An analysis of the context, form and structure of Poppies by Jane Weir

This poem looks at a female perspective on conflict, and as such, it offers us our first female voice in the ‘Power and Conflict’ section of AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology. We see conflict from a mother’s perspective, a position that is both objective, looking on, and subjectively involved. The poet takes on the persona of a mother -it is not important whether she’s writing in character, or writing about her own experiences. It seems ostensibly about a child leaving for school, not a soldier leaving to fight, with the “yellow bias” on the “blazer” which gives it more in common with Cecil Day Lewis’s poem Walking Away in the ‘Love and Relationships’ section of the anthology. She says she deliberately left out any specific war: “after all, there are lots of wars”, which makes it relevant to whichever war – all wars – and she says she was deliberately thinking about mothers, including Susan Owen, Wilfred Owen’s mother. It shows you don’t have to be directly involved in conflict for it to affect you. 

So, when considering the form… When I think about the form of the poem, I think about the following:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

So, Poppies… what do we notice this form? What effects might it have on the reader? 

The poem is written in a very natural way. It’s almost like the line breaks are artificial and just there to make it look like a poem. If you remove the line breaks, it’s very hard to know where they would go, and it works well as a piece of prose. In those ways, it just slices the text up to make it look like a poem, without it having much by way of purposeful effect. It makes use of caesura and enjambment, but not for any particularly dramatic effect like Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage do. It does beg the question about why she does this. For instance, why this: 

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel…

And not this:

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves.
Before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel…

When you aren’t governed by where you put the words, why leave that “Before you left” dangling at the end of the line, hanging after the caesura?

For me, I think there are several effects worth considering. The first is that it makes the form seem almost redundant and accidental, like it doesn’t matter. That’s fine, of course. The form can be just a blank plate to serve words up on, and in the same ways as I discussed in the form of Remains, it could just be a meaningless form on which to serve ideas.

But I don’t think so.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

Perhaps it also shows a bit of carelessness. Typesetters in printers are responsible for making the print aesthetically pleasing. They make sure in novels that the justified text doesn’t have massive gaps between words, or if there is hyphenation to make the text nicely justified that the hyphens fall neatly. I’ll justify this paragraph and you can see what I mean.

But this is not “neat” book justification, just poor computer justification. The typesetter will take much more care than I have over the space between words and making sure the space is exactly even without huge gaps between the words. Poppies seems it’s been arranged by a sloppy typesetter, or a computer algorithm, careless and unartistic. Functional.

In other ways, it could be much more purposeful – when you don’t stick to the ‘natural’ line breaks and you split sentences, use plenty of enjambment and caesura, you end up with something that is quite fragmented and disjointed, with unnatural pauses and hesitations in places you wouldn’t normally find them. For me, this causes the poem to ‘catch’ in strange places, like our breath catches and our sentences jar when we are upset and trying not to show it. We have that little ‘catch’ in a mother’s breath when she says, “Before you left,” where the line break adds weight to that comma pause. If you agree with me about this being the effect, it certainly does seem to catch and jar there.

She breaks down a noun phrase too in the first stanza, “disrupting a blockade/of yellow bias” – when you disrupt a noun phrase with a line break and you’ve even got the word “disrupting” in there, the enjambment and caesura seem much more purposeful.

Again, we have the catch and jar in her voice in stanza two, with the “shirt’s/upturned collar” and how she “steeled the softening/of [her] face” which I think seems to support the notion that the fragmenting, enjambment and caesura are indeed purposeful rather than just being sloppy about what words go where. She is a woman hardening herself so as not to give her emotions away, and the disjointed nature of some of those details makes it seem very much as if she has to stop a second to “steel” herself and gain control over her emotions.

Stanza two runs into stanza three, just like her words…

All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting.

Here the lines do exactly what the words do, slowly melt into one another, adding to that kind of jumbled, formless effect, drifting from line to line before regaining a little compsure. Weir uses the final words at the end of those first lines in stanza three to add emphasis, to leave them hanging a moment for you to think about.

We land on “threw” which becomes so much more dynamic as a result of that line break pause that follows on the page. We do the same with “overflowing” and “a split second”. When we get to line five in that stanza with the full stop at the end, the word “intoxicated” is given so much more emphasis because of it. These are things I’ll discuss and consider further when thinking about the language of the poem.

By the time we get to the run-on lines of the final lines in stanza three, the words drift once more over the lines, just like the bird and the stitching. There’s a freedom and fluidity there which is not constrained by the line breaks or the sense of the lines. The rhyme of “tree… me… busy” also helps these lines speed up and run on into the next, picking up pace. They’re easier to read and more fluid.

The form in the last stanza is more assured. There are fewer unnatural breaks – sometimes verbs split from their object in “traced/the inscriptions” and “hoping to hear/your playground voice” (okay, split from its second object in that, since “to hear” is the first object) but it feels less disjointed than the earlier stanzas, like the poet has found her words and is no longer hesitating over them.

When we think about the stanza breaks, we are also asked to contemplate the structure and organisation of the poem, as well as the voice, tense and tone.

When I think about structure, I think about the following:

This explores how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

We have four ‘paragraphs’ rather than stanzas, per se. Much of the reasoning behind these seems to fall into the domain of structure and organisation, since they seem to have rough ‘topics’ or ideas. The first is about Poppies in themselves. The second is about the mother’s attempts to care for her child and her final reflections before her child leaves. I’ll refer to the child as ‘he’ by the way, only because there is no real indication of whether it is a boy or a girl, only, perhaps the ‘gelled blackthorns’ of the hair, although girls can of course have a short haircut and wear gel. It could be a male or a female child, of course. I shan’t comment on my own innate sexism that the child ‘must be’ a boy since the poem is about conflict and seems to be set with a backdrop of war.

The poem opens with a mother who is reminiscing about a moment when she pinned a poppy to her child’s lapel, and it ends with an impromptu visit to the war memorial where the mother comes into the present moment. It is all written in the past tense, making it more reflective than a present-tense moment: it is a narrated account of internal conflict, of a mother caring for her child, setting them free and then the anxiety and worry that plague her having done so, as she tries to catch a last remnant of her child in the playground.

The first person narration is ambiguous. We do not know whether it is Jane Weir herself or a persona that she has adopted. It could well be some other mother, or it could be her. The first person narration allows us to see her internal conflict more clearly than an external viewpoint would have done: we get to see the inner workings of her thoughts.

In the next post, I will explore the way Jane Weir uses language and imagery in Poppies to create a moment of tension and conflict.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology or GCSE English revision, 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.

 

An Analysis of the language and imagery in Remains by Simon Armitage

In the last post, I looked at the context, form and structure in Simon Armitage’s poem Remains which is in AQA’s GCSE English Literature ‘Power and Conflict’ Anthology. I’ll pick up on some of those features once again as we look at language and imagery, as language is not divorced from form and structure, but the two work together.

I’ve already explored the start of the poem with the words, “On another occasion,” which acts as a sort of unmentioned exophoric reference to other ‘occasions’ that the persona in the poem has spoken or written about. It sounds like oral history, as I also said before, and it acts as a sort of marker that makes it clear that the events that happen in the poem are part of a series or sequence, or that they are nothing out of the ordinary. It just sounds like he is about to tell us some very matter-of-fact, routine, mundane, everyday sort of event. What comes is very much a surprise following this very conversational and banal phrase. It’s a very ordinary, unsurprising opening. It very much is in keeping with that four-line regular, humdrum verse and the unrhymed blank verse. Conversational and ordinary.

I’ve also already talked about the use of the present tense, which also gives it a conversational feel, but also makes it feel very much as if the persona is reliving the event as much as he is retelling it. It is very much the here-and-now for him. Sometimes the present tense is just a way we talk: it’s just a feature of spontaneous spoken English when we’re narrating a story – a way that we make it vivid. “I see this guy walking towards me and I’m all ‘come on, then!’ and just thinking ‘bring it on, mate. Bring it on!'” So that could be one thing Armitage is doing – making it sound like spontaneous spoken English.

Another thing he could be doing is using it to show how, for the soldier, the event is very much ‘now’ – the effect of which is to show how real and current this event is for the soldier, something that he is reliving and something he is unable to move on from. This very much fits with the notion of post-traumatic stress, that the person suffering from it feels like they can’t put the event behind them and move on from it: they are constantly reliving it.

Another way we could look at that present tense is that it makes this soldier, and this event, something that is current – an event that will never date. There will always be incidents like this in some war zone of some country or other. It makes it now. Wilfred Owen does the same thing in Exposure.

Again, no reason it can’t be doing all three things.

It has a very simple colloquial register to it as well, with the “sent out” and “tackle”. It’s a passive construction of a sort. They are “sent”. We have no idea who is sending them or why. This helps us understand that, like the soldiers in Owen’s poem and the soldiers in The Charging of the Light Brigade, they are not really clear on the reasons why. Theirs is not to reason why, indeed. We also have the plural inclusive “we” which could refer to a large number or a small number. We don’t know who this “we” is. Couple that with the present tense and you’ve got a similar voice and tense to Exposure that generalises it, makes it apply to all soldiers, any soldier, and to all wars, any war.

The word “tackle” is kind of innocuous. It’s reminiscent of a football match. Again, it’s colloquial. It sounds as if dealing with the looting should be easy: an everyday occurrence for the soldiers. Looting in itself is also a kind of petty euphemism. Looting means to steal, particularly during a war or riot. In the past, armies who’d laid siege to a city would loot and pillage, not that I am okay with that kind of practice; it implies opportunistic thievery rather than something downright criminal. Not to underplay it, but they aren’t cutting the heads off babies if they’re looting.

