In the last two posts, I looked at the context, form and structure of Exposure by Wilfred Owen, looking at his poetry in general and the changes in art, music and literature that had paved the way for massive changes leading up to 1917 and 1918, when this poem was most likely written. Today, I’ll be exploring the language and imagery of the poem, looking particularly at how they combine with what I’ve explored already to create meaning for the reader.
We have a poem influenced by the freedoms afforded to post-Avant Garde poets, a world where verses become stanzas, where irregularity is more normal, where poets are free to play with the sound of words for effect. Owen has used those freedoms to portray that sense of inertia, of the dull dread that something might happen, but where there is no action in itself. He uses the ellipsis to create a sense of drifting: appropriate for a poem in which the narrator seems to be drifting into hypothermia, floating between the real world and a nightmare world, a world where all the regular rules are broken and the enemy becomes the world itself. He drifts too between the present and the past, whilst having a vague sense of dread about what the future may bring. I’ll look today at how he uses language and imagery to extend those ideas.
The first line, “Our brains ache”, gives us the first person plural present tense, aspects of person and tense that I discussed last week. These aspects make the narrator into a voice for all the soldiers and an immediacy that make this poem about all conflict, in a sense. This poem refers to Keats’ poem, Ode to a Nightingale. Keats was one of the second generation of Romantic poets, a contemporary of Shelley, who wrote Ozymandias.
That poem in itself is a kind of drifty poem:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Look even at how the lines drift, and all of those drifty, floaty words – the ‘drowsy numbness’, his simile about having drunk the poison hemlock. Apparently, hemlock poisoning gives you a ‘rising muscular paralysis’, which sounds like that’s what Keats is trying to say. Look also at the length of that enormous chunk… I simply couldn’t find a way to break it up for you. Two similes about how Keats feels, like he’s been poisoned with hemlock, like he’s on morphine (the ‘dull opiate’) – and that’s the same mood that Owen is conveying. Anyway, you don’t need to or have to refer to Ode to a Nightingale but it’s interesting to know what it’s about…. life, death and mortality (the fact that we all die, that we’re all dying, very slowly, and some of us less slowly than others)… rather pessimistic and depressing, I’d say. But it’s also a poem about nature. Life, death and nature often form a cozy threesome. Why wouldn’t they? What could be more symbolic of life, death and rebirth than a year? The passing of the seasons? How each winter, when “Nature seems dead” (to steal from Macbeth) and the spring when it all comes back to life again.
From this, you can pick up themes and ideas that Owen is also going to explore: life, death, mortality – Nature itself.
I am a big fan of Wilfred Owen. I love his poetry, as it often moves me to tears. But my A level English teacher was not a fan. She said he stole from Keats and Sassoon. I can see that. I prefer to think that he borrowed, embellished and built on what they did. Besides, Keats is not for everyone. I confess, by the time it gets to ‘Lethe-wards’ and I’m having to think about the meaning of every single word, I’m too frustrated by the poetry of it all to bother paying attention to what’s being said. Yes, I’m a simple mind. Let’s just say that Owen takes a lot from Ode to a Nightingale and some may go as far to say that’s a bit of a rip off. Still, if you felt like it, you could easily look at Ode to a Nightingale and find all the major ideas picked up in Exposure.
One of those ideas is the idea of changing states, those places between sleep and being awake, between life and death. We get a lot of that in Exposure.
However, Owen starts with a real world, a world that he personifies in the first line. The winds are “merciless” and they “knive” the soldiers. Powerful, that personification. Where you can fight a physical enemy, it’s a bit hard to fight a ghostly wind enemy that sneaks up and sticks a knife in you. You can imagine it as well, the stealth and the sneak attack. An enemy that can sneak up that close to you to stick a knife in you is cunning, stealthy. It’s more of an assassin who does that. It doesn’t seem like fair play at all – furtive and secretive, but deadly.
In line 2, Owen is playing with the order of the words in the sentence – we have no commas to mark the word ‘Wearied’ which has been shifted to the beginning of the sentence. It seems like the ideas don’t sit together. We call this a non-sequitur. Like, I say “Would you like jam or marmalade on your toast?” and you say “Cloudy, with a chance of rain.”
