An Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s use of language and imagery in Exposure

In the last two posts, I looked at the context, form and structure of Exposure by Wilfred Owen, looking at his poetry in general and the changes in art, music and literature that had paved the way for massive changes leading up to 1917 and 1918, when this poem was most likely written. Today, I’ll be exploring the language and imagery of the poem, looking particularly at how they combine with what I’ve explored already to create meaning for the reader.

We have a poem influenced by the freedoms afforded to post-Avant Garde poets, a world where verses become stanzas, where irregularity is more normal, where poets are free to play with the sound of words for effect. Owen has used those freedoms to portray that sense of inertia, of the dull dread that something might happen, but where there is no action in itself. He uses the ellipsis to create a sense of drifting: appropriate for a poem in which the narrator seems to be drifting into hypothermia, floating between the real world and a nightmare world, a world where all the regular rules are broken and the enemy becomes the world itself. He drifts too between the present and the past, whilst having a vague sense of dread about what the future may bring. I’ll look today at how he uses language and imagery to extend those ideas.

The first line, “Our brains ache”, gives us the first person plural present tense, aspects of person and tense that I discussed last week. These aspects make the narrator into a voice for all the soldiers and an immediacy that make this poem about all conflict, in a sense. This poem refers to Keats’ poem, Ode to a Nightingale. Keats was one of the second generation of Romantic poets, a contemporary of Shelley, who wrote Ozymandias.

That poem in itself is a kind of drifty poem:

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

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.

 

Understanding the context of Exposure by Wilfred Owen

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

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

Art looked like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind of dischordant, right? And then some!

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

Still looks like sculpture, right?

Here’s Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917

Yes, it’s a urinal on its side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An analysis of the language and ideas in The Charge of the Light Brigade

In the last two posts, I’ve been exploring the context of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson as well as the form and structure in AQA’s GCSE English Literature anthology, Power and Conflict. It is a poem that has significant points to be made about historical and literary context, as well as making use of a rather rattling rhythm that probably plays a large part in why the poem has become so memorable. It carries us along through the narrative at a driving pace, making use of the stresses on words, monosyllabic words and syllabic rhythmic patterns to make it particularly memorable. It’s not often I say a poem is memorable, so there you go. 

First, we have the repetition of “Half a league, half a league,/Half a league…” which establishes from the beginning that sense of movement, doubled by the driving, galloping beat to create a real sense of motion and progression. For me, it’s rich with determination and energy, purposeful like they are moving towards a goal. 

The valley of death might be an interesting choice of words, but it is taken from the battle, and not the other way around. This area of the Balaclava was so thick with cannonballs that it had become known as the ‘Valley of Death’

It’s literally a valley. And you could die there. So not very imaginative of the person who gave it that name, who was almost certainly not Tennyson. 

You see, Tennyson’s not just picking up on news reportage, but also the newly invented medium of photography. It helps him truly imagine the place he is writing about in his poem. 

Not only does the person who coined the phrase for this bit of Crimea make use of a particular connection, but also Roger Fenton the photographer and Tennyson himself. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a well-known line from Psalm 23, “The Lord is My Shepherd” which is probably the most famous psalm of them all – and the one that lots of people have read at their funerals, or in difficult times. Ironically, it’s supposed to be a message of encouragement, that God is with us even – and especially – in the most difficult times of our lives and we should not be afraid. I’m betting that in this God-forsaken hellhole, there were more people afraid than comforted in the belief that God was beside them. I find it a kind of irony too that the psalm is often thought to mean that we shall have eternal life: in this case, it is the poet who has granted the six hundred of the light brigade a kind of immortality. 

The phrase “the six hundred” is also an example of metonymy (as is the Valley of Death, actually), or referring to something by another name that is closely associated with it, like “The Gunners” for Arsenal or “Fleet Street” for the national British newspapers. The six hundred refers to the Light Brigade. It means Tennyson is using “the six hundred” as a substitute for “the Light Brigade.”

It’s up to us, then, to think of the effect of that, to wonder why he might do it. For me, you might think it a technical thing. Do more words rhyme with hundred than brigade? Actually, no. In fact, Tennyson uses ALL the available and useful rhymes for hundred – blundered, sundered, thundered and wondered. Brigade rhymes with a lot more – one of which Tennyson makes use of – dismayed. But there are loads of useful rhymes for “brigade” – crusade, afraid, betrayed, decayed, unswayed and so on. By using “the six hundred”, Tennyson actually handicaps himself and makes it less easy to write. That tells me the “six hundred” is a metonymic switch he wants to make for effect. This kind of substitution is in fact a rhetorical device, but why do it? For me, Tennyson is emphasising the numbers: “the Light Brigade” could mean 11,000 men. “Six hundred” seems a lot fewer. A brigade sounds like a large number. Six hundred men does not. We stop thinking about them as one unit, as well, which is really important. To see them as one unit anonymises them and makes them even more faceless. Although six hundred doesn’t help us to think of them as individuals, it does help us imagine the number a lot more clearly than “the Light Brigade”, so I think Tennyson’s language choice is very purposeful here. Brigade would also emphasise that they are soldiers, rather than just men. Still, they are nameless, like so many of the casualities of war in the other poems of Power and Conflict. Names are quite important in the Power and Conflict section. Do you go naming people like Ozymandias only to show how their names are as likely to fade as their power? Do you go nameless, like the nameless soldier in London? Both have an effect. Here, it’s not important that they are seen as distinct individuals – they will be remembered as a group.

In the second stanza, we have perhaps one of the most famous series of lines in poetry about heroism and war:

Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die ;

The strong monosyllabic beat, the repetition, the rhyme, the simplicity of the words and the message all make these three lines incredibly memorable indeed. Not often that I say “these words are memorable” (when my head is shouting ‘simple, generalised comment!’) but these really are. So why did Tennyson want these words to be the most memorable words of the whole poem?