There are plenty of other more colloquial terms in the poem, and we catch one in the next line as well, the looter “legs it”. The verse ends with a contemplation as to whether he is armed, “probably armed, possibly not.” The parallel construction shows the weighing up the soldiers have to do in the instant. You’ve also got an interesting thing with the rhythm here: “POSS-i/bly ARMED,/ PROBab/ly NOT.” where we have a trochee followed by an iamb, repeated twice. It gives it a strong rhythm that seems to give it a bit of speed – not unlike the rhythm in The Charge of the Light Brigade. I think it seems to speed the verse up, both towards the inevitable “remains” and also at that moment, emphasising the spur-of-the-moment choices they have to make.

As we move into verse two, we have the “well” which is so indicative of colloquial spontaneous spoken English, adding to that effect that this is an oral history. Some of the details have become blurred; he can’t remember who he was with. Still, we have that strong rhythmic momentum, “and SOMEbody else and SOMEbody else” which drives us on and shows the confusion of the moment. The enjambment also runs the line on, increasing momentum, as does the lack of punctuation. We speed on through the three lines to the “open fire”, which comes as a complete shock – the “are of the same mind” has kind of foxed us, because we had no idea what they were up to.

There’s a real emphasis on three here, “me and somebody else and somebody else”, “all three of us open fire,” and “three of a kind all letting fly”.  I don’t know why this is. I can tell you the symbolism of three in itself, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the importance of this number as a religious digit, but that doesn’t seem to sit with me. I really have no explanation at all why this number is so important to him.

This second verse runs on into the next courtesy of the enjambed line leaving the “and I swear” hanging there, wondering what it is he is about to swear. The moment goes into slow motion as he recounts every single detail, the bullets. There’s a bizarre turn of phrase with “rips through his life”, which I could only really find references for that relate to this poem… it’s not a usual expression by any stretch of the imagination. The alliteration on the r in “round” and “rips” also echoes the sound of the machine gun fire. The dash at the end of the line carries us on into the next, the emphasis on “I see” which is now repeated a second time, focusing us on the fact that the unnamed persona in the poem is reliving this, moment by moment, but in some kind of glorious technicolour movie style – he couldn’t possibly have seen every bullet rip through the looter, and where he may have seen it rip through the looter’s body, he uses the metaphorical “life” instead. It’s not just a body to the soldier. You can’t see a bullet rip through an abstraction, like ‘life’ unless you are using it as a synonym for the body. The colloquial “broad daylight” is also part of this slow-motion scene – it’s clearly not possible to see broad daylight in the wake of a bullet, but the event has become hyper-real to the soldier and he is filling in the gaps.

The “sort of inside out” is again very spoken in style. Not poetic. Not imaginative. Not clever use of adjectives or metaphor, simile or alliteration. Just “sort of inside out”, an approximation. He lacks the words to describe how the looter looks after the bullets have torn through him. I’d say it’s a metaphor, but it’s not, is it? He probably had got more of him outside than in.

But then that struggle to voice what the dead looter looks like intensifies as we move on into the next verse. The line and verse break let us pause before moving on into the second attempt by the soldier to describe the body: “pain itself”. I’m struggling to pinpoint the exact language feature here, except to say that it is an almost reverse personification. One abstract idea becomes real in that dead – or dying – body. The same thing happens with the third detail, the “image of agony”. A tripartite image.

Now it becomes difficult to avoid talking about the threes in this poem. I still don’t know what it means though. I don’t in all sincerity think the three images here have much to do with the repeated three of the soldiers who opened fire. I think, in some ways, it has a lot to do with an avant-garde art movement of the early Twentieth Century: Cubism.

Cubism is an art movement that tried to capture the three dimensions of a thing. You find it in Literature too, in some of the works from this period. This is how Wikipedia defines Cubism: “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form” – which is exactly what happens in this image. It is analysed, “sort of inside out”, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form: “pain itself, the image of agony”. The point of it is that it gives the object being described a more ‘real’ substance, allowing the writer (or painter) to present something in all of what it means to them at one captured moment of time. Writers would do this by using repetition and repeated phrases… kind of what Armitage is doing here. If you want to see this at work in a head-spinning kind of way, Gertrude Stein’s poem, “A Completed Portrait of Picasso” will show you. But other poets picked up on the repetition and the use of multiple perspectives.

Perhaps then, it’s one attempt to describe the body by each one of the soldiers who were involved in the shooting?

Who knows?

What we can definitely say is that the tripartite image allows the persona narrator to really try to fix on what the body looked like, to recreate the image in our mind. It also shows how he’s dwelling on that image, yet he can’t find a way to describe it in ways that please him, which is why he perhaps has three attempts at doing so. Or, it’s his attempt to make it clear to us: we often repeat ourselves when we worry that we will not be understood.

Then the poem slips out of that moment again, “One of my mates goes by”, and the scene comes to life again. There’s a carelessness to the way he “tosses” the “guts back into his body” and he’s “carted off in the back of a lorry”, which is evocative of other things by Wilfred Owen… the image in Dulce et Decorum Est where they “flung” the body of a soldier who had suffered a chemical gas attack into the back of a “wagon”. For me, it’s another of those “everyday” details that makes this seem like a run-of-the-mill event, as if it’s something that happened all the time. It’s not exactly disrespectful, just ‘hurried’, but in that the soldiers in both poems have no time to stop and reflect on the death they have just witnessed, it reminds us of the internal psychological conflict that many soldiers must go through in such circumstances. As Armitage says, “End of story. Except not really.”

For Armitage, the physical and the psychological, the past and the present all merge. It’s the “End of Story” physically… the body has been removed. But it hasn’t, “not really”, since the remains of the looter’s blood stay “on the street”, that “blood shadow”. Physically, it’s not exactly the end of the story for the body. Nor is the body leaving the end of the psychological effects for the soldier. That “blood shadow” is indelibly fixed in his psyche – it’s etched in his mind. He has no way to escape it. It’s not the end of the story psychologically. The past – the death, the killing – stick in the present with that “blood shadow” which reminds the man constantly of what happened, of “the image of agony”.

When the narrator says he has to “walk over it week after week”, we know that it isn’t just the shadow that he’s talking about, but the memory too. He is reliving that week after week. There’s a change of pace towards the end of this verse as the pace becomes more disjointed and choppy. “Then I’m home on leave” is entirely onomatopoeic, curt, brief. A change of scene. I’m imagining he thought that the blood shadow would disappear for good. That caesura followed by “But I blink”, which dangles at the end of the verse and the line, not unlike the technique Owen uses in Exposure. We don’t know what’s coming left. We’re left hanging, waiting for an answer. The connective, “but” sets up a change of direction. We’re guessing that home on leave is a good thing, but the change of direction in this word is as unexpected for us as it probably is for the narrator. Blinking seems such a natural, simple thing. In that blink, we are left, waiting. The enjambment runs us into the next verse hastily for an answer. When the narrator blinks, he sees the incident all over again. He doesn’t just see it. He relives it. It is present tense, at that moment, as real in his imagination as it was in real life. Look at all of those plosive B sounds as well. “But I blink… bursts… bank”

We’ve got other plosive sounds in there as well that makes this particularly abrupt, the K at the end of “blink” and the d in “door”. Those hard sounds add to the intensely monosyllabic line and bring that flashback to life for us just as it comes to life as the narrator blinks. It’s frightening because blinking is such a frequent and natural occurrence. You don’t even have to think about doing it. Also, you can’t stop yourself blinking. So we now that the writer cannot escape the flashbacks that can appear in the flash of an eye.

We have a second time that the flashbacks appear. He can’t even escape when he is asleep. “Sleep”, and we’ve got the repetition of “probably armed, possibly not” (ah, see…. it’s more like Gertrude Stein with her Picasso poem picking up on those repeated images… in fact, it’s at this point that I want to make a little aside to say that I found this poem quite simplistic to start, and seeing these avant-garde Cubist writerly techniques is giving me a new respect for something that felt a bit ‘churned out’, especially in recycling Owen’s body-flinging and tortured reliving of battle…) This repetition is powerful, looping back in. He can’t escape those memories and they haunt him in the exact same way, the exact same loop as happened at the time. He isn’t just remembering, he is reliving it in the present tense. Sleep too reminds me of Macbeth and his tortured “Macbeth shall sleep no more!” speech. “The balm of hurt minds,” Shakespeare called it. Certainly the narrator’s mind is in need of some balm or healing.

“Dream” follows the same pattern, and there’s that three again. “Blink. Sleep. Dream.” This time, it’s a loose rephrasing. “He’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.”

The final line of this verse really conveys that tortured mind so very well. “The drink and the drugs won’t flush him out”. We see what the narrator has been doing to escape this moment, to stop reliving it. It’s woefully inadequate, of course, self-medication. But it is a metaphor that is not a metaphor for the narrator. It feels like the memory is an enemy soldier inside his brain, sitting it out and attacking at random, or even when the narrator is most vulnerable. Of course, he is not physically inside the narrator’s head – it’s just a memory. But it feels real to the narrator, and that’s what’s important. Again, it’s monosyllabic which makes it more simple, more curt, more direct. It also relies on the rhythm of the repeated “dr” sound in “the DRINK and the DRUGS” as well as the stresses which fall on these words. It mixes in the loosely war-time/hunting metaphor about being “flushed out”. I imagine that war-time use of this word came from the hunting term, but it’s hard to know for sure. Simply put, if your enemy has “gone to ground”, is hidden or camouflaged, like a pheasant in the hedgerows, “flushing him out” is one way to get him to appear so that you can kill him.