It’s illogical: they’re awake because the night is quiet? At first glance, it doesn’t make sense. A non-sequitur literally means in Latin, “it does not follow”. Why would you be awake because the night was quiet?
But it does make sense. It’s too quiet. Because it’s so quiet, it seems unnatural and uncanny, eerie even.
It doesn’t even seem like night, because of the distant flares. The flares
were there to light up the battlefields so that the forces could continue attacks through the night. Thus, they’re even stuck in some in-between night and day, where nothing is as it seems. Nothing is “natural” where men make night into day so that they can continue to kill in the dark. Owen says the flares ‘confuse’ their memory ‘of the salient’, which works to mean not only the Salient – the place on the front lines – but also “the salient”. The other meaning of “salient” is something important or significant, like “a salient point”, which would be an “important or relevant point”. So not only do the flares confuse the soldiers’ memory of the Salient itself but also confuse them about what is important and what is not. For instance, when winds are kniving you and you are quite literally freezing to death, then what is important is being warm enough to stay alive, not whether or not some secret Serbian society executed an Archduke or whether the UK had a moral obligation to support France against Germany. When you are freezing to death, who did what to whom seems an abstract, philosophical debate for some other time. What is important is no longer the war, but the battle against the cold.
The sentries in line four are described three ways, ‘worried by silence’, ‘curious’ and ‘nervous’, so we have a stack of adjectives to describe them. Their agitation is palpable and we quickly understand why they cannot rest or sleep. They are in a heightened state of curiosity, ‘but nothing happens’. This is obviously something that is deeply unusual.
As we move into the second stanza, the wind itself is personified. It has been “caught up” in the barbed wire that protected the trenches from infiltration by the enemy. Barbed wire would be laid in great patterns across the fields to stop enemy infiltration, but many soldiers would get caught in it during an attack, and would die on the barbed wire itself. Barbed wire became almost a symbol of the war itself in the end, as it was so widely used. It’s ironic then that the wind’s ‘gusts’ are caught up, ‘tugging on the wire’, and ironic too that Owen uses a simile to compare it to the men who get caught up, ‘like the twitching agonies of men among its brambles’. Ironic further that he should compared the barbed wire to ‘brambles’, a wholly natural image. The soldiers’ manufactured world is confused with the natural world again, as with the confusion between night and day, because of the flares. Further in this stanza, the ‘flickering gunnery rumbles’ and it seems as if Owen is deliberately playing with the image of the distant war seeming like a far-off storm, with the ‘flickering’ replicating the lightning and the ‘rumble’ replicating the thunder.
We would notice, too, the layers of figurative language – the similes, the metaphors, the personification – as Owen seeks to make comparisons between his world and a world that we, the reader, would understand. We can imagine the visceral brutality of being knived, so we can imagine how cold it is. We can imagine wind through brambles, so we can imagine soldiers caught on barbed wire. We can imagine a distant storm, so we can imagine the war in the distance too. But the comparisons are confused. We have never experienced a soldier dying, caught up in barbed wire. In fact, he is not caught up in barbed wire in the poem, he is caught up in brambles – another layer of confusion and mixing – wind/brambles and soldier/barbed wire have been confused in the metaphor. And what comparisons and figurative language usually do – help us visualise – is confused. But it still works to help us imagine the scene.
There’s some interesting language in stanza two as well. The ‘incessant’ nature of the war, which never stops – not even at night or in winter – and the way he describes it as ‘a dull rumour of some other war’ – which makes it seem like the soldiers are displaced, that their reality is confused. When he finishes with the unanswered question at the end of the stanza, ‘What are we doing here?’ it picks up the idea of “the salient” from the first stanza – what the point is. He’s asking on one level what the soldiers are actually doing, like they are physically lost. Perhaps they have lost their way and should be up with the ‘flickering gunnery’ where the action is. But on another level, he is asking a deeper question. What is the point of the war – what are they doing in the war. Even deeper still is the sense of our purpose as human beings: what is our point on earth? These are all huge philosophical questions with rather pessimistic and depressing answers. In one sense, Owen (and the soldiers he speaks for) feel lost. On another, they are questioning the war itself and what they are doing in that location (a bit different from the soldiers in Charge of the Light Brigade… who do not ‘reason why’). Finally, they are questioning life itself and the purpose of humanity. The conflict here is not with nature and her cold winds that kill, nor with the Germans. The conflict is with themselves as they seek to understand life and death, our existence.