For me, it speaks much about loyalty, blind obedience, that unquestioning faith they had in their leaders – even if they had questions about what they were doing – their devotion to service, to their country. This is an act of honour, bravery, courage, faith, integrity… and also sacrifice. A pointless, meaningless sacrifice, throwing themselves before the cannon that surround them. The ultimate offering for their country. A worthless, ineffective, pointless gesture “though the soldier knew/Some one had blundered” which makes it even more sad, even more sorrowful. Their lives wasted for a “blunder”. This to me is the key to the whole poem – and more so because of just how many rhetorical devices Tennyson loads into it. We end stanza 2 picking up the action after Tennyson’s little commentary on the soldiers. The event – and the poem – has become a symbol of valour, patriotism, blind allegiance to the flag. It is seen as the ultimate act of bravery and heroism. Their fearlessness and valiance are seen as noble and courageous beyond measure. This is blind loyalty and allegiance. This is true determination and nobility of spirit. It’s become a symbol of man’s love of his country.

In stanza 3, Tennyson takes us into the heart of the action, bringing the battle to life in very vivid ways with rhyme, vocabulary and rhythm. The refrain about ‘Cannon to the right of them/Cannon to the left of them/Cannon (in front/behind them) is also very quick with a DUM-dee DUM-dee-DUM-dee-DUM/DUM-dee DUM-dee- DUM dee-DUM) rhythm which is quick and exciting. There are lots of very vivid verbs too, like volleyed and thundered and stormed, flashed and sabring. Shattered and sundered have the same effects later on in the poem. They’re strong, powerful words that convey a real sense of the ferocity of the battle. Look at what your mouth does when you say “Volleyed and thundered”. Two fricatives – V and Th – followed by a short vowel – O and U – and then a plosive end to both of them ‘D’. These are really noisy words that convey the cannon shooting through the air. Then you’ve got the sibilant fricatives of the next line, “stormed at with shot and shell” which also conveys the sound of war in ways that Wilfred Owen does too in his own poems, and you can find other poets making use of the sounds of language too, like Heaney and Hughes. This verse is a noisy verse, coupled with all those verbs and you’ve got a verbal equivalent of a battle recreation. Tennyson does his very best to recreate the experience. This is Dolby Surround Sound done by a Victorian poet.

It continues into stanza four with the same fricative-short vowel-plosive pattern. Just make these sounds…

Fffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff – aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa – sssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhh-duh.

That D brings it to a right old thuddy stop. Still with the repetition and the sound and fury of war. I think that Tennyson really recreates the noise of battle with all of this. Couple that with the driving rhythm and you’ve got a powerful, noisy, active scene, briefly interrupted by the surprisingly calm “while all the world wondered” with all those breathy “wh” sounds, taking us out of the moment and stepping back to look at the battle before “plunged” plunges us right back into the scene again. Still, Tennyson continues with the sibilants of “sabre stroke”, “shattered” and “sundered” which also create the sounds of the battle, which carries us through into the next stanza with the repeated “stormed at with shot and shell”.

In some ways, it’s graphic, describing the battle, but in other ways it’s euphemistic, glossing over the deaths. It just says: ‘not the six hundred’ for how many rode back. “While horse and hero fell” covers what can only have been a bloody and brutal massacre of six hundred men led unnecessarily up a narrow corridor surrounded by the enemy.

For me, I think it is important that this poem is thin on flowery, poetry language and thick on rhetorical devices and ways to help us remember the poem: Tennyson wants it to be simple, he wants it to be clear. It would serve no purpose to be flowery. It relies on repetition, heavy rhythms, a rhyme that ties it all together, monosyllables, lots and lots of sound play with the alliteration. The effect is a poem that recreates some of the noise and fury of battle, Tennyson’s tribute to a large number of men who died in a pointless exercise. This is a great moment to talk about purpose and effect, or intention and effect, since Tennyson’s purpose is clear by the final stanza in the rhetoric of “When can their glory fade?” and the repeated imperative of “Honour the Light Brigade” with the final flourish of “Noble six hundred!” All that rhetoric, all that sound patterning… it creates something that is heroic and noble.

Now, whether you are affected in the ways Tennyson wants you to be is another matter. Yes, you remember the Light Brigade – we all do every time we read this poem. No doubt we honour the war dead – it’s unspeakable not to do so. But do you see them as heroes, or as courageous in the face of what can only have been the most pointless of “blunders”. This is where you need to think about the poem’s effect on you. Is that the same as the effect Tennyson intended?

 

 

 

 

Despite the ‘blunder’, Tennyson instructs us to ‘honour’ the men and their sacrifice, to remember their bravery and he finishes by calling them ‘noble’. Like Owen who includes an ‘O’, Tennyson includes an ‘O’ as well, but this is an expression of his strong emotion of pride and admiration, as compared to Owen’s ‘O’ of despair and depression. Their reputation and story is everywhere ‘all the world wonder’d’ – unlike the soldier who dies nameless in Futility. Tennyson’s question ‘when can their glory fade?’ is supposed to be answered with ‘never’ – their name and story will be everlasting. To some degree, this is true, though much of their fame is down to films, text and poems such as this one. The charge of the Light Brigade has become a by-word for bravery and heroism in the face of extreme adversity, although perhaps later audiences would think less of the bravery of the soldiers and more of the stupidity of those who sent them to war; we would perhaps think more of the senselessness of these men’s deaths.

What’s important here is that views have changed progressively since the poem was written. Whilst it was seen as a noble, valiant and heroic action, now the generals that allowed this to happen would come under heavy criticism. We see the stupidity and insanity of war; a contemporary audience would have seen something to celebrate and commemorate more than damn. It’s the same kind of heroic spirit that powers 300, the tale of 300 Spartan men who stood up to the invading Persian troops in the graphic novel and film of the same name. It’s seen as supreme sacrifice, dedication, determination, it’s how men fight and die for something that is more important than themselves. If you want another example, it’s Braveheart. Listen to Churchill’s speech following the Battle of Britain – it’s the same kind of heroism and valour we see there. It’s intended as a rousing reminder of the heroism and glory of dying for your country.

But is that what you take from it? 

In the next article, I’ll look at Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure. It may be just over sixty years after The Charge of the Light Brigade, but I think you’ll see how very much poetry and our view of conflict changes in those sixty years.

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 form and structure of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

In last week’s post, I looked at the context behind Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, “Power and Conflict”. The poem was one of the first real-time responses to war reportage in the newspapers, written in Tennyson’s role as Poet Laureate. This post will look in more detail at the form and structure of the poem to help you write about it in any exam.

Some of you may be wondering what I have in my head when I come to a poem to think about the form and structure. I have a kind of loose framework of things I might want to think about:

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? 

Structure

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?