But “flushing out” has another meaning as well, particularly one associated with liquids. We flush the toilet to “flush out” our waste. You can flush out your eyes if you get a foreign object in there. Detox people will tell you about flushing out your kidneys… it just means using water or liquid to clean something by flooding it and using water to dislodge it. You can see how this works on two levels with the alcohol. He’s using drink to try and dislodge the memory of the event, just as he is with the (non-liquid) drugs.

Particularly evocative word choices there.

As we move into the penultimate stanza, he carries on the image of the looter who has almost taken root in the soldier’s mind, “dug in behind enemy lines”. This works as a metaphor, the enemy lines being the soldier’s mind. A soldier who has “dug in” has dug a trench and is preparing to attack. It feels here as if the soldier is literally under siege from the enemy memory within his own head. It contrasts also with the ease of killing the escaping looter in the street, since this memory is proving much more difficult to eliminate than the looter was in real life.

We follow the same, terse, curt monosyllabic patterns following the enjambed dash between the two stanzas, “he’s here in my head”, where the “h” is a breathy alliteration that perhaps evokes (bear with me on this… It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of an effect, and it’s highly speculative! I wouldn’t want anyone taking it as read that these meanings are why Armitage is using the alliteration here!) the panicked breathing of the soldier (try three sharp “huh – huh – huh” breaths) or even the airy, intangible nature of the looter. I would very much doubt Armitage thought “I am deliberately going to stick in three ‘h’s in a row to make it sound like panicked breathing!” but I think it’s a nice effect nonetheless. It does sound to me like panicked breathing – a little. But the other sounds detract from that of course. You could almost say it sounds like a whisper. That works as well as an explanation of the effect of the alliteration there. Of course the soldier would be whispering if he didn’t want to alert the image in his mind. If that’s the effect you’re going for, there’s no reason at all why you couldn’t say that whispery sound evokes his paranoid state of mind. It certainly could. And there’s no reason at all why it can’t be doing both.

The stanza begins almost to rhyme as well, from “eyes” to “lines”, then a true rhyme in “land” and “sand” – then “hands” in the final couplet. I don’t know why it does that. Armitage does rhyme superbly – he uses it to eerie effect and to emphasise lines in many of his poems. I can’t say with any certainty what I think Armitage’s purpose is in doing so here. It feels to me like he’s using the rhyme to speed us to a final conclusion. It moves from colloquial to poetic, like he’s polished these words in his mind. Armitage likes patterns and plays around with them – it’s something I leave with you to consider, mainly because I don’t have any answers myself. For me, it certainly seems to drive on towards a desperate conclusion and that final line about how it is to take a life. I spent a lot of time on Google this morning looking at a variety of comments on Armitage’s rhyme across his poems (and even an article in The Guardian by Armitage where he seems to revel in the joys of the Arctic Monkeys’ internal rhyme) – there are lots of people, intelligent people, and guide books etc who point out that Armitage likes rhyme, perfect rhyme, internal rhyme and all other facets of rhyme, and not any of them talk about the effect. For me, it’s often pleasure or discomfort where Armitage uses rhyme. I think he uses it like a highlighter in his poetry to draw attention to emotion. But the jury is out and you are very welcome to give me your explanation of the effect of that building climactic perfect rhyme.

Another thing that seems to show a pondering of ideas, a climactic (cubist?!) build-up is the “distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land” where you can’t ignore the alliteration on the ‘s’ either…. the ending with its rhyme and alliteration is much more polished than the colloquial opening. The tone changes from the colloquial to the poetically rich. For me, it shows a polishing of those words, a deliberation on them.

We move in the final couplet to the alliterative “near to the knuckle”, which shows that neither time nor space can put distance between the narrator and the incident with the looter. It finishes with the very metaphoric “his bloody life in my bloody hands” which also plays on the rhythms there… “his BLOODy LIFE in my BLOODy HANDS”

We use this clichéd metaphor regularly… “my life is in your hands”. It usually means that we are responsible for whether someone lives or dies – or metaphorically – that we owe them a debt, we’re relying on them – not that our lives really depend on them. It’s a phrase that is at least a good couple of hundred years old, and Armitage uses it to show the narrator feels that he was (or is) responsible for the man’s life. But since we know that the looter died, we understand how profoundly guilty the soldier feels for having taken the life of the looter. It brings to mind the guilt of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, how she feels unable to wash away the spot of blood on her hands, how it tortures her, destroys her sleep and her peace of mind. It leaves us in no doubt that the narrator will forever be tortured by the death of the looter.

Next time, on through the anthology with Jane Weir’s Poppies

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.

 

An Analysis of the context, form and structure of Remains by Simon Armitage

Okay lovelies, Simon Armitage is up next with his poem Remains, which appears in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology section Power and Conflict for exams from 2017 forward. English teachers love Simon Armitage and he’s become a real stalwart of GCSE courses.

That said, there’s not a lot of stuff out there on this poem, so I’m going to ignore a lot of the context stuff until it appears in the poem. Instead of starting globally as I am wont to do, and narrowing in, I’m going to start with the minutiae and work out. If I come across some stuff that I think you need to know the context of, why I shall go right ahead and tell you.

Just incidentally, when doing a search for the poem, I came across a website that has completely stolen my analysis of other poems. I was reading it and I thought “this sounds awfully like good sense, but they do love a semi-colon,” before I realised that those words were my words. It’s not the first time this has happened, but I do wish people would learn to quote their sources. Or write their own stuff. The latter, preferably. I’m quite proud that someone thinks I write enough sense to steal from.

Anyhow…

The form of the poem.

When I think about form, I think about this:

Form

How it’s set out on the page; line length, syllables, rhythm (metre) rhyme, what words are on what line, number of lines, sonnet, couplets, three lines, quatrains, regularity of the number of lines in a verse/stanza, capitals (or lack of) main punctuation at the end of lines or stanzas (, . , .  / , , , . / ; : ; . )  phrase splits and the way the words fall on each line, which ideas are linked within the line or stanza and which are separate, caesura, enjambment.

Form is what makes it a poem and not prose. Why does it look the way it does? What decisions has the poet made about what he has put on one line and what on another? Why this form?

These are the questions I ask myself. First bit of context: Armitage loves to play around with form. Many of his poems use form in interesting ways.

First, I’m asking myself what is usual and unusual about the poem? Four lines is about as regular a verse structure as you get. So we have regularity and normality. But then we don’t. Those last lines are a couplet, substantially different from the others. So we have to ask ourselves why is this? What is the significance of these things?

Of all the verse structures that Armitage could have picked, he went for four lines. So why this regularity? Is it suggesting a normality for the narrator? The way the poem starts suggests a kind of continuation from other stories – from the way the poem looks on the page, it wouldn’t seem that we were in for any surprises. For me, those four-line verses convey a regularity, a normality – given the colloquial tone, we wouldn’t think that this poem will lead to opening fire on a looter. The choice of form is mundane, hum-drum even. It has an added bonus of not detracting from the ideas and images in the poem either, which is good. For me, it’s a very ordinary form, the most ordinary of forms, so why would you pick such a normal form? I think it does a couple of things. The first is that it makes the event in itself seem mundane and humdrum, like it’s the kind of thing that happens every day. Take that with the opening of “on another occasion” and it sounds like it’s part a series of stories or everyday anecdotes. Having this most commonplace form supports the ‘commonplace’ – ironic, since this kind of event should not be commonplace in anybody’s life. I think in this way, the four-line verses emphasise the absurdity of the situation: it is nonsensical and illogical, unthinkable even, that this sort of event should be so commonplace that you’d a) not mention it first as the most pivotal of your military experiences and b) you’d attach no particularly special importance to it. Armitage is not the first to put ill-matching forms and content together to highlight the meaningless and irrational. Clown Punk is another poem where he does the same.

Another reason that he could have chosen this most commonplace form is that it is simply a vehicle for the content. When you strip the form of all its meaning, it’s kind of like presenting a fancy meal on a white plate or a piece of slate. No busy patterned china or fancy designs to detract from it. The white plate or slate is just a ‘clean’ way to present food in the same way as this commonplace form is a clean way to present the ideas. That way we don’t get bogged down in thinking about the line-breaks and the pace, the rhythm and way the words fall. Ironic that I just spent a good lengthy paragraph dissecting his choice of the four-line verse if that was Armitage’s purpose. In that case, I would be very sorry for pontificating over its significance when Armitage might have wanted to have zero significance at all were he prioritising the content.

There is absolutely no reason he can’t have done both things, by the way… chosen a commonplace form so that it doesn’t distract from the content, but at the same time using that to highlight the way that the narrator describes this event as something normal and ordinary, which highlights how irrational the event is.

And of course, it’s all normal and ordinary except for the finishing couplet which breaks with the rest of the poem.

So why the finishing couplet?

Shakespeare used couplets to finish off a story, to mark an ending, like the curtains drawing on a scene, or as a way to emphasise a character’s lines. It was as if to say “this will give you something to think about.” And the poem certainly does that. I think, perhaps a bit like Exposure, the verse is cut short, just as the man’s life was cut short. When Armitage says earlier “End of Story except not really”, this too feels like there is more that goes unsaid.