We pick up that idea in the third stanza. If night represents death, dawn should represent life and rebirth, as spring does. Not here. Dawn brings a ‘poignant misery’. I love that word ‘poignant’. It is so perfect here. On one level, it refers to sadness. If something is poignant, it brings a tear to your eye. It’s distressing and emotional. It’s something that makes you think about the big issues in life. It can mean powerful and profound. Like a million movies. Falling in love with a woman who needs your heart to live. Dying because you have given your place on a plank to a woman you fell in love with on a boat that’s sinking. Any film where you’ve wept your eyes out is poignant and moving. But poignant means something else too. It comes from the word ‘poindre’ (from which we get point) which means stabbing or piercing. The word ‘poignant’ means both of those things here: it means it is desperately sad and moving, but also that it is stabbing or piercing the men, like the wind did. Such a clever use of both meanings of that word.
So why does dawn stab them and/or upset them so much?
Because it brings no relief. Dawn should represent new promise, new life. Dawn is a powerful symbol of coming through the dark of night, of triumph over evil. It carries the idea of promise, of a fresh start. But Dawn for the soldiers does not bring that. It just brings a renewal of everything that happens the day before, but worse: “war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy,”. We get a sense that Owen and the other soldiers are trapped in a repeating pattern, unable to break free. Nothing changes. The constant onslaught of war, rain and clouds reminds me of a battle of attrition: the kind of battle where you try to grind down the opponent, wearing them down through a constant, unwavering, sustained attack. You grind them down rather than knocking them out. It weakens the men day by day.
Dawn itself becomes the enemy, “massing… her melancholy army”. There’s lots of words here that suggest a greyness, the pathetic fallacy in the personification of Nature is strong here and the poem loses its connection with other war poems, linking more naturally with Wordsworth’s The Prelude where the mountain comes to life. Where Nature turns on us, it is more terrifying than anything. You’ve got a very miserable diction here, building on that “poignant misery” in the first line… “rain soaks, clouds sag stormy… melancholy… shivering ranks of grey” which all adds to the sense of the growing sense of despair that the soldiers feel at daybreak. It seems never-ending.
That said, the soldiers are expecting an assault from the “melancholy army”, “but nothing happens”. We have that same sense of dread and anxiety from the inertia. All the grey and the army amassing in the east is ironic given the colour of the German uniforms and where they came from. Again, that confusion of man-made threat with natural threat.
Stanza four starts with a shock: the staccato sounds of the sibilance in “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence” where the hissing sibilance replicates the sound of the bullets. The airy “f” in “flights” adds to that sound as well, and the “v” of “successive”. This is the action that it seems Owen has, ironically, been waiting for. It comes as a sound-shock in the deadening misery of the previous stanza. He tells us that the bullets are “less deathly than the air”, this reversal of ideas. The war is the thing that is killing them, but he tells us that it is “less deathly” than the “air”. Mother Nature, which should comfort and protect them, is killing them. Owen wouldn’t know this, since he died before it would occur, but the 1918 outbreak of flu would kill more people than the war itself. It’s deeply ironic to me that Owen understood that the world itself could be our real enemy. A ‘natural’ pathogen such as a flu virus can wipe out populations as effectively as any chemical weapon.
The air “shudders black with snow” in stanza four. The present tense brings this to life vividly, and the word “shudders” gives us a sense of how horrifying the snow is. Hypothermia is a real threat in the snow. When you think of the excitement that snow causes for children, the snow here is a menacing threat. The air is “black with snow”, an oxymoron like Blake’s “marriage hearse”. How can the air be black with snow? It’s impossible – snowfall is white, even in a blizzard. This confusion again adds to the idea that everything is reversed, everything is backward. The snowflakes become bullets sent by the Dawn. We focus on the alliteration of the “f” in “flowing flakes that flock”, now no longer the sound of bullets streaking past you, but the deadening sound of the snow. I imagine that Owen thinks the bullets like little missiles – a knowledge he couldn’t possibly have had – that they seek out their target like individual heat-seeking or intelligent target-seeking bullets. They don’t just shower you in a hail of ammunition, but are intelligent, flocking together, pausing and “renewing” their attack like a powerful army. When you think of how many snowflakes there are in a snowstorm, it makes the men seem completely overwhelmed and overrun. Here, though, they are aimless, waiting for their moment, “wandering”. The wind is described as “nonchalent”, careless and anxious, in direct comparison to the men, filled with anxiety and dread.