So how do I apply this to “The Charge of the Light Brigade”?

One thing I know about Tennyson is that he loves rhyme, rhythm and metre. I’ll be looking at how he uses these three techniques to give a really rollicking rhythm to the poem, and why he does that. I’ll do my usual as well: bit of feature spotting, which is all very well, but not worth very much, and a bit of commentary on the writer’s purpose as well as the effect on the reader.

Firstly, the stanzas. There’s no real regularity, is there? 8 lines, 9 lines… then 9, 12, 11 and 6. Not particularly even. So I can wonder to myself if he’s just used the number of lines that felt natural to use, or whether there’s a kind of sense of build up to something in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Six lines seems like a brief conclusion.

Then there’s also the way it reads, the way Tennyson has used rhythm. We’ll explore more about that later, but it’s a poem that’s very easy to read aloud. That’s very purposeful. It reads like a poem designed for performance, not a poem designed to be constrained by the page. The line breaks, the rhythm, the rhyme and the metre all make the poem very easy to read aloud. You’ll not notice yourself tripping over words.

But when you get down into the mechanics of those techniques, it’s not always so neat. I don’t think you notice the lack of neatness when you are reading it, but it’s not quite so neat as you’d expect.

First the syllables. Well, it’s a bit like the stanzas. Loosely regular, but then not. Lots of six-syllable lines in there, and some sevens. The five-syllable final line might not be all that it looks, so we’ll look at that a little more.

All six stanzas finish with what appears to be a five-syllable line:

Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Rode the six hundred
Not the six hundred
Left of six hundred
Noble six hundred

But you could actually say “hundred” (normally two syllables, hun-dred) as three syllables: hun-der-ed. According to one of Tennyson’s friends, W. F. Rawnsley, in Lincolnshire, Tennyson’s home county, the pronunciation would have been hun-der-ed. That gives you something else to think about.

Still, there are reasons I like it to be five syllables and not six. The first is that we’ve got another line in each stanza that is most definitely five syllables:

Rode the six hundred
Some one had blundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the world wondered
Shattered and sundered
Volleyed and thundered
All the wold wondered

Now apart from the fact that these lines rhyme with the end line of each stanza, they’re also five syllables. I’m pretty sure, whilst I can accept hun-der-ed as a pronunciation, nobody would say thun-der-ed or won-der-edSo for that reason, I like it as a five.

I’m pretty sure with the rhyme of these two pairs of lines that Tennyson is using them to not only weave the poem together but also to form these pairs of lines, which are a bit like stopping points holding the poem together. Each stanza has at least two. If the stanza has eight lines, the fourth and eighth are these ones. It’s like the mid-point of each stanza (or just before). In my copy, the lines are also indented on the page. That’s three reasons that these lines form neat pairs. So five is what I’m going with.

These lines have a really driving rhythm. Dactyl (STRESS-unstressed-unstressed) and then a trochee (STRESS-unstressed) You start off with a really strong beat and kind of get carried along with it. These are probably random and pointless words to you. But a dactyl was a bit new-fangled. You see it a lot in that crazy-eyed Walt Whitman in the USA, and also in Browning. Not only does this then emphasise certain words but gives it a great pace:

SHATT-ered and SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and THUNDered

In fact, this poem is one of the best examples of dactylic rhythm that there is. The dactyl is the first three syllables and the trochee is the second:

SHATT-ered and /SUN-dered
VOLLeyed and /THUNDered

All of this complicated stuff about rhythm is not so important. Saying there’s a dactyl followed by a trochee won’t impress the examiner any more than identifying a simile would. What is important is that the rhythm is rousing and fast paced, easy to scan and read aloud. It’s a galloping beat. The effect is more important than the techniques. Tennyson used these rhythms to give the impression of the speed and haste of the battle, the confident beat emphasises the ‘charge’.

The other noticeable thing about the form is that it includes such a lot of monosyllabic lines. The first two lines give it a kind of echo of horses at full gallop

DUM-dee-DUM, DUM-dee-DUM
DUM-dee-DUM-dee-dee.

The rhythm and monosyllables give it a real pace, like the men, like the cavalry charge.

In terms of the structure, this is a third-person narrative, so it has an outsider’s point of view: this is Tennyson’s poem and his feelings about the event, narrative as it may be. Where we see words like “noble”, this is Tennyson’s view of the event. Our first question must always be to wonder what his view is, and what his aim is. Why write this poem?

For me, despite the error that caused this catastrophe, it’s a celebration of the battle, a commemmoration. Tennyson wanted to put it onto the historical map. Of all the battles, this is one he thought worth memorialising. What is it about the battle that he finds worth commemorating? The bravery of the men against all odds seems to be the one thing that Tennyson finds worth writing a poem about. Their blind loyalty. Their continued courage despite the fact they know they’re outgunned.

It’s also past tense, which also gives it a quality of a narrative in the same way as the third-person viewpoint. I’m guessing everyone who read the poem at the time would have known the situation and the outcome – a bit like a poem about 9/11 maybe. The ending is never going to be a surprise for someone reading this at the time that Tennyson published it. It might be for a more modern audience – there are few battles that we remember outside of individual events, and most of those are fairly well known… the battle of Hastings… the battle of the Somme… the battle of Agincourt… the battle of Waterloo… the battle of Trafalgar.

But some of those battles fade in our minds or blend into the whole war itself. I’m guessing, unless you are a bit of a history buff, that battles like the battle of Fulford, the battle of Tewkesbury or the battle of Corunna are less well known to you. The Charge of the Light Brigade isn’t even a battle in itself, it’s just an event within a battle within a war. I bet even if I said the Battle of Balaclava and the Crimean War, you might still be none the wiser. It’s through Tennyson’s poem that this event has been remembered.

We start in the middle of the action, with no preamble or introduction to the event. The title itself would be enough for Tennyson to give contemporary readers the knowledge they would need of the who, the what, the where and the when. For modern readers, it’s a little less clear: we might need to do a bit of research to know where this takes place and who was involved, when it happened and what went on. Starting in the middle of the action puts us bang slap in the middle of the action. The technical term for this is in medias res which means to drop you into the middle of the action and fill in the details afterwards. Usually, writers will use flashback or description of past events to tell you what happened, which is exactly what Tennyson does. Starting in the middle of the action makes it really dramatic – it’s a technique used in narrative all the time. Think of how often you get it in films or in fiction.