Although the first verse starts with neat end-stopped lines, the poem soon falls to enjambment and caesura, which fracture the rhythm just as it does in Bayonet Charge. I’ll explore more about the enjambment and caesura when I explore the language of the poem, because it makes more sense to think about which words he is emphasising and how. We’ll look in more detail at where the enjambment runs those ideas on, where we trip and fall over the rhythm.

Really, that’s as much as I want to say about the form in itself. There will be points when I’m discussing the language when I’ll want to show how he uses form to highlight or underscore a particular idea, but those would be better taken in context with the rest of the content.

So, when I’m thinking about structure, what does that entail exactly?

Structure refers to how the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

So how does this work when I look at Remains?

The first and most noticeable thing about the structure is the title itself. Remains. It’s a very open word. Whose remains? I’m pretty sure here that it is meant as a noun rather than a verb. Remains are the bits left of something. The pieces that are left over when the rest has been taken away. For me, it seems to suggest that what is left is something perhaps discarded. It is what is left when everything else has been removed. It can, of course, refer to a corpse, a dead body. A final sense of the word is the ‘remains’ of a writer: the fragments that are left after their death. All of those leave us with something to think about, to consider what the title means when we have considered the rest of the poem.

It asks more questions than it answers.

It could refer to the looter, of course. He is what is left when the others have escaped. It can be his body, his remains, what is left of him when the shooting has finished, the bit “carted off in the back of a lorry”, or the “blood shadow” on the street where it happened, the physical ‘ghost’ of him.

It could also refer to the idea that this event has had consequences for the narrator. It is about his own ‘remains’ and the bits left over in him following the shooting. I think it’s the “remains” of the man in Armitage’s memory, what is left of him, the fragments that appear when the narrator is “home on leave”. The “remains” of the man are what is left in the narrator’s head, “dug in behind enemy lines”, the memories of the event and of the man that torture the narrator. The title, then, is woven through the physical remains of the man, the physical “blood shadow”, the memories of the man in the narrator’s head.

In terms of structure, I can also think about the way the poem opens. That word “another” is an adjective at its most simple, describing “an occasion”, but it is also a discourse marker in that it’s used usually as a connective. We don’t start a conversation with “another”. It’s like starting it with “And” or “Additionally…”

Yet Armitage does this in other poems. To me, it implies a kind of sequence, that this is taken out of the middle of something. It’s not something we use entirely in speech for fluency, but there is something in this poem that suggests to me that it is the spoken word. It feels to me almost like those wartime oral histories the BBC is a fan of collecting for posterity. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think it’s a lot to do with the colloquial tone, “one of them legs it up the road,” and the slips of tense, “we get sent out”, as well as the word “Well”, which is a kind of filler here, softening it and making it sound more like a spoken monologue. We also have lots of simple coordinating conjunctions like “and” and “so” as well as the run-on lines and the word “then” which acts as a kind of simple temporal connective. I once listened to a friend’s son telling a story. He started telling it in Paris. Three hours later, he was still telling it. It didn’t have any stopping points at all as every single sentence was spliced together with an “and then”. People use these a lot in speech to help with fluidity. I think that these are some of the ways that Armitage makes it sound more like spontaneous spoken English than a poem as such. The word “another” in that opening acts almost as an exophoric reference, referring to events outside the text that we have no knowledge of as a reader or listener, but we would if we were the “real” audience to whom Armitage’s character narrator seems to be talking to. I think we are asked to be a kind of interviewer, or psychotherapist maybe, psychiatrist or priest. It leaves us with an interesting question… who does Armitage’s character narrator think the reader is? We’re definitely a confidante of some kind. It reminds me in this way of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Stealing a former AQA Anthology stalwart, except that it is less interactive. It’s clear Armitage’s persona is talking, but there is no sense of to whom or even that he is aware anyone is listening. The persona seems isolated and cut off.

Other things I can talk about include the voice and viewpoint: we have a character narrator, a construct Armitage is using to voice the situation. We need to think about the effect of his first-person choice rather than if he had told it as a third person choice. So what’s the effect of that? You can think about how he uses it to give us an insider point of view, how he uses it to make it more personal. Yet, like many poems about conflict, it is an ‘unnamed voice’ that could represent the experiences of a good number of soldiers. GCSE answers could get a lot of mileage out of explaining the effect of that first-person unnamed voice on the reader.

What else is interesting is the tense of the poem. The character narrates it entirely in present tense, even though it is clear it happened in the past. What I think this does is create the notion that the poet is still living this moment, that this event is still ‘now’ for him. It really helps with the “here and now” feeling of the poem.

Other things I might want to comment on in terms of the structure are the way it moves from the past to the present, from an external event to internal feelings. It has a narrative chronological structure, following time order from the past to the present. From this we could assume that it has implications for the soldier’s future too, if we can work off that progression. That present tense helps make it not only “here and now” but ‘always’. It will always be with him. The man will always be “dug in” his memory.

From the innocuous starting tone, a soldier recounting events, it becomes clear that this is no wartime voice, no objective reflection on things that have gone. By the end, we realise that the character narrator will be haunted by what he has done for the rest of his life. There is no escaping that image, even in sleep. It reminds me very much in this way of Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen and Survivors by Siegfried Sassoon, some of the earliest poems about shell-shock (which would go on to be named Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or an Acute Stress Response) Although one thing is different: this not a man who seems on the surface to have had his mind destroyed by what he has done. He is not a skeletal zombie who is haunted to such an extreme that they slobber and drool. He is coherent. He is fluent. Yet he is haunted. I don’t think it loses anything by being less shocking than Mental Cases or Survivors in its imagery. If anything, this man’s haunting, personal hell is all the more unsettling because he seems so coherent. Here, you can’t see what lies beneath, even in the opening lines of the poem, we have no idea.

In the next post, I’ll look at the language and imagery used by Armitage in the poem, exploring how he recreates the event for us.

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.

 

An analysis of the language and imagery in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

In the last post, I explored the use of form and structure in Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes, which is in this year’s AQA GCSE English Literature anthology for exams from 2017.  Today, I’ll be exploring how language works with the form and structure to convey Hughes’ viewpoint about the themes of conflict explored in the poem.

Bayonet Charge starts in the middle of the action, unlike some other poems in the anthology, which give you the necessary back story you need to make sense of it. Here, all we get is the title, an unknown war, an unknown time. It isn’t an entire story like The Charge of the Light Brigade.

So, what’s the effect of starting in the middle of something?

It’s immediately more dramatic. We’re dropped into the action, unprepared, perhaps like the soldier himself. The opening word ‘Suddenly’ emphasises this. It’s as much a shock for us as it is for the soldier. We also see that it’s past tense. This is another point of comparison with The Charge of the Light Brigade which is also past tense.

Here, you’ve got to think about the effect of tense. Present tense makes something more real, more ‘now’ – it’s as if it is happening now in front of our very eyes. We don’t know, just as the characters don’t, what will happen. Past tense is reflection. It gives us time to think, to consider our angle. I suppose, in a way, present tense is a little less biased – it’s presenting what happens, as it happens. Of course, this is only an illusion. All poems are written after the event, rather than during it. It’s not as if they unravel as time does. Past tense means that you’re reflecting on a completed action. There isn’t much, however, that is reflective about this poem. However, writing after the fact means that Ted Hughes, just like Tennyson, is allowed to consider his ‘spin’, his angle on things, to add his views and to polish the writing. Past tense is more commonly used with narrative and reflective writing. Present tense is more vivid in some ways, because it’s like watching something as it happens.

There’s something peculiar about what’s happening. The soldier, who is as yet un-named, and his role unidentified (we don’t know that he’s a soldier – it just says ‘he’ – and we can only guess from the title) is awake and immediately running. It’s odd. We don’t normally wake up and then start running. Why would we do this? Because we’re under threat? Are we running to something, or away from something?

The word ‘raw’ is separated by a dash from the line. The poet makes us stop and think about this word. It stands alone, brief and ‘raw’. And then he repeats it in the next line, so if we were in any doubt about the importance of this word, we aren’t now. So what does raw tell us? It tells us that something is unfinished or unprocessed (like ‘raw’ crude, which is petrol as it comes out of the ground, unrefined) and like his seams, which aren’t sewn over, aren’t made for comfort. They’re rubbing against him, making his skin ‘raw’. When our skin is ‘raw’, we’re often describing a wound. His skin has been chaffed until it is red. It’s painful. It’s a word that evokes pain. It’s what happens when something abrasive has rubbed on your skin. It’s also a word that when we use about emotions means emotions that are really clear, really on the surface, “strong and undisguised” (Oxford Dictionary) which could mean that all his emotions are on show, for everyone to see.

There are other things we could say about this word ‘raw’

  • Is he like a ‘raw’ recruit, unpolished, unrefined, inexperienced?
  • Is it that his skin is raw on a literal level?
  • Is he emotionally raw, on a metaphorical level?
  • Are his emotions strong and undisguised, like ‘raw anger’?

This little fragmented, repeated word gives us a lot to think about and it works on lots of levels.

The word ‘khaki’ is our first sign that this is an army situation. Khaki is the colour of army uniforms, and it’s often used in a military sense. It’s little clues like this that make it overtly about the war, in ways that we have only seen so far in Charge of the Light Brigade. 

