Understanding the context of Exposure by Wilfred Owen

As we come to the fifth poem in AQA’s GCSE English Literature “Power and Conflict” section of the poetry anthology, we see a turn from the futile glory of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and a turn in style. Poetry had changed by the time Wilfred Owen was writing, and Exposure is affected by changes in poetry as much as it was affected by World War I. In this article, I’ll be exploring some of those changes in art, music and poetry, as well as looking at the specific context itself.

When we left the high Victorians with Tennyson in 1854, poetry was largely still poetry. It had verses and rhythms and rhyme schemes. Poetry had rules that people hadn’t broken yet. Art, music, sculpture, poetry… it was all still recognisably governed by the rules that we still think govern creative forms.

Art looked like this:

Here she is, the Lady of Shalott, an 1882 rendition of one of Tennyson’s most famous characters. Looks like a painting, right?

And here’s Vassily Kandinsky’s 1912 painting, Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II) 

So… that happened in the art world in 30 years…

This is what happened in music. Here’s Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which was written in 1880.

Sounds like classical music, right? Listen from 11.36 if you want a famous bit!

And this is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring from 1913. Feel free to dive in a bit around 5 minutes.

Kind of dischordant, right? And then some!

And in sculpture? A Frederic Leighton sculpture from the early 1890s

Still looks like sculpture, right?

Here’s Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917

Yes, it’s a urinal on its side.

So as you can see, art, music and sculpture underwent quite radical changes in Europe from the late Victorian years of the 1890s. By 1910, rule-breaking and abstraction had become the norm.

Now, the old GCSE syllabus from days gone by would have you believe that World War I was the kind of prime mover in all that. We had pre-1914 writers and post-1914 writers – a very artificial divide that kind of intimated that the beginning of the war was the beginning of the rule breaking, when what we’d still consider ‘traditional’ art forms broke their boundaries.

The war was absolutely not the cause behind the changes though, despite the fact all that civil unrest might well have been. The fact is that very talented pioneers in the arts began breaking boundaries. We saw Elizabeth Barrett Browning begin to do it in her poetry. You can also see it in Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins among others.

So by the time we get to Wilfred Owen, writing the bulk of his poetry (or his well-known poetry) after his meeting with another war poet Siegfried Sassoon in late 1917, we’ve got a poet who comes into a world which is already falling apart, figuratively speaking, and into this world, we find writers using poetry to document the war. Arguably the greatest of those poets is Wilfred Owen, who found poetry to be the perfect vehicle for all of his reflections on war.

But Wilfred Owen is not a radical poet by any stretch of the imagination. If you are in any doubt, here are four poems written around the same time or before.

  1. Ezra Pound’s Imagist Epic, In a Station of the MetroYou’re going to love it in the same way you might love a urinal as a sculpture. 1913.
  2. Gertrude Stein’s freaky poetry-prose, Tender Buttons. Because if In a Station of the Metro didn’t show you how much poetry had changed, you maybe need something a little… less poetry? 1914.
  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The WindhoverBecause it starts earlier than the Avant Garde and Imagists. 1877.
  4. T. E. Hulme’s poem The Embankment. Written around 1908 – 1909.

So when we read Owen, we shouldn’t think that his poetry’s form and structure is only influenced by the fractured times in which he lived. Art had changed significantly by the time Owen came along. As to why poetry had changed so much … that’s a little harder to pin down. We had a few isolated pioneers like Dickinson, Hopkins and Whitman who did their own thing, a few under the influence, like Baudelaire and Rimbaud in France. These emerging changes came from all over the globe, most in isolation, and perhaps their pioneering style showed people that they didn’t have to stick to the rules if they had a point to make. The sound effects of poetry became a vehicle in themselves for expression in ways that we saw the beginnings of in Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. 

Owen’s poetry reflects the trends in poetry as much as it reflects the world of war about which he wrote.