For this reason, the poem is non-linear. We get stanza one, which inserts us into the action in the moments that the ‘Charge!’ command has been given. In stanza two, we get the backstory behind the charge – “someone had blundered” – and we dip into a little observational comment from Tennyson, “Their’s not to make reply…” before coming right back to the action again with the cannon on either side of them, the sabres flashing. In stanza four, we shift perspective a little as we step back from the battle scene to consider “while/All the world wondered”. In stanza four and five, they also mark their retreat. The final stanza acts as a conclusion, another Tennyson commentary on the events, including some direct commands in “Honour the charge they made” and his final interjection: “Noble six hundred!”

The structure, then, is mostly linear with a tiny bit of exposition about why this happened, but no context at all. The narrative is peppered with Tennyson’s own commentary and feelings as he comments on the events.

The poem takes place in one single setting: the battlefield outside Balaklava in the disputed Russian/Ukrainian province of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. It is also one single moment in time: the charge itself. It has a brief exit from the setting and time, when Tennyson steps back to consider how the rest of the world feel about the event and to step back in time to comment that “someone had blundered”. We get a focus on the six hundred as a whole without considering any specific cavalryman individually. As such it sees the troops as one single force.

Tennyson creates a poem that has many threads that hold the narrative together. First, there are rhythmic threads and there are threads held together by rhyme. There are repeated threads, with echoes of the six hundred throughout. We’ll look more at repetition and the language devices used by Tennyson to create a cohesive narrative in the next post which will explore language and imagery in much more detail.

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 of The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson is a poem that recounts extreme acts of valour and patriotism. It recounts a battle between the British and the Russian forces in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 and it precedes later poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology such as Bayonet Charge and Exposure where conflict is explored in a critical way.

In terms of context, what you may want to know is a little about Tennyson and a little about the battle itself. Don’t forget that you are not writing a GCSE History essay and you are not expected to write more than a couple of sentences here and there where it is relevant. Full paragraphs about Tennyson or about the Battle of Balaclava will be treated as if they are an incongruous little physics equation or chemical calculation or artwork in the middle of your essay… nice, but not the domain of English Literature, and fairly unmarkable for the average GCSE English Literature student. If you’re reaching your third sentence on context, you have gone too far! If you are telling your examiner what happened in the Charge of the Light Brigade, you’re also going into an essay dead end. What I want to know is how the context of the poem was important for the content of the poemIn other words, what do you need to know to make sense of the poem? 

Remember too that the mark for context also covers a mark for perspectives and/or ideas. Context and/or perspectives and/or ideas. Your ability to write a page about the causes of the conflict in the Crimea in the 1850s is wonderful. But it’s not relevant.

So when it comes to context, know it but don’t harp on about it. Know it because it’s interesting. Don’t harp on about it because writing too much about it is as effective as drawing a triangle and working out the hypoteneuse.

That said, now I am going to tell you the context, and I am going to harp on about it. Then it’s up to you to think about how much of that is important for how it relates to the poem, just as you will do with Ozymandias and with My Last Duchess.

About Tennyson…

He was born in 1809 in the Lincolnshire Wolds to a father who was the rector in a church. Tennyson was a fan of epics and at the age of twelve, he’d already written an epic 6000-line poem. Certainly beats obsessing over boy bands and reading Judy Blume like I was doing aged twelve, anyway. That early start gave him all the practice he needed to become a poetry giant, if not THE poetry giant of all. The Victorian time gave us epics, and it gave us Dickens. It also gave us Tennyson, who liked a bit of epic himself. He wrote poems about mythology, about England, about King Arthur… all fantastically epic stuff.

What do epics have in common? They are long, lengthy poems about heroic deeds. They’re often about heroic values too – what makes a hero, what does heroism look like to different cultures? Epics feature heroes that embody the qualities of a hero at that time in that country – they very much reflect the ideals and values of the time, how that culture viewed a hero. That’s important here. We need to understand what the poem says about how Victorians viewed heroes, and to know how we view heroes too.

I mean, I get the feeling that we don’t generally consider it to be a brave and noble thing to die for your country. Don’t get me wrong, at all. Soldiers who die in the line of fire are brave beyond brave. Fighting wrong in other countries to help protect people who you’ve never met… that’s something truly indescribable. But our perspective on heroism has changed. We no longer think that it is an honour to DIE for your country (to serve it, maybe) and that is perhaps one reason why we don’t feel comfortable with huge battles like those of World War One and Two, which had more in common with massacre than with honour. I think, and this is very much just my opinion, that the Average Joe on the street will think it quite horrible that anyone should have to die for a cause they believe in. After all, look how our view of terrorists have changed. We call such people radicals and fanatics, and idolise Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, who changed countries with words and protest, not with war. We see soldiers as serving the country and protecting the peace. When they die, it is a horrible tragedy, not something we just write off as glorious and noble.

But the Victorians at the point the poem was written wouldn’t have had much problem accepting the “glory” of these soldiers’ deaths, especially since we British do like to see ourselves as David vs Goliath, George vs The Dragon. We do love stories of how we underdogs beat back the big boys.

So that’s the first thing you have to know about context. This very much embodies how people felt about dying for your country. It was a great and glorious thing to do.

What else about Tennyson and about the epic?

In 1850, he was announced as Poet Laureate, following Wordsworth’s death. This in itself carries a kind of focus within it. He became England’s national poet. You’re literally the poetic voice of Great Britain. It also carries a bit of responsibility: you’re supposed to write vaguely patriotic or British things from time to time, like a poem about the visit of the Queen’s future daughter-in-law, that sort of thing. And Tennyson fulfilled his duties in a – well – dutiful kind of a way. Not his best poetry, but if you need a poem about current events writing, Tennyson did his job admirably, especially since he was third choice for the role.

So in 1854, when he’s reading about the Charge of the Light Brigade in the papers, it probably sounded like it would make a great poem for your old poet-y duties. Not a poem that Tennyson was particularly pleased with or proud of, nevertheless, it was rousingly patriotic in a “Rule Britannia” king of way. Something in the news account obviously interested him and for this reason, you’ve got almost a connection to War Photographer, with an artist (photographer or writer) who tries to use their artistic talents to share a little about the battlefield. For Tennyson, however, that is not his own experience, which came via the newspaper, no matter how vivid you find it. For that reason, the perspective in the poem contrasts well with Owen’s perspective as a soldier rather than an onlooker in Exposure.

