Horror Presented In Birdsong

INTRODUCTION

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘horror’ as ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.’ Both Owen and Faulks use the experiences of young soldiers to illustrate the horrors of the First World War and the feelings of fear, shock and disgust created in these men by the atrocities of conflict. Owen writes from personal experience, having fought in the war, whereas Faulks maps the journey of a young Englishman through historical fiction.

It is clear that both men have strong opinions on the war and aim to share this with their readers. Owen even declared that his aim in writing was not to create poetry but to describe the full horrors of war. One way in which both writers achieve this is by appealing to the senses. Through detailed of descriptions of sights, sounds, smell and touch they create overwhelming images of the very scenes that soldiers would have been a part of. Owen’s use of alliteration and onomatopoeia helps to create these lucid images, as seen in the line, ‘Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth.’ In the same way, Faulks enhances his descriptions with similar appeals to the senses, ‘the bombardment was not much to begin with; it was like a clearing of the throat, but the echoes went on and on over the soft download, on a ringing bass note.’ As a result, the reader is taken closer to the action and is able to imagine such horrors implicitly. It could be argued that the horrors described in Owen’s poetry are more explicit because we are aware that he was an eventual casualty of the war, dying in action just a week before peace was declared.

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The horror of war is intensified by both writers reiterating the fact that it was young, innocent men who became the victims. In Birdsong, Stephen often recognizes the youth of the troops, ‘Many of the men had the look of questioning boys, torn between excitement and a desire to be back with their mothers.’ Owen also reacts to this issue of innocence, but in a more direct manner, expressing outrage towards the sacrifice of so many young men. In this respect, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth,’ a lament for the dead, moves from being merely descriptive to being a judgment where prayers and flowers for soldiers are mocked as useless offerings to innocent, sacrificed men. Owen clearly saw war as a waste of many lives and consequently much of his poetry expresses resentment towards the higher ranks of the army and those back home who were ignorant of the full implications of the war and the true horrors it brought. In the Battle of the Somme for example, thirty thousand men were killed in the first half hour alone. Both Owen and Faulks strive to explain the horror of these thousands through the story of one. As readers we begin to identify and empathise with the characters brought to our attention, whilst also being regularly reminded that there were many more besides. In Birdsong, Stephen makes a stark observation in this respect, that on the battlefield, ‘death had no meaning, but still the numbers of them went on and on and in that new infinity there was still horror.’

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Neither Faulks nor Owen shy away from displaying the harsh realities of conflict, with ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ focusing on descriptions of the physical horrors of a soldier dying from gas inhalation and Birdsong regularly describing shocking fatal wounds. By using narratives from the frontline both writers are able to show the real truth of the war with such detail that as readers, we are shocked. The emotion of shock, one of the component feelings of horror, goes some way to enabling us to understand the images of war presented. Owen and Faulks can be seen as similar in their alliance with soldiers on the battlefields, as opposed to the politics of the war as a whole. Owen particularly despised attitudes that endorsed war and while the ‘my friend’ addressed in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ can be read as an implication of people in general, many believe it refers particularly to Jessie Pope, a writer who wrote patriotic poems epitomizing the glorification of war. Owen and Faulks share this negative attitude towards war and the way in which it cuts short the lives of young men: Owen expressing his opinions directly and passionately, while Faulks prefers to develop such opinions more quietly through the catalyst of Stephen. Owen often refers to men at war being treated as, or becoming, less than human. For example, in ‘Anthem for doomed youth,’ the very first line refers to men who ‘die as cattle’ and this imagery of cattle is repeated in other poems. Jack Firebrace of Birdsong shows sympathy towards the horses used in the war, on the grounds that they did not ask for any part in it. There is clearly a link between this sympathy and the feelings that the main character of Stephen eventually has for his troops; his men have not personally asked to become a part of the war, yet they are forced to give their lives to it or have their futures modeled by it.

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