As for Owen himself, he came late to the war, signing up for the Artists’ Rifles on the 21st October 1915, over fifteen months after war had broken out. He’d lived in France since September 1913, teaching English, and he met with a number of French and English poets and had already started writing poetry. He left for the Manchester Regiment on 18th June, 1916 following his training. On 29th December 1916, he arrived at Etaples in France. In January 1917, he assumed command of his platoon after what had essentially been 18 months of training exercises. Many of the big pushes had already happened, such as the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun. Although reportage might have been thin, there’s no doubt Owen knew what the battlefields were like. In his first month, he had two rotations on the front line. The first six months of 1917 saw Owen rotating in and out of the front lines with his battalion and on May 2nd 1917, he was evacuated with shell shock, what we would today call post-traumatic stress. By Christmas, he returned to France. He didn’t see much active duty until later in the year. By September 1918, he was back in the Somme Valley in France, rotating attacks on the Germans.

On the 4th November 1918, Wilfred Owen died, seven days before the Armistice was signed that brought an end to the war.

He has become the voice in many ways for the war: there’s little doubt that his earlier poetry and his non-war stuff would have passed without note into the annals of history. However, the way in which he described the war was so evocative that many other, talented war poets pale in comparison. It’s into this context that Exposure comes. We should remember, too, that Owen didn’t just write poems about war – even in hospital suffering from shell shock, he wrote lots of other poems too.

The poem itself appears to be set in the “Salient”, in Ypres, a part of Belgium. In military terms, a ‘salient’ is a bulgey bit in the dividing line between the two forces. It’s a very vulnerable position because it is a bit like a peninsula into enemy territory, where you are surrounded on three sides by enemy forces. The Ypres Salient was the scene of a number of battles, including the Spring Offensive, which Owen uses as the title of another poem. However, that interpretation is based on Owen’s use of the word “salient” which he uses as a pun (we’ll explore that when we’re looking at language) and in any case, it says “our memory of the salient” which, with its small ‘s’ and reference to a memory might not mean that the poem is set in the Ypres Salient at all.

In itself, it is not one of Owen’s poems that is most frequently studied. It has none of the bitter anger and violent imagery of Dulce et Decorum Est. It has none of the sadness, the pathos of The Sentry. And it has none of the careful choice of words as Futility or Anthem for Doomed Youth. It captures a different kind of war, a war that seems almost to be against a different enemy, against the world itself. This is a war within a war – a battle against Dawn, against the cold, against the snow, against the silence. The conflict itself then is not the war, but the battle to keep sane, to stay alive, to fight off the weather and inertia.

In terms of context, what you need a grasp of before considering the poem in itself is that the rules of poetry had very much changed since the times of Tennyson. What had been a few lone pioneers breaking rules had become the Avant Garde. It’s ironic in many ways that the term Avant Garde is one stolen from the battlefield: it refers to the front-line troops in war, but means also in this sense a radical battle against all that was traditional. Wilfred Owen in this poem is more free to pick and choose the aspects of form, rhythm, rhyme and structure that best suit him rather than being restricted by the verse itself (something we see in London, for instance, in which Blake’s words are as ‘chartered’ as the River Thames and the streets themselves, his words as locked down by the form and structure as the minds of the people that surround him). It’s going to be interesting to explore the effects of those freedoms on Exposure and see how Owen is making choices that support the ideas within his poem.

The other aspect of context that I am sure many students will refer to will be that of the war. However, this is a poem in which World War One is “a dull rumour”, “some other war”, and that in itself makes it difficult to refer to the war as context.

As with all things contextual, your examiners will not be looking for a biography of Owen, a treatise on changes in the Arts, or a history essay about the war. In short, they won’t be looking for you to write the kinds of things I’ve written here. Still, it’s important that you know these things so that you can consider how they influence what Owen has written and so that you can explain the impact of context in your exam response.

Next time, I’ll look at the form and structure of Exposure and explore how this links with the ideas in the poem.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

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2 thoughts on “Understanding the context of Exposure by Wilfred Owen

  1. Pingback: An analysis of the form, structure and voice of Exposure by Wilfred Owen | Teaching English

  2. Pingback: An Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s use of language and imagery in Exposure | Teaching English

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