This section shall bring out some of the points in terms of which Owen’s poems are to be read. Owen’s portrayal of the war is of prime importance in the light of its representation of crude realities that he himself experienced as a soldier. His poems give us insightful exposure to the ground realities of War. You must have observed that his poems are a striking contrast to that of the poems of Rupert Brooke whom we have discussed in the previous unit. Let us explore some of the significant themes explicit in his poetry.
Owen’s representation of Soldiers:
Both the prescribed poems deal with soldiers whom Owen has represented realistically in terms of the complex mental set up that has been instilled in them because of the continuous fights at the War. Both the poems depict the miserable condition of soldiers. In “Futility”, we came across the horrifying effects of war on the psyche of the soldiers who struggle with every moment in their lives. Humanity is no more honoured as seen from deaths caused by War. The soldiers’ attempt becomes futile while they hopefully tried to bring back their dead friend to live believing in God. However, as it seems, no positive force can bring about a change unless men themselves understand the value of humanity.
In “Arms and the Boy” Owen triggers the readers’ sympathy for the young soldier who is turned into nothing but a killing machine devoid of emotions and common sense. Here again, by representing the innocent soldier who is young enough to laugh and enjoy his life is trapped in a brutal and cruel game of life and death. There are many other poems where Wilfred Owen depicts the pathetic situation of soldiers and exemplifies the horrors and devastation that are caused by the war. Owen’s description of the war results from his first hand experiences at wartime when he was in the frontline. His close observation of the wartime situations and of the soldiers in particular, is coloured with the hue of pity. Owen was very shattered to realise that the soldiers were turned into mere guns and that the romantic ideal associated with soldiers is no more a reality. He is critical of the whole war and he deals more maturely with the psyche of the soldiers in poems like “Insensibility” or “Strange Meeting.”
Owen’s reaction to War:
It has been noticed that Owen was extremely saddened to see that the War and its destruction on humanity. Unlike Rupert Brooke who idealised the war, Owen saw the war in a different light. He was more realistic in his representation because of his own experiences of fighting at the frontline and leading his platoons towards the destruction. Most of Owen’s poetic output depicts his pity for the War. His reaction to war, as reflected in his poems, was heavily influence by his friend Siegfried Sassoon who showed him to dwell upon the realities of the war, as well as his mother who inspired him to develop a philosophy regarding the war.
Representing combatant poetry, Owen was led to a moral dilemma as evident in his poems. It was a challenge for him, being the leader of his platoon, to carry out the orders and lead his ‘boys’ knowingly to the devious trap of the War which only provides suffering, fear, hopelessness and death. The only way that Owen can compensate was through poetry: “the anxiety, guilt or self-reproach consequent upon it was the spur to the writing of poems engaging with it”. (Corcoran, 89) He felt the need to acquaint the British people of the horrible conditions faced by the soldiers by means of his poems. After all, his theme or the subject of his poetry was the ‘pity of war’ and as a result, he wrote in a voice that was “in no sense consolatory”. (Corcoran, 92)
Nature vs Warfare:
Owen’s poetry shows a strong implication of the cruelty that war laid upon the creation of Nature. One instance that can be cited is from the poem “Futility” where warfare overpowers Nature. In fact, critics have considered the philosophical significance brought out through the naturewar or life-death conflict in the poem. Beneath the surface of the elegiac tone of the poem lies Owen’s deeply existential crisis wherein he strives to find the meaning of life. Nature has always been the light giver and the source of life yet in the face of cruelty triggered by the war; it can just be a witness to its own creation. It is a very poignant description of human crisis. Another poem of Own, namely, “Spring Offensive” also deals with this theme. Nature also reacts to the devastation of the War as the sky is filled with the smoke emitted by the machines and ammunitions. Nature in its crudest sense is synonymous to humanity and welfare of the people rather than the promoter of inhumane war.
Innocence vs War:
Owen’s “Arms and the Boy” is a striking example of the contrast of innocence and war. The young soldier or the soldiers in general, are not evil by nature. They are the victims of the brutal war and are shaped accordingly. Owen speaks in an ironic tone when he throws light on the fact that the war is human invoked. While it is man who teaches to be cruel and unkind in the war, it is man himself who is innocent and caring. It also speaks of a strong contrast in terms of youthful innocence when one normally is happy and playful but the occurrence of war turns the youthful vigour into a deadly weapon to be used insanely to kill enemies at the battlefield. As usual, Owen represents his public-private clash as a poet. Being the leader, it is man like him who leads the young soldiers towards the battlefield to kill and get killed, on the other hand, his individual or private experience exposes his deep crisis in humanity and the overwhelming influence of the war that encourages number of killing machines in the form of young boys.
These are some of the points under which we can classify the subject matter of Owen’s poetry. However, you are suggested to explore other pertinent themes such as death, relationships, disillusionment with religion, friendship, etc. explicit in Owen’s poetry and develop your own understanding of his war poetry. The philosophical overtones in his poetry exemplify his crisis as a modern poet, who was anti-war by heart and who based his poems on the realities of the war. In fact, he was a conscious poet because he developed his poetic style to convey the deadening effects of the World War I to his readers