He also uses lots of features of the epic in his own poetry, but he is also a poet who likes the sound and rhythm of words. That is obvious to anyone who listens to The Charge of the Light Brigade. You can also see this in a lot of his other poetry. He enjoys the rhythms of poetic language, and the way words sound.

About the battle itself…

The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava, which took place during the Siege of Sevastopol, which took place during the Crimean War. French, Ottoman (loosely what is some of Turkey now) and English troops fought against Russian troops over a three-year period. A tired old Ottoman empire at the end of its lifespan was bolstered by troops from France and England in what was, on the surface, a battle to protect religious minorities but was in fact a battle that ended up about territory, as these things always do. Russia’s always at that world domination thing, but when you don’t have a great navy because your ports are frozen for a lot of the year, then places like Sevastopol on the warm waters of the Black Sea give you naval access to North Africa, to the Middle East, to the Mediterranean. That’s why they become important. The Crimea may have started out as a scuffle over religion but it soon ended with Britain, France, the Ottomans (and Sardinia!) taking it as an opportunity to put an end to Russia’s attempts to control the Black Sea and expand its rule into Europe. Not much different than today, then.

What else is interesting about the war? First, it was one of the first that was heavily reported in the media, which made the political decisions answerable to public opinion. It was the first time the public got to see and hear stories of what really happened in war. It was also one of the first truly modern wars and there were a great many losses. Public outcry when the war promised to go on for a long time meant that Prime Minister George Hamilton-Gordon resigned, and most people consider the war to be a colossal example of military mismanagement. I don’t know about war stuff so I’ll defer to the historians on that one.

All very interesting, but relevant?

In parts, yes. You’d need to know that Tennyson was THE national poet, writing a nationalistic piece perhaps as part of his role of poet laureate. He didn’t even really like the poem himself, so we can only assume he wrote it out of some kind of obligation to the role.

You also need to know that the general public knew more about what was going on than in any other war previously: it’s this knowledge that allows Tennyson to write the poem but also know that it appealed very much to the things on the front pages of the newspaper. That’s interesting if you compare it to War Photographer or even Ozymandias or My Last Duchess in terms of how the artist has power (if you consider journalists to be artists!) but there’s certainly something about the power to present a situation. That makes this another “popular” poem written about events seen in a newspaper (and in fact, since both Ozymandias and My Last Duchess were inspired by things the poets had read, makes an interesting point of comparison about the power of the poet, which is in many times the way that long-dead historical characters or events have come to be immortalised… would anyone know about the Duke of Ferrara, about Ozymandias, about the Charge of the Light Brigade, if it weren’t for the poets who exercised their power… an interesting essay in there, I’m sure!)

I think the media’s attempts to “report” an event rather than load it full of bias (I say this with heavy irony) is also a contextual detail that affects the poem: Tennyson also presents this event as “warts and all” in ways he wouldn’t have been able to do from his comfy Isle of Wight armchair if it were not for the newspapers.

I think also it’s important to know that at the time Tennyson wrote, Britain had no way of knowing whether we would win against Russia or not. In the long run it ended in an armistice, but does that make the actions of this brigade more heroic or less? I think the fact that it was written when the outcome of the war wasn’t known is interesting. If you ask me, it takes away a little from the heroism because we know how the war ended, but it emphasises the casual way in which lives were lost as a result of the “blunder” or mistake made. When you have the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say that the battle seemed avoidable, or that it was a pointless waste of life for no gain, but it’s not easy to say that in the months following on from the battle. But we read this poem differently than it would have been read by Tennyson’s contemporary audience, and that’s an important thing to think about. It’s also important to know that he wrote this without knowing whether we would win or lose in Crimea.

In terms of what will help you about the context of this poem, then you have five things that you might want to mention if the opportunity presents itself:

  • Poetic context… what epics are and what epics generally do;
  • Tennyson’s context… why he wrote the poem, how it influenced what he did, what he hoped to achieve, his role as Poet Laureate;
  • Tennyson’s personal poetic context… that he liked to write epics, that he often explored the idea of “The Heroic”, that he was a poet who loved sound and rhythm in poetry;
  • The historical context… that this was written at the height of Queen Victoria’s Empire, maybe the years when Britain is at its peak, that the Crimean War was characterised by blunders and mismanagement, of carelessness and also brave battles where British troops were outmanned and outgunned, that Tennyson had no idea of how it would end when he wrote the poem, that the war itself was the first one reported widely in the media (allowing Tennyson to write the poem);
  • Perspective changes: how pre-World War One British citizens viewed war and death in battle, how that view has changed, how our view of war itself has changed.

So you have plenty – too much, indeed – to think about when it comes to the context of the poem and ways that you might incorporate some of these details. In the following posts, I’ll explore the form, structure and sound of the poem, as well as the language, perspectives and imagery, as well as how the context of the poem affects it.

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 Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess

So, you’ve read the last two posts on the context, form and structure of Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess and now you want to know more about the language… this post will help you understand some of the main ways in which the poet is using language.

There are two real purposes in Browning’s use of language in the poem. One is to create the portrait of the Duke through what he says, and one is to create a verbal portrait of the Duchess (as opposed to the artistic portrait mentioned in the poem)

As always, I’m interested in what Browning is doing and why he might be doing it. I’m conscious always of what it makes me think about the aspects Browning talks about in the poem. On former exam papers, we called this technique and purpose and although the language might have changed a bit, the ideas are the same.

From the beginning of the poem, it’s clear we’ve entered in mid-conversation and that this is one side of a discussion. The word “That” is a pronoun that indicates an object  – a pointing word if you will – that refers to something that has been mentioned before. Thus, it’s clear from the word that there is some preceding context that we’re not aware of as a reader, but it also puts us into an active scene where the Duke is indicating something. Think of “this” and “that” and how they ‘point to’ an object. “That” doesn’t just refer to an object, it can refer to a person as well, in this case, and the first line makes it clear that he is indicating the Duchess, rather than the painting. Browning’s using it as an indicator to talk about something we can’t see, only imagine: the Duchess, not the painting. I don’t know about you, but it feels kind of dismissive and desultory, insulting even, calling her “that”.