The third line starts with ‘stumbling’. Like all the great verbs in The Charge of the Light Brigade, this is a very evocative word. If you stumble, it’s like you’re out of control. Wilfred Owen says a man caught in a mustard gas attack was ‘stumbling’ in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est – it doesn’t sound like the noble, brave or glorious soldiers in The Charge of the Light Brigade with all their sabres flashing, racing on proud horses into battle. This sounds like a man running to escape, desperate. If we stumble, we are hesitant. We stumble when we are unsure, when we have made a mistake. It sounds as if this man is at great risk. Yet we are three lines into the poem, and other than the title, we have no concept of why he is running. 

Like other poems in the selection, Bayonet Charge also uses the natural as a contrast. He races towards a ‘green hedge’ – it seems strangely out of place on this battlefield. We’re reminded that often, battlefields are exactly that: fields. And yet, other than his khaki clothing and the title, we’ve had little other clue that this man is a soldier or is involved in a battle. We see here how incongruous a war would be, out in the countryside. It doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t seem natural. 

The first five lines use enjambment to run the lines into each other, so you end up saying them like this:

Suddenly he awoke and was running – raw In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy, Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing Bullets smacking the belly out of the air –

It’s all one long breathless sentence – and it still doesn’t have a full stop when we get to line 5. So why would Ted Hughes want us to be breathless? Does it evoke and recreate the soldier’s own breathlessness, unable to take a pause?

Not only that, but we stumble over our words too, when reading it aloud. It makes us read the words in a halting, hesitant manner, although speeding through it. The line breaks don’t fall where maybe they might, similar in ways to Heaney in Storm on the Island. In contrast to that poem, though, where the secterian violence is an unmentioned backdrop to the poem, where the lexical field of war is used to paint a picture of how nature attacks the island, here it is the war which seems out of place. 

The fourth line is where we begin to see the images of war: the hedge is dazzling with ‘rifle fire’ – which makes us wonder why he’s running to the hedge – surely, if that’s where all the bullets are going, he’s better behind the bullet line? Is he just running into danger? The verb ‘dazzled’ is very reminiscent of words in The Charge of the Light Brigade, which also uses words like ‘flashed’ to describe the weaponry. It’s these verbs that make the poem so vivid and recreate the sights of conflict. ‘Dazzled’, to me, doesn’t have the same visceral brutality as ‘smacked’ in the next line. Dazzled, if anything, is quite pretty. Smacked is not.

Ted Hughes personifies nature here, the air, saying the bullets ‘smacked’ the belly out of the air. It’s as if nature itself is the target: it’s the hedge being shot up, it’s the air that is being shot in the belly. Belly is also a fairly basic, evocative word. In fact, the word belly was banned from the Bible for a couple of centuries! Still, children often say ‘tummy’ rather than ‘belly’ and if you ask a grown-up they might say stomach, or a doctor might say ‘abdomen’ – belly is still a word that has got a fairly crude whiff about it. It’s a brutal, basic word. The Bible sees the belly as the seat of all our more primitive emotions, lust, greed and so on. Put it with ‘smacking’ and you’ve got some fairly brutal, harsh language. Couple that with the image of the air being shot at, and you’ve got a really powerful image. The ‘b’s in this line are also fairly plosive. Your mouth closes to say the ‘b’ (like other plosive sounds) and then pushes it from your mouth. Plosive sounds are often used by Hughes and his contemporary, Heaney, to have an oral effect. And the effect of a plosive explosion of ‘b’s? It’s harsh, basic and violent. Those plosive words ‘belly’ and ‘bullets’ really add to the effect of the poem, how violent it sounds. You might think I’m labouring the point but there are only four ‘b’ plosive sounds in the first verse, and two of them are on this line. This image of nature being attacked by war is the reverse of the images that we see in Exposure where it is nature that is the enemy.

Following these harsh plosives and the personification of the air, we have a simile: ‘he lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm’. This image shows how the rifle has become almost like an extra limb – albeit a useless one. It’s dead weight. It’s also a very violent image – a ‘smashed’ arm – not just broken, but ‘smashed’. It couldn’t be much more brutal. It reminds us that the machinery and weaponry of war is senseless, literally, unfeeling. It’s a part of him, like an arm, but also it’s not a part of him – it’s useless, a hindrance.

Hughes moves to the pluperfect tense when he describes the patriotism that ‘had’ driven this man, suggesting that it is not there now. Now it is ‘sweating like molten iron’ from him – iron being heavy, weighing him down, but also metal – an inanimate object as unfeeling as the rifle. All of these metallic images seem to make him sound ‘robotic’ – like he is being replaced by metal and weaponry, like Robocop.

At that moment, he is ‘bewildered’, confused. And what confuses him? That confusion also echoes the confusion of Owen in Exposure. It reminds me here of another Owen poem too, Futility, where Owen reflects on God and life, how pointless the miracle of the universe seems when lives are snuffed out so easily and without consequence or even recognition. 

Where Owen refers to the ‘cold’ emotionless clay that formed the world in Futility, Hughes calls it a ‘cold clockwork’ suggesting something emotionless and mechanical, inhuman. The alliteration of ‘c’ – cuh – is cutting. It’s another plosive sound – kuh – and it’s cacophonous – dischordant. It stands out. It emphasises the ‘cold clockwork’ – making us think about it. The alliteration draws attention to it. Again, like many of the other poems in the selection, God is not present in this war. It continues the theme of this literally ‘god-forsaken’ war – a war that God can have no part in. All we are is ‘cold clockwork’ – the universe is something mechanised, something emotionless. The soldier ponders his place in time, where all this conflict fits in the grand scheme of things. In the billions of years that have passed and may pass, what is the significance of this war? Like Owen, even like Tennyson, he raises questions that almost cannot be answered, because the answer is that life, death and conflict are meaningless, pointless. And that very nihilistic thought is almost too depressing to live with. No wonder the soldier almost stops.

He ‘listens’ for the reason for things, and finds no reason at all.

Out in the middle of this chaos, where the soldier is frozen like a statue, a ‘yellow hare’ appears. The land here is ‘shot slashed’ and it reminds me that no matter where you go in a war-ravaged area, you cannot but think of the tragedy and the blood spilt, that the rain and seasons have now washed away. We don’t know if the hare has been shot, but it seems injured. It is ‘threshing’, in a circle, like an animal might do with a broken leg, unable to go in a straight line. It comes from the word ‘thrashing’, as in ‘thrashing about’ – moving ‘in a violent and convulsive way’ – it doesn’t head for freedom. Its mouth is ‘wide/Open silent,’ and here, Hughes uses the enjambment and the semi-caesura of the comma to make this bit fractured and fragmented, disjointed. It’s a terrible image, this hare in pain on the battlefield, reminding us that war is totally opposite to what is natural and good. It destroys the natural order of things. It gets worse. The hare isn’t just thrashing about violently in a circle, with its mouth open, as if screaming silently, but its eyes are ‘standing out’ – it’s terrified. Its last moments are in pain, terror and fear. It’s a hideous image. But then, is it any different for any of the soldiers who die? The hare seems almost a euphemistic, softer way of making us think about the soldiers who died in similar ways. It’s almost too painful to imagine.

Still, this spurs the soldier on, to make it to the safety of the green hedge, if safety is what he’ll find there. Hedges are often homes and protection for small birds, small countryside animals like voles and mice, protecting them from predators, and here, I’m reminded of the sanctuary a hedge provides for smaller creatures from things like hawks. A hedge is their fortress. Yet we know a hedge isn’t going to protect this soldier from bullets or bayonets.

What spurs him on? Patriotism. ‘King, honour, human dignity’ – like Henry V spurring on his men in Shakespeare’s play, who rallies his men with ‘cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’ (and if you want a great rallying call that picks up on patriotism and loyalty, Henry V’s speech is a great place to start, since it picks up on loads of great images that are used to spur men on to be victorious in battle, like Henry V was at Agincourt) – but Hughes undermines the effect of this little tripartite rally (there’s your little persuasive list of three, like ‘Harry, England and St George!’) with ‘etcetera’ as if he can’t be bothered to name all the other trite and meaningless words that fill his spirit. It’s a real anticlimax. Shakespeare finishes on ‘St George’ – a real build-up – and yet  Hughes undermines his with this little ‘etcetera’ – as if you already know how it goes. It really shows how hollow and pointless this is, this use of anticlimax at the end. If those words did make you feel patriotic, then ‘etcetera’ bursts that patriotic bubble.

Hughes calls these thoughts ‘luxuries’ – as if in war, he can’t afford to be driven by these thoughts. A luxury is something we can do without, something non-essential, something additional or extra to what we need. Still, it is these thoughts that spur him on to finally make his way to safety. If, again, that’s what the hedge is. I can’t help but think if the hedge is ‘dazzling’ with gun shot, he’s actually going to find this isn’t a safe haven at all. A luxury can be a comfort, though, and we get the feeling that although these feelings of patriotism aren’t essential to battle, it’s what keeps him going. When he stops to question what it is all about, Hughes tells us: country, honour, dignity. It’s a battle for something more than land. You are doing it for something bigger than you will ever be. And it’s enough to light this man’s fuse.

