen, Duffy satirises the outward ritualism of Christian faith (in Owen’s case, this ritualism takes on a verbal, sermonising form). In doing so, she lays bare the core question of theodicy vis-a-vis warfare –
If there is God, then how could he allow for such the evils of war to exist in our world?
Another link that ‘War Photographer’ and ‘Insensibility’ share is their emphasis on post-war apathy, referred to as “dullness’” in Owen’s poem and “impassivity” in Duffy’s. Duffy’s speaker isn’t as riled up as Owen’s, but her outrage is no less, just more subtly, perhaps mock-impassively, conveyed.
To understand how Duffy creates this sense of outrage, let’s examine her dynamic use of metonymy and synecdoche (I’ve written another post specifically on metonymy and synecdoche mean, and how to tell them apart, which you can read here) –
“In his dark room he is finally alone
With spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.”
“Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.”
“And how the blood stained into foreign dust”
“A hundred agonies in black and white
From which his editor will pick out five or six
For Sunday’s supplement.”
Of course, you can’t literally have ‘suffering’ – an emotion and/or experience – as reels of film. The word is a stand-in for the photos that capture the suffering of those in war, and it is indeed the suffering that’s the point, not the materiality of the photos per se.
The alliterative string of sibilants in this line extends, by the stretching of the ‘s’ hiss, the impression of prolonged suffering, too.
“Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh.” These are allusions to places where human conflict has once taken place:
“Belfast” for The Troubles from the late 1960s – 1998,
“Beirut” for the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 – 1990, and
“Phnom Penh” for the Cambodian-Vietnamese War from 1978 – 1989.
They are also examples of metonymy because this isn’t an exhaustive list. These three capitals are but a selective representation of the many wars that have carpeted human history, so much so that “All flesh is grass” – the gruesome equation of men’s corpses with the ground that we trample on so casually and don’t give second thought to.
Synecdoche meets metonymy in the line “and how the blood stained into foreign dust”, as “blood” is singled out as the bodily attribute of the “stranger” whom the war photographer saw (i.e. synecdoche), while “dust” represents the soil or land (i.e. metonymy), but is diminished in scale to underscore the stark difference between man alive and man dead, the latter reduced to a speck of insignificance as a casualty of war.
In the last stanza, the reference to “A hundred agonies in black and white” is a wink to the “spools of suffering” phrase in the first stanza. ‘Suffering’ now intensifies into ‘agonies’, and both are metonyms for the photos that ‘contain’ them, which, twice removed from the real scene, can never do justice to the actual, harrowing experiences themselves.
Most ironic, though, is how this process of rendering human pain into photographic objects and consumer spectacles benumbs the senses of the photographer and the editor, all the while normalising the situation for the masses, despite “the reader’s eyeballs” momentarily “prick[ling] with tears”. The fact that this ‘tearing up’ is done “between the bath and pre-lunch beers” highlights the contrived, unauthentic nature of public ‘sadness’ over war.
This reminds us that it is often all too easy to forget about suffering that isn’t close to home.
Basically, then, we read about sad news in the morning, perhaps shed a tear or two, then go about our daily routines and occasional revelries as if all is well. And when the speaker ends by saying “they do not care”, it is perhaps not a stretch to interpret this statement as meaning we do not care.
Of course, the war photographer who “stares impassively at where/he earns his living” (ambiguous as to whether this points to war zones, readers back home, or his darkroom – or all of these things), is made to be complicit in this dehumanising machinery…
War poetry may be depressing to read, but it does force us to reflect on the existential and emotional gaps between ourselves and those in less fortunate circumstances.
The greatest irony of war poetry, however, lies in its genesis: it doesn’t get written if war doesn’t happen in the first place, but who wants that to happen?
Do you like war poetry?
What other war poems have you read, and do you have a favourite one?
Comment below and let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Photo credits: Reuters