We also get the possessive pronoun “my” which sets out his stall straight away: she belonged to him. Or rather, she didn’t. As we learn later, she never truly belonged to him. But the possessive pronoun shows a kind of interesting idea of ownership and belonging, which is picked up through the rest of the poem.

And then “last” – also a little rude, kind of throwaway. It’s like when men refer to their wives jokingly as “The current Mrs Jones” implying that there will be others. It implies an unspoken time limit in a way, which is what makes it sound throwaway to me. Forget all of this “in sickness and in health” business, or mourning periods that went on for years like Queen Victoria’s. It’s careless and there isn’t the remotest sense of grief, sadness or guilt in that word “last”.

It becomes clear that not only is Browning taking on a role, but he’s also inviting the reader to take on one as well: that of the person he is speaking to in the scene. We don’t know whose part we are playing yet – that only becomes clear at the end – but it’s like we’ve been transported onto this stage, in front of this painting, and the Duke has suddenly come to life, talking to us.

In the second line, the phrase “looking as if she were alive” also tells us part of the story: it perhaps refers to the quality of the painting, but also refers to his wife’s life. On the one hand, the painting is so realistic that it literally looks like it might move any minute. On the other, it reveals to the reader that his wife is dead. We actually need this information if we are going to play the part of the marriage broker (which we later realise that we are), since I’m pretty sure the marriage broker for the “next” Duchess would be aware that his previous wife was dead. This kind of double meaning is evident through the whole poem, and you can take many things in a dual way, especially the threats.

Funnily, I said last time that the Duke reminds me in some ways of Hannibal Lecter, and he does here. All these double meanings remind me of Hannibal saying that he was “going to have an old friend for dinner” – normal, obvious meaning is that he is having an old friend around to eat dinner with. Psychopath crazy meaning is that he is going to eat an old friend for dinner.

Here, it prompts a re-reading, a reassessment, as we find out more about the Duke and can see the way he plays with words. (Or, the way Browning makes him play with words).

You might, for instance, on first reading, think that the Duke calls the “piece” a “wonder” because he is grieving and it allows him to remember his wife. Often, people keep photographs of their dead loved ones and the photograph or painting reminds them of how much they loved their husband or wife. They get great pleasure from it because the person is no longer with them. Those paintings or photos are wonderful to them because they allow them to ‘see’ their loved one again. On second reading, we wonder who “that piece” refers to… and it seems to be the painting (well, the way he feels about his wife as we later see, he certainly wouldn’t be calling her “a wonder”) which is our first hint that there is something a little hinky about him. Why on earth would you think the painting was wonderful in itself and not because it reminded you of your late wife, unless the painting has come to mean more than your wife ever did?

Imagine the scene: your loved wife has died. The photographer who took your wedding photos gives you a photo of your wife. Your first reaction is “what wonderful lighting and I love the way the shot is composed!”

You just wouldn’t, would you?

Browning shows us that the Duke certainly appears to be more interested in the painting itself than he is in what it captured. We even get that in the next lines where he says “she” and “her” – it seems fairly ambiguous at points that he’s even talking about his wife and not the painting (some people do use gender-specific pronouns for inanimate objects, like calling cars and boats by female pronouns) If you like, apparently, you can even use “she” to talk about a country, like “Mother Russia” or even your gun. I don’t think that the Duke is using it to talk about the painting, but even so, there’s a real sense that he’s more admiring of the woman immortalised in the painting (and more pleased by the painting itself) than he is about his actual wife. Again, it smells like a psychopath to me, someone who seems to appreciate art, but not life.

On line 3, we have the first name-dropping. Browning creates a real portrait of a man who loves to name-drop artists. Who does that and why would Browning give us this detail? One reason is that it shows the Duke to be more obsessed by names and status, than by his wife. He wants to impress the marriage broker. It’s all: “Look at me, with my original artwork by arty geniuses”. You look at the people who have artwork on their walls… it’s often a status symbol rather than actual art appreciation. Let’s face it: all the people who really love art aren’t likely to have a genuine Picasso or Van Gogh on their wall. You can look at all the people who own original artwork by famous artists and you’ll see that it’s a) rich American business men b) rich Saudi business men c) Kings and the likes d) rich Russian business men or e) massive great big businesses. You can add rich Chinese, Japanese and Mexican businessmen to the list as well. So who owns fancy artwork? People who want to show their power, their wealth and their culture. Not people who truly appreciate art.

That’s exactly what that “Frà Pandolf” reference is designed to do: show the marriage broker how powerful, how rich and how cultured the Duke is. He doesn’t just namedrop once though, he repeats it with “I said/’Frà Pandolf’ by design” as if the negotiator might not have heard him.

And what does it really do? Show us how vain, possessive and foolish the Duke really is. It shows us a man who pretends to have this cultured side, this appreciation of art, this delicacy and ability to recognise fine art, yet it reveals him to be a crass snob who is more bothered by status and possessions than he is by any actual appreciation of art.

On line 5, Browning is using mock-polite language in an interesting way… look at that question, “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” Do you think the marriage broker is of an equal status to the Duke? I doubt it. I doubt too that this is a genuinely polite request, more a “sit and do as you’re told whilst I make it clear to you how it’s going to be…” kind of question. I don’t think there’s any point at which the audience (or in this case the reader) is supposed to say, “no, thanks. I don’t want to look at a painting of your dead wife, thanks.”

However, the way the question is asked makes it seem as if we – the marriage broker – have a choice. I think it’s that question that reveals the Duke’s thinly-veiled threats. He has the ability to make everything seem charming, but really you don’t have a choice.

It also reiterates another very important point: the Duke is clearly in control of who looks at his wife (well, the portrait of her) and it’s his decision who sees her or not. This is seen again when he adds the aside later of “(since none puts by/the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)” which again shows how now the Duke has absolute control over who sees his former wife and who doesn’t. He is in absolute control over her (or the image of her). Ironic, really, since he could not control in real life who looked at her or who appreciated her.

When he says, “for never read/Strangers like you that pictured countenance”, the Duke is reiterating his control: this portrait and the look it captured is very much under his control. He chooses who sees it and who doesn’t.

What I find particularly interesting in the poem is this “pictured countenance” as it seems the Duke is obsessed by the look on his wife’s face, her “earnest glance” and “the spot of joy” on “the Duchess’s cheek”. Either it captures the blush of a woman who is flattered by the attentions of the painter, or the feelings of the painter for his subject, but it captures this very intimate moment between the painter Frà Pandolf and the Duchess.