We then get a sense that the hedge is hiding the enemy – he gets his bayonet out and runs at the hedge. It’s as if he’s attacking nature. Of course, Hughes doesn’t say that he’s running into the enemy. This soldier has gone ‘over the top’ and is running at the enemy. The hedge is marking the enemy. The dazzling is rifle fire. The hedge is not protection, but the enemy. He is running to certain death. A bayonet is a knife that you fit to the end of your rifle in order to charge at the enemy – designed for close-quarter combat, man on man. It’s a last-resort weapon – it’s not ‘clean’ like rifle fire, because you’re up close and personal with the men you have to kill, and if you are in a situation where you have to use a bayonet, your chance of survival is pretty limited. This soldier is nothing but ‘cannon fodder’ – food for the enemy, served up on a plate. They have nothing to do but run at the enemy and hope to overwhelm them. It’s an utterly pointless and useless method of combat reserved only for speeding up death when picking off people by rifle fire is taking too long, and you are cornered without ammunition or supplies.

It worked in earlier wars, where a platoon could run across a battlefield or no-man’s-land knowing that the enemy might only get off a couple of rounds, because muskets took such a long time to load. But it didn’t work by the time of World War One, because rifles were so much more accurate and so much more quick to load. A bayonet charge was a battle tactic that was outdated and cost many, many lives. So we get a sense of how ridiculous it is for this man to run with his bayonet at a hedge-full of whatever enemy it is that he’s facing. We also get no sense that he is in company. There’s a real feeling that he’s alone and that he’s facing a larger number of this nameless enemy – his prospects of living are very slim.

What it is finally that sets fire to the ‘dynamite’ of his terror is a little thought of patriotism. It is his ‘dynamite’ terror if anything that is forcing him to run, to fight, not honour or duty or loyalty or patriotism.

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

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.

 

An analysis of the context, form and structure of Bayonet Charge

Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes gets its second outing as a GCSE English Literature anthology poem for AQA, having previously been included in the last. Whilst it may not be his best poetic offering, it fits well within the Power and Conflict section and compares easily with other war poems such as The Charge of the Light Brigade as well as those that explore the battle with nature such as Exposure or even Storm on the Island.

Context… Ted Hughes, like Heaney, is a poet who often explores nature in his poems. I don’t think he’s as accessible as Heaney, which is why you find fewer of his poems littering anthologies, although some of his poems are popular in collections. Like Wordsworth and Tennyson, he was also Poet Laureate, which shows in some measure his popularity. Hughes’ father served during World War One and fought at Ypres. This poem is from his first collection, published in 1957, The Hawk in the Rain, which contains a number of poems about the war. The most interesting images in this collection as you might be able to work out from the title are the way he uses animals to explore a number of themes. The Thought Fox, View of a Pig and Pike are three of his poems that focus on animals and use them to explore other themes. The collection itself is noted for its use of rhythm and the way Ted Hughes, not unlike Heaney, also uses the sounds of words for specific effect and to complement the ideas in his poems.

In terms of ideas in the poem, it compares well with Charge of the Light Brigade simply because of those graphic, violent images.

When we start looking at the form of the poem, we see that it’s written in free verse. We see those three stanzas of seven or eight lines – there’s a loose regularity, but nothing you would feel compelled to comment on. The stanzas are as long as they need to be and do not force the poem or box it into corners by requiring it to be more ‘neat’. You’ll notice the stanzas blend into one another, as we consider how the ideas are structured and we see that the first stanza runs into the second, and the second runs into the third. I think that it is more than appropriate to convey the sense of motion in the poem, to echo the way the soldier moves through the poem. The first line of stanza two seems to be very much a part of the first stanza, and then the second line changes subject, as he stops and reflects on the “cold clockwork” – almost like the soldier is frozen in motion as his mind reflects on the events, or like the poet deliberately (almost) stops him in mid-charge to interject this reflection on what it is the soldier is doing here.

Similarly as we move into stanza three, the last line of stanza two seems like it would be better placed in stanza three, but the gap between the stanzas very much emphasises the shot-slashed furrows. I’ll talk more about why he runs an idea into stanza two from stanza one, and why he leaves that little fragment of stanza three hanging back there in stanza two, but the overall effect is one of a disjointed, fragmented and fractured moment.

The poem is not driven or constrained by rhythm and rhyme in the same way that other poems are. One of the focal points we might notice about the form of the poem is that it makes a lot of use of enjambment, with two noticeably enjambed lines in stanza one, the “raw/in raw-seamed hot khaki,” and “hearing/bullets smacking the belly out of the air” where the rest of the line breaks kind of fall where you would expect them to. That begs us to consider why he runs these lines into the next, why he wants to break up these phrases. For me, he leaves that word “raw” hanging at the end of the line, making it more important somehow, especially given the repetition of the word. It really makes us reflect on that rawness. And in the second, there is a gap between “hearing” and what he hears, the “bullets”, which seems to slow them down – a tiny, mini pause on paper that we don’t hear in the reading. That word “hearing” dangles… We’d read it and wonder what it is he hears, it’s like the word “bullets” catches up a microsecond later.

In stanza two, we also have some interesting use of enjambment, focusing us on the words “running” and “runs”. The lines literally run into the next line. When you take that huge sentence, split over four lines, you are obliged to think about why Hughes has written it this way:

                                                                                     He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride.

That 35-word sentence is long. It leaves us breathless to read. That’s its first effect… we are as breathless as he is. I’m reading, desperate for the comma after “still running”, and by the time I get there, I’m breathless. It makes that breath-pause comma-stop even more necessary and when I read it aloud, I find myself stopping there for longer than I would to catch my breath. For me, it emphasises the need to get to the target (the comma) in order to breathe again… I’m conscious of needing to get there, just as the soldier must be to get to the safety of his target – “the green hedge”. I’ll talk more about how he uses enjambment to add meaning to those active verbs in the next post exploring the language and imagery in the poem.

In the third stanza, we also have some noticeable enjambment between “wide/open silent”, splitting the idea over two lines. I think this does a similar thing as it has done in other parts of the poem. The line breaks stop us in mid-phrase, leaving us hanging for a microsecond, as if time has just stopped still at that moment. I don’t know why but it reminds me of when they slow film down and you can see the individual frozen moments that make up a movie. It seems to capture that moment like a photograph and freeze it, like they’re in suspended animation. At the very least, it allows us to process the image, to take it in. But where he splits phrases across lines, those line breaks seem to me to be a chasm of a pause rather than just a line break. The effect for me is that it seems to put the soldier – or the hare – into suspension, stopping them for a brief moment before continuing.

When we consider structure, the poem starts as if the man has awoken from sleep. It drops us right into the action alongside the soldier when it starts with “Suddenly he awoke”. It’s disorienting and confusing. We have no idea what woke him or why he is running, or indeed who “he” is. Like Heaney’s and Owen’s ambiguous “we”, this “he” gives us no idea who “he” is, although the title will, of course, have filled us in on what is happening here. The title gives us a sense of what is going on and why he is running – it’s essential in order to make meaning from the first line that we understand the title. But it gives us a little of the soldier’s confusion and disorientation.

The poem narrates two moments: the soldier running, and then the appearance of the hare. We notice the word “then” at the end of the second stanza which shifts us on to the next moment. It’s a brief incident, but it is described in such detail that it becomes almost slow motion, with each action distinct. The introduction of the hare seems almost surreal, and we’re reminded that in order for the man to pass the hare, the hare’s “threshing circle” must be its death throes. It wouldn’t make sense any other way.

I find the ending the most interesting aspect of the structure: does the soldier get to the hedge or not? We don’t know. It is left unfinished. The fact that the poem is also past tense means that Hughes could have made that clear, had he wanted to, but it finishes with the final moment being the soldier’s wish to get to the hedge, “to get out of that blue crackling air” – and that’s where it finishes. We never know if he survives or if he dies. It’s a bit of a philosophical dilemma – like Schrodinger’s cat. You’ll need to get someone better at explaining complex quantum physics to tell you about Schrodinger’s cat, but essentially the dilemma is this: there is a cat in a box. It’s either alive or dead. Until you open the box, it is BOTH alive AND dead. I have no idea what the comparison is supposed to explore, but the soldier is in that same state. It’s possible he lived, it’s possible he died. Both things are true and not true. The poem finishes with the uncertainty over the man’s life. We don’t know who he is, which war this is, when this is, where this is, and we finish the poem not even knowing if he is alive or dead. In this way, Hughes leaves us with an enormous mystery which leaves us feeling unsettled.

The poem is not just observational – there are moments where we go into the mind of the soldier. By the last four lines of the poem, it has become much more subjective as Hughes takes us into the inner thoughts of the soldier. What had been largely observational and focused on external actions is now focused on telling us that the soldier has forgotten all the nobility, the glory of war and is only now fixed on saving himself. We have a structural shift then from external actions to internal thoughts as we arrive at the final lines. That subjectivity touches us too as a reader: we cannot help but feel like we want him to get to safety, but we are cheated of that knowledge.

In the next post, I’ll look at how Hughes uses language and imagery in Bayonet Charge, exploring the words he chooses and how he uses the sound of language for effect as well as some of the ideas within 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.

 

An analysis of the language and imagery in Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island

Last week, I explored the context, form and structure of Storm on the Island by Seamus Heaney, which is in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology for 2017 onwards. What we’re asked to consider is to what extent Heaney’s own personal and literary context influenced the poem, whether or not it is in keeping with his poems exploring conflict in Northern Ireland, or whether it is more in keeping with other poems exploring nature. I think it’s perfectly possible to read it as a poem that is very much influenced by contextual conflict, or to read it as a poem about conflict in nature. It’s your choice. The ‘squat’ form, the enjambment and caesura lifting ideas up and putting them down on other lines, the use of sound in the poem… they’re all important in what they contribute to the meaning of the poem. Today, I’ll look at how the context, form and structure work with the language and images to demonstrate Heaney’s viewpoint.