As we move into stanza five, the flakes take on a menacing proportion, each with a “fingering stealth” which “come feeling for our faces.” Again with the alliterative emphasis on the fs, it has this quiet, whispery effect. It adds to the sense of the stealth. Where the bullets announced themselves in a streak of noisy sibilants, the flakes are silent. They sound alien and ghostly, like they are playing with the soldiers. In return, the soldiers “cringe”, cowering, seeking shelter in the shell holes, and seeking comfort in the remembered warmth of home. It reminds me of that stage of hypothermia where you no longer feel cold. Hypothermia brings confusion and disorientation, which is exactly what the soldiers experience. Drowsiness is another symptom of hypothermia, and we realise with these “forgotten dreams” that the soldiers are severely hypothermic. They are “snow-dazed”, bewildered by the cold and the snow, and give up, go to sleep, “drowse, sun-dozed”, when there is no sun at all. Owen describes accurately and vividly the state of confusion of someone suffering from hypothermia really clearly here. The soldiers dream of spring, feeling warm, and the refrain about nothing happening turns to a question: “is it that we are dying?” which makes the reader very clear about what is happening here. Nature kills stealthily, sneakily. There is confusion and disorientation rather than loss of limbs or life.
In stanza six, we sink further into that hypothermia as the soldiers imagine home life and warmth, that lovely word “glozed” which blends glowing and glazed. He’s remembering fires and their “crusted dark-red jewels” – the embers of wood or coal. He hears that sound of warmth and summer, the cricket, but the house is empty, left only for the mice. The men cannot return home, “shutters and doors, all closed:” There is no escape from the battlefield, not even through daydreams or hallucinations. Owen realises they cannot go back to the family life. The final line, “we turn back to our dying” is matter-of-fact and unemotional. He makes it sound like a practical task. It’s active and seems rational, even if it is not. The men have given up.
As we move into stanza seven, the poem becomes more philosophical, contemplating what is behind “this” war. Who could be behind this onslaught of snow, of flocking snowflakes, of a cold that kills, of a Dawn who amasses an army in the east? Owen comes to the devastating conclusion: they have been forsaken by God. How can any God allow this to happen? How could any God use the world to attack the people in it? It causes him to lose his faith, to question God’s existence, or God’s purpose as he does in other poems, such as Futility. They are “afraid” of God, who seems to be punishing them.
By the final stanza, we move to the future. “Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us”, and we realise that the soldiers will not last the night. The only thing they have in their future is “the burying party” who would usually move through the battlefield to clear the casualties of war, may have a different job: to clear the casualties of another war… that against Nature itself. By the time we get to the statement “All their eyes are ice”, we do not know to whom it refers: the burying-party, who have seen so much misery that they no longer see what is in front of them, cold and indifferent to the “half-known faces”, immune after so many nights and days of burying the dead… or is it the casualties they have come to bury, whose eyes have literally turned to ice? We finish with the same sense of confusion, where words and ideas are turned on themselves and nothing is what it should be. I read that final line, the final refrain, “But nothing happens” as a cynical and pessimistic one from Owen. Nobody does anything to stop this. Nobody calls the war to a halt and therefore to bring an end to the soldiers’ death at the hands of hypothermia. Whilst you can read it one one hand as an attack on the military decisions that continued pointless and unproductive attacks, you can also understand how angry Owen feels that there is no divine intervention. How can there be a God who would allow this to happen?
So it finishes on a pessimistic and cynical note. Everything will continue like this for the future Owen can foresee.
In the next post, I’ll explore the context, form and structure of Heaney’s Storm on the Island, another account of man’s war against the forces of Nature.
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