Now that’s a bit weird.

Either the Duke thinks they’re cheating on him, or he’s angry that his wife was so easily flattered…. whatever was going on, or not, between the painter and the Duchess, it’s a painting that captures a private moment between the two of them.

And this is the painting the Duke chooses to keep.

I kind of wonder if he keeps it behind the curtain so that people won’t ask him why his wife had “a spot of joy” on his face, or if he himself can’t bear to look at this image that is in essence a private moment between the Duchess and the painter. Either way, it’s a weird thing to keep around.

Like… say for instance a famous rock star wrote a song about your girlfriend or boyfriend, when it was clear there were pretty intense feelings between the two, would you buy the limited edition and keep playing it?

That’s a weird, weird thing to do. Whether the Duke thought they were being unfaithful or whether he just thought his wife was a dumb social climber who wasn’t discerning enough to ignore the flattery of a poor artist, why would you keep around an image that reminds you of the one thing that really annoyed you about them?

The only reason I can think the Duke might do this is that the painting by itself (or even the person who painted it) is more significant than the feelings he had for his wife. It emphasises that the painting in itself may well remind him of how much his wife irritated him, but the value of the painting is more than the irritation. Or, he likes being reminded about how much that wife annoyed him. Kind of like keeping a photo of your ex-husband on the mantlepiece just to remember how much wrong they did by you.

Either way, not particularly healthy behaviour.

In Line 11, we also get the little embedded clause “if they durst,” which hangs at the end of the line, meaning that most people are too terrified to ask anything about the painting, or the circumstances in which it was painted. We get the feeling that Browning is giving us an image of a man who wants to paint himself as frightening, how most people “dare not” ask about the painting. It shows a little of the terror that we also see in Ozymandias. Not only that, we see an artist who captures the true qualities of his subject. Instead of capturing the terror that the subject instills in people in this case, the painting manages to evoke the terror that the Duke himself instills in people.

Still, also a bit weird that the Duke thinks that he was in some way responsible for “that spot of joy” even if the rest of it was the annoying flattery by the painter that made his wife blush.

In fact, we then have five lines that depict the relationship between Frà Pandolf and the Duchess:

Perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’

I mean, that speaks to a bit of obsession on behalf of the Duke, don’t you think, to spend five lines speculating about what Frà Pandolf had said to the Duchess to make her blush? And that inane flirtation really needles the Duke. He imagines the kind of compliments the painter might have paid to the Duchess and it really gets on the Duke’s nerves to remember it. In fact, it’s not the compliments that needle him, but the effect they have on his wife. I’d argue that it’s not a particularly private moment between the Duchess and the artist. You’d have to be pretty dumb to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him if he’s the kind of guy that the Duke seems to be. Also, Frà Pandolf says “her throat” which implies that he is not talking TO the Duchess, but ABOUT the Duchess… these are his excuses for not being able to get the exact colour right to the Duke, rather than attempts to flirt with a guy’s wife right in front of him. Either way, the Duchess finds it flattering, thinking it good manners, “such stuff was courtesy” and the Duke finds it a sign that she is just too dumb to appreciate things as she should. By that, I mean too dumb to appreciate “his nine-hundred-years-old name”.

I don’t know what irks him most: the flirtation, his wife’s reaction, or the fact that the compliments were coming from some lowly painter.

I mean, it’s hardly saucy flirtation, is it? “Your cloak’s covering a bit too much of your wrist, love.” or “that’s a nice bit of light on your neck, darling…”

It doesn’t seem to be the stuff of wildly passionate flirtation, does it? (If you want to see that, dip into some of Spenser’s sonnets where he’s comparing his girlfriend’s nipples to flowers)

And yet… yet the neck and wrist ARE erogenous zones. The Japanese geisha have a whole line of ritualised flirtation involving the nape of the neck and the wrist. And if you think about vampires and which bits they suck… always necks and wrists, the kinky devils. Apparently, and I kid you not, body language experts think that neck and wrist signals can be some of the really flirty stuff.

Now Browning didn’t have body language experts and behavioural psychologists to help him… but those Victorians were also a bunch who covered up and covered up, so that those occasional glimpses of a wrist or ankle were, well, a most massive flirtation indeed.

So whilst at first glance you might think there’s nothing so saucy about what Frà Pandolf is saying to the Duchess, you might find it completely harmless and innoffensive, I think there’s something quite suggestive about it – another story to be told. That said, in the second part of those five lines, he’s quite clearly NOT talking to the Duchess directly, but to the Duke, so the jury’s out on the flirtation or whether it’s just an artist with good manners who wants to see a bit more wrist.

Does the Duke miss this saucy subtext? Does the Duchess? He tells us that she thought it “courtesy”. Either she means just plain good manners, respectful and polite, or that of “courtesy books” which were popular guides to etiquette and behaviour in Renaissance Italy… but the Duke tells us that the Duchess found nothing wrong with this.

All those layers of “he said… she said…” as well, that’s interesting. The Duke is a third wheel in that relationship between the painter and his subject. But we only have his word for what happened, and a many-layered story.

You have Frà Pandolf, who may or may not be a gentleman, who may or may not be flirting with quite serious intentions… or making excuses for why he can’t get the colour right on the woman’s neck.

Then you have the Duchess, who may or may not believe Frà Pandolf to be a gentleman or to have only honorable intentions.

And then you have the Duke, who may or may not believe what Frà Pandolf’s intentions were in flirting with his wife, or even that the Duchess said these things at all.

Confusing, much?

What we can agree on is that it’s a very biased and one-sided account of what happened, where we are asked to make our own judgements about it. You make up your own sub-story.

So was there anything going on between them?

I think not. I think it better suits the poem that the Duke is jealous and controlling. It suits the story better for the Duchess to be charmed simply by the painter, who is perhaps a little free with his compliments in the presence of the guy paying the bills. I like to see the Duchess as an innocent victim in all of this. It serves no purpose if we think she was up to mischief with the painter. Indeed, it may even make us sympathise with the Duke.