Not unlike Exposure, the poem starts with a first-person plural subject pronoun. Usually we use subject pronouns to replace a subject, avoiding repetition. So if I say ‘Charles’ in one sentence, I can say, ‘he’ in the next. Subject pronouns can be ambiguous when you don’t know what they are referring to. It’s a substitute for a noun. It’s also an anaphoric reference (a reference to something that’s come before), but to anaphora (a thing that’s come before) that does not exist in the poem. That’s all the fancy subject terminology that means that “We” is usually used when the audience or reader would know who “we” are. It implies familiarity or inclusiveness.

But here, we don’t know who “we” are.

Heaney and his family? Heaney and his wife? A friend? The villagers on the Aran islands (there are other poems in this collection relating to the Aran Islands, like Lovers on Aran and Synge on Aran – it’s therefore not unreasonable that “the Island” is not “Ireland” but one of the Aran Isles in Galway Bay) Irish people in general? People in general? The effect of that “we” is that it becomes both inclusive – we means “me and you” – and therefore includes us in the poem – and also kind of ‘shared world’ – it implies we know who “we” are. We as a reader are as prepared as Heaney for the storm on the island. He brings us into the poem with that word. He also makes it universal. It can be us and every single other person in the world. It turns the poem from one about two people – perhaps Heaney and his wife or family – into a poem about every person and what we do when faced with conflict. We prepare.

The first three words are finished by a colon. That colon is like a little signpost leading us to expect an explanation. It tells us that what follows embellishes or adds to that statement. It tells us how they prepare, by doing what. It’s a little mark also that marks a pause. A little stopping point as well as a signpost to something to come. We stop and we consider the certainty of that statement, “We are prepared:” – it sounds confident, like we are ready for the onslaught. There’s a certainty and safety to it, as well as determination.

As it turns out, that preparation is centuries old, not just like my storm preparations of shutting the shutters and moving my car into the garage. It is a way of life. They build their “houses squat” – storm-readiness is a way of life for them. It sounds like they are quite literally ‘safe as houses’ with the foundations in the rock itself. That sounds sturdy, doesn’t it? But hang on. If, and it is an if, this island is one of the Aran islands, it’s limestone rock. Limestone is a bit of a rubbish rock, not like the granite of other places. Karst limestone (and I know this because I live in a karst limestone region) is remarkably soluble. I dissolved some in vinegar for a science experiment once. It’s ironic because the sea will indeed have its way eventually. In the long run, this preparedness is meaningless. However, for generations to come, the islands will certainly still be there. It just makes me think how fragile things really are, like the thousands-of-years-old statue of Ozymandias, how everything will return to sand or sea eventually. All this preparedness is nothing. Even setting the foundations in the island’s bedrock, or roofing with slate, the most waterproof of all roofing materials, we get a sense of how dramatic the storms are on this island.

In the meantime, that lovely word “squat” is such a lovely word to comment on. It has that lovely sound to it – the sibilant ‘s’ followed by the hard plosive ‘k’, the whispery fricative ‘w’, the short ‘o’ and then that plosive ‘t’ – it’s such a noisy word for such a short one. All those sounds really put a focus on the word, as does leaving it at the end of the line – it resonates there. Like that colon, like the “We are prepared”, there’s a force and strength about it, like the houses themselves. It gives us the sense that the houses are crouching, braced against the storm, but it has another meaning too – if you “squat” a place, you’re inhabiting it illegally. It has a sense of something that has no right to be there and gives me the feeling that the people have no real right to be there.

You’ve also got three present-tense verbs, suggesting a permanence, this is something that is timeless – it could be now, it could be the time the poem was written. It seems to suggest that it will always be this way. The actions are simple, “build”, “sink”, “roof”, short and squat as the houses themselves. That brings me to another point. Look at all those monosyllabic words there. All of the second line is monosyllabic. It’s simple, clear, clean. For me, the effect is to stress that determination from the first line, but I have no idea why it makes me think they are resolute, stubborn in the face of the storm and determined to build their houses here, in such a windswept place. There’s a tenacity in those words and a simplicity that not only evokes the houses, but the way they are built, the people who build them and life on the island itself. It’s uncluttered and uncomplicated.

As we move into line 3, we learn a little of the island itself. It is not the kind of place where farming would work: the constant erosion leaves little topsoil. Heaney calls it the “wizened earth”, giving us the sense that it is something older than the rest of the earth, something shrivelled and dried up. It also has the sense of being weather-beaten too. Heaney turns this lack of crops into a positive, it has never “troubled” them – it’s another sense of how hard life is on the island, with no ability to put food away or grow crops for the future. The simplicity and basic standard of living means there is nothing to be lost. The constant wind has also made it impossible for trees to grow.

You can see what a hard and barren landscape it is, also one that is stark and self-sufficient, insular.

On line 4, we (as readers) are invited into the poem – not unlike My Last Duchess in a way. “so as you can see” is an embedded clause, an aside, an address. It sounds as if Heaney is explaining to us, almost showing us around. This little clause is expecting that we are already visualising the place. It sounds as if we are on a guided tour with Heaney, that he is introducing us to the island. In a way, that is also like My Last Duchess, since the Duke too is presenting us (in the role of the marriage-broker) to the painting. We have a different power here, the power of the ‘interpreter’. I use that word loosely, because they are not translating, only presenting, but presenters have their own power. A presenter is an intermediary (just like me, here, in fact) or a curator, picking through everything and selecting things to show to you. There is a lot of power in that act, the choice of what to show, like the editor in War Photographer. Power, here, is in what we are shown and how things are explained to us. Heaney is no different, explaining and justifying the way the houses are built, the life on the island. He sounds like an insider, someone keen for us to understand. That too is no different from the Duke in My Last Duchess, as he explains his views on the relationship. Heaney does it again later with “you know what I mean”, which is very interesting. It’s a sign of informality – I’m struggling for the precise term for it – more than a filler (like um, er) but not a hedge (which softens a direct statement) and seems to be there to invite our understanding, check that we have understood. These parenthetical statements are more conversational. We use them all the time, like ‘you know’, and ‘you see what I mean?’ or ‘you see?’, ‘you get me?’ even ‘innit?’. It’s a discourse marker, but it’s checking if we’re still engaged, if we still understand, even if we are not actively participating at that moment in time. It asks for our silent participation. You can see four instances of this use of “you”, where we are invited into the poem. For me, it gives it a sense of being like a guided tour of a sort, explaining to us something that we wouldn’t understand unless we lived on the island.

Into line 7 and we have a shift, the first caesura, marking that word “Blast” out from the rest of the line, injecting a little power and might into it.

For Heaney, the trees would provide a relief in that you could spend your time in the wind or a storm thinking about the trees, watching the wind in them, distracting you from thinking about how it is affecting your own home. The personification of the wind itself, which “pummels” the houses, as well as the leaves and branches which “can raise a chorus in a gale” is also part of how Heaney, like Wordsworth in Stealing the Boat, brings nature to life and gives it a power beyond the natural. The trees, branches and leaves which would be allies in the resistance against the wind, however, do not exist. There are no allies in this battle, nobody to support them.

The ‘But’ on line 11 marks a turning point, a change. He has been distracted from thinking about the storm by imagining the trees, and how we look at trees in storms. Ironic, really, that he is distracted from thinking about the storm because he’s thinking about the wind in the trees. We start to pick up on the semantic field related to the wind that Heaney uses, from ‘storm’ to ‘blows full blast’, ‘gale’. The verb ‘pummels’ is a particularly appropriate word – the present tense making it constant and immediate, reminding us that the storm is an ever-present concern on the island. It is a word which makes it sound like an unrelenting attack, something that doesn’t give in.

Heaney then looks to the sea, which may also be an ally or “company” against the wind, but realises it is not, “But no:” and without trees, with the sea as much an enemy as the wind, we realise how defenceless the islanders are, despite their “squat” houses. I particularly like that “exploding comfortably” – the oxymoron reveals that the sea is “comfortable”, it is at home in the storm, and in fact takes sides against the islanders. What seems “tame” most of the time turns “savage” with the wind.

The way he describes the sea is particularly interesting with the simile, “spits like a tame cat/turned savage” and the sounds, the “flung spray hits” which I explored in the last post to create a sense of the sea that is unstopping and angry with the monosyllables, the plosives and the fricatives bringing the sounds of the sea to life.

All there is to do is sit it out. The phrase “while wind dives/and strafes invisibly’ has echoes of Owen’s battle against the invisible forces at work in nature, made evident only in the snow flakes. “Strafes” is a verb taken directly from a military vocabulary. To strafe means to attack ground troops from the air with machine-gun fire. That’s such a precise use from Heaney here, where the wind takes on the qualities of a fighter plane – it makes a change from the fighter plane manufacturers naming their planes after weather phenomena (like the Hawker Hurricane, a popular fighter plane and the Hawker Typhoon) – as the wind dives in and attacks, just like a fighter plane would. At this point, it is more than the sea, spitting like a cat, this is an assault. When Heaney says “Space is a salvo” he continues this use of military vocabulary, as a salvo is also related to an attack, this time a persistent onslaught or a multi-weapon assault that happens all at the same time, a simultaneous attack if you like. Finally, we have the word “bombarded” that completes the military images, creating a vision of a wind that acts like a fighter plane, a blitz on the island below.

The final sentence acts as a conclusion summarising Heaney’s thoughts, “Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear” which concludes the poem, a wry statement that points out how silly it seems to be afraid of the wind.

I think what I like most about this poem is the conversational style and the way he portrays this battle with the wind, as the people on the island are completely helpless. It compares well with Exposure, but also with Stealing the Boat in how it presents nature as something primeval and terrifying.

Next week: Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

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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An analysis of the form, structure and voice of Exposure by Wilfred Owen

In the last post, I looked at the two contextual influences on Wilfred Owen’s poem Exposure which appears in the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology section, Power and Conflict. We saw how the poem was written in a world where many more freedoms in terms of form and structure were available to Owen, choices that he can make about how he sets his ideas out on the page, how he arranges them, that were not accorded to Tennyson, for example. Although Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson all had structural choices to make, they certainly did not have the freedom of Owen.

We saw also how the contextual setting of World War One was relevant also to an understanding of Exposure, although there are few direct references to which war. As we look at the language of the poem in the next post, we’ll see also how much or how little there is to do with the war itself, and where the conflict in the poem lies.

In terms of form, we have eight verses of five lines: a regular structure. I hesitate to say it is written in five-line quintains. It is, of course. There are five lines in each verse. But the last line of each verse hangs, suspended, tacked on at the end. It seems almost as if there are four lines to each verse, and then a refrain. It’s not a refrain at the end, either. Not exactly. It’s a refrain four times, then four variations. The repeated refrain, “But nothing happens.” is interesting in itself. This phrase echoes through the poem, the thread that binds it. The repetition of the idea emphasises the inertia, this sense of paralysis. As we see in other parts of the poem, the fact that “nothing happens” gives Owen a sense of foreboding, of dread. It doesn’t seem right. The silence in itself becomes something to be afraid of. The lifelessness, the stillness, is eerie and uncanny: something that just doesn’t feel right to Owen. Repeating that line emphasises that inertia, the wait.

That fifth line dangles there, at the end of each verse, like an appendage, It’s emphasised too by its position on the page, that it is indented, truncated, seeming almost unfinished. That leaves us wondering why he has left this line, just handing there – it seems like it reflects quite perfectly that sense of suspension.

The rest of the lines have a loose syllabic length, never longer than fourteen syllables, never fewer than 11. These long lines also give the poem a sense of a slow hum, a continuousness, almost a monotony. That loose regularity creates a sense of normality that is only offset by two things: the half-rhyme/para-rhyme and that short refrain at the end of each verse. You have this superficial normality and then when you scratch the surface, it’s not normal at all.

When you start to look at the rhyme, you hear that eerie sound: “knive us/nervous”, “silent/salient” – it isn’t quite right. There are both half rhymes and para-rhymes here. Half-rhyme the broad term for all wordsin poetry where only the final consonant sounds sound alike, like “stormy” and “army”. Here, it’s only the “mee” sound at the end of the word that rhymes. Para-rhyme is more than that, where all the consonant sounds are the same, but the vowels are different, like the n—vus sound of “knive us” and “nervous” that change because of the “i” sound in one and the “er” sound in the other. In places, it is less clear, with “fruit/afraid” and in others it is perfect rhyme, with “glozed” and “closed”.

In the verse where the rhyme is more perfect, we see the poem drifts to another scene: home. It recalls the fires, images such as the “dark-red jewels” and the notion of home. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence to me that when he starts writing (and dreaming) of home, of fires, the rhyme becomes more perfect.

The rest of the time, that eerie para-rhyme makes the poem seem strange, uncanny, like a dream world. The sounds are disconnected, strange, unnatural. Para-rhyme and half-rhyme work even better than non-rhyme for this – how else do you recreate that strange “half right” kind of sound? It’s jarring and dischordant, creating a sound that is not quite right.

Another thing we might notice about the form are the use of the ellipsis ( … ) We have this a number of times in the poem, where the lines drift off. He also uses the — for the same effect. It creates an effect that the thoughts are stitched together, held together only by the verse and the poem itself, rather like stream-of-consciousness. It helps create that sense of drifting from one line to the next, from one idea to the next, from one moment to the next. There are gaps, but we can’t predict what is in those gaps, what thought might have once filled them.

Most of the lines are enjambed into the next, end-stopped only where you would expect, either with a full stop at the end of the verse, or at the end of the line. There are two notable exceptions to this, where a full-stop falls in the middle of the line. One follows “Deep into grassier ditches” in the fifth verse and forms a change fom the “snow-dazed” men and their sleep, emphasising hypothermia setting in. It happens also in the final verse, to leave the sentence “All their eyes are ice,” hanging at the end of the line. Both times it happens, it causes us to focus more on the meaning, why Owen would want to emphasise the words that precede or follow this disruption in the rhythm.

For the enjambment, most falls in natural places where you might expect it to fall, except for one or two places where the meaning from the first part of the lines is broken off by the line break, leaving us hanging. We see this in the way “her melancholy army” is split from its verb, “attacks once more”, leaving us waiting for the sense of be completed. It leaves the line incomplete and drives us forward. We get this also with “glozed/With crusted-dark red jewels” where the word “glozed” is dangling at the end of the line. It contributes, too, to the sense of ‘train-of-thought’ or stream-of-consciousness.

That gives you a good range of things you could discuss the effect of for the form, from the para-rhyme, half-rhyme and that half fifth line to the use of caesura and enjambment, which we’ll look at in more detail at the relevant bits when we look at language.

When I think about structure, I’m thinking about the following:

How the ideas are organised and sequenced, viewpoint/perspective (third person? First person?) TiP ToP – Time Place Topic Person – shifts? Shift in time? Place? Why are the ideas in this order? External actions (happenings) vs internal thoughts? Circular structure? Beginning, middle, end? How does the title weave through the poem? Does the ending link back or develop from the opening?

Structure is the arrangement and sequence of the ideas, as well as some other aspects. I ask myself why here and not there?

The poem’s title could refer both to the exposed position of the Salient, how it sticks out into enemy territory, but also refers to the weather, how vulnerable the men are. For me, it also has other meanings, as “Exposure” means the revealing of something. We ask “what is revealed in the poem?” and for me the answer seems to be the way that Owen’s views and thoughts are revealed.

“Our brains ache” is the first line of the poem, using a collective voice, the first person plural: Owen speaks on behalf of the men, as if he knows what is in their minds too. It’s no wonder he became the poetic voice of the war, since he speaks for all the soldiers there with that collective voice. It’s a voice that is sustained through the whole poem. Every single verse contains the reference to the collective voice: it is as if the soldiers are of one mind. Not only do we get Owen’s subjective experience, but we get the fact that he is speaking for the other voiceless soldiers there too. He is part of the narrative and we get his experiences. In reality, it is a first person who sees into the minds of all the other soldiers, seeing the world through their eyes too. It’s an unusual perspective but one that allows him to speak on behalf of the other men and to present an experience that is personal, yet not unique to himself. Still, we have no idea how many “we” might refer to: it could be two or two thousand. Owen uses this technique regularly in his poetry, and viewpoint is something he experiments with often. Rarely are the poems his voice, and his alone. Sometimes, they are third person, seeing the soldiers objectively from an observational point of view. Sometimes they are about unnamed individuals, the “Unknown Soldier” who represents all soldiers. Occasionally, they are Owen’s own perspective. It is not unusual for him to take this first person plural view though.

We have the present tense, too, lending it an immediacy. This is current and real, the effect to give it a sense of an ‘eternal’ moment – it is never over. In that way, with the vague “we” and the timelessness, this is a poem that is about many battles, many wars, many conflicts.

We get some contextual details about the setting, how this may be the Ypres Salient, how the war “rumbles” on “northward”, this may be dawn, it is most certainly winter.

As we look at the structure, much of it is focused on the current conditions, until we get to the sixth verse, where the “forgotten dreams” transport the soldiers home, to warmth, but then says “on us the doors are closed” which brings the men back to their reality: this frozen battlefield. In verse seven, Owen reflects as he does in other poems on what the war means for those who believe in God. Instead of a paradise promised for faith and belief, the men’s future – their immediate future – is clear in the eighth voice which speculates about the future, how “this frost will fasten on this mud and us” and the burying party will come to dispose of the dead. There is no paradise in Owen’s poem, only the warmth of home, which is now left to the mice. The structure moves us from the present to the future, continuing a little with that sense that Owen himself has the power to go into the future, or into other minds. It is the poet who has the power to do that, not God. The structure reminds us that this battle against the elements is not over, that it will bring many casualties. The fact that we pass from dawn to “tonight” is also interesting – the poem encompasses a whole day in which nothing happens other than the men daydreaming and trying to come to grips with the futility and pointlessness of their own existence. It’s a long way from the heroism of the soldiers in The Charge of the Light Brigade.

True to Owen’s form, there are a number of questions he poses in the poem, getting us to think about the wider implications of the war itself. It is a device he uses often in his poetry – and we have one here, half-way through. “Is it that we are dying?” as hypothermia seems to set in.

By the end, then, the title no longer seems to mean just the weather, and how exposed the soldiers are to the elements, but how that contemplation of life and death has left Owen sure that “love of God seems dying”, exposing their beliefs behind it all.

In the next post, I’ll look at the way Owen uses language and imagery for effect in Exposure, exploring how context, form and structure link with the ideas he expresses.

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.