We wouldn’t be the first people to be in doubt over the Duke’s nature though. One critic (B. R. Jerman) intepreted his behaviour as ‘witless’, meaning he is simply stupid and foolish, perhaps not even seeing the affair happening right before his eyes. Another interpreted it as ‘shrewd’ and suggests that the character is cunning, knowing absolutely what it is that he is implying (Laurence Perrine)

And behind all of this you have Browning, pulling strings. What do we know about Browning? He LOVED ambiguity. He adored the fact that you never quite knew. And I have to agree with him… it makes it all the more tantalising as a story if we don’t know if the Duke is just stupid, or if he is really just issuing a veiled threat about the behaviours he expects of his next wife. (Although… if you were a marriage broker, would you advise your boss to let his daughter marry this guy? Even with his “nine-hundred-years-old name”, fancy paintings of dead wives and statues of Gods taming seahorses) I think it is very deliberate that we have this beguiling story that we can’t get to the bottom of. It just makes the poem so much more delicious in its intrigue.

Either way, from line 22, we get to the seed of the real source of irritation for the Duke. “She had a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad, too easily impressed ;” All those fragments we’ve discussed before. This is a seasoned speaker, who speaks easily and fluently (compare it with lines 7 and 8 which end with “countenance” and “earnest glance”) yet here, his speech falls apart. He stumbles. The dashes show us his pauses, his hesitation. Is he trying to find a polite way to talk about her?

And what does he mean? The Duchess liked stuff. She liked things and she was happy. How utterly appalling. “She liked whate’er she looked on”. She liked everything. Oh my word, well, that would make a man miserable! Kind of ironic how many men complain that they can’t choose the right present for their wife and here’s one who likes everything. No pleasing some husbands. We really sense the Duke’s indignation in “Sir ‘t was all one!”

Those monosyllables truly reveal his feelings. He is insulted that she likes everything and treats everything the same. He finds that disgusting. The Duke is deeply offended by the Duchess’s happy nature and the way she likes stuff.

Browning uses a list of things that the Duchess liked (I can imagine her on Facebook, ‘liking’ everything and the Duke watching her in his feed, getting more and more cross with the stuff she’d stick a heart or ‘thumbs up’ on!) and we get a sense of the Duke’s growing frustration and indignation. She liked the Duke’s compliments about what a nice rack she has (as so she should, because he is obviously not a man who finds favour in many things) but she liked sunsets, cherries, her pony… Good Lord, how is a man to cope with a wife who likes watching sunsets, eating cherries and riding a horse?! His list of things she likes seems pathetic when you think that IF he had her murdered, these are the reasons he had her murdered. She liked all of these things, ” – all and each/would draw from her alike the approving speech,”

And he doesn’t stop to think that the Duchess herself might just be being courteous or polite.

Now for the thing that REALLY gets his goat. As if cherry appreciation wasn’t enough. Look at how fragmented this bit is as he struggles to keep his temper in, even now, despite her being dead,

“She thanked men, –
good ! But thanked/
Somehow –
I know not how –
As if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift.”

Outrageous isn’t it? She just wasn’t grateful enough, wasn’t appreciative enough of his “gift” of a surname. And the Duke is so cross about that. We can see his anger building up through those fragments (which I’ve deliberately put on separate lines so that you can see clearly) The way that ‘MY’ falls at the beginning of a line, even though it is the object of the verb “ranked” and belongs with it in that phrase, on that line, it really emphasises it. It is a personal insult, he feels, that she treats everything the same.

The Duke finds this absolutely and utterly incomprehensible, with the rhetorical question, “Who’d stoop to blame/this sort of trifling?” and becomes even more angry. We see in the poem the way that this anger played out and built up.

So it’s her graciousness in receiving compliments, her appreciation of nature (and perhaps even true “beauty” – unlike the Duke with his obsession with manufactured art) of sunsets and cherries, white horses and the likes, that sets him off, since she doesn’t seem to appreciate his name as much as she should.

So the Duke becomes dictatorial, when he says “to make your will/Quite clear”, to “make your will”… that in itself sounds like a massive euphemism for what the Duke may have done to the Duchess in order to point out what he considered to be the error of her ways. The way he calls her “such an one” I think really stresses his frustration with her, and his loathing of her behaviour. The way the Duke repeats what he said to her, “just this or that in you disgusts me ; here you miss or there exceed the mark” reveals him to be a control freak who wants to ‘iron out’ all the ‘imperfections’ that he sees in his wife. If it is indeed “just this or that” and he finds minor aspects of her behaviour to be irritating, it reveals him to be a very pathetic kind of guy indeed, especially by our standards of relationships. It reminds me very much of a petty, pathetic armchair dictator, who wants to ‘direct’ all of his wife’s behaviour, just as the painter does when he says her coat hangs a little too low on her wrist. It’s like the Duke is trying to ‘mould’ or ‘shape’ the Duchess – despite the fact that Browning paints her as a remarkably lovely person, with her “spot of joy” on her cheek and her love of ponies and cherries. She is a woman who prefers the simple things in life. Although the Duke finds her behaviour to be lacking, his despotic behaviour when pointing out his wife’s every flaw reminds us that our characters and personality, like art, is all a matter of opinion. He is an autocrat who wants everything his way.

What becomes clear is the Duke finds that he is socially superior to his wife, that he finds he has to “stoop” or lower himself to her level. When he says he chooses “never to stoop”, he makes it pretty clear that he himself is perfect, that he finds he has no need to modify his behaviour or compromise in any single way at all, revealing his deep arrogance and vanity. The story then becomes a lesson for us, in the place of the marriage broker. It is an account that reveals that the Duke is making it clear that he will make no compromise and that he expects his next wife, whom you are representing, to be perfect. Like the dictatorial Ozymandias, he “gave commands” and “all smiles stopped together”. That, for the Duke, is the end of the story. He moves from “all smiles stopped together” back to the painting, or the Duchess’s images, “There she stands/As if alive” which not only refers to the quality of the painting, which is incredibly life-life, but is an ambiguous reference to the Duchess’s fate and what happened to make “all smiles” stop.

So what did happen to the Duchess?

Did the Duke order her murder? Are those “the commands” he “gave”?

Is she actually dead? Divorce wasn’t a regular thing in the time that the poem is set, but a marriage annulment could be possible. Another possibility is that she could have simply been to send her to a nunnery. When he was asked about what had happened to the Duchess, Browning said, “the commands were that she should be put to death… or he might have had her shut up in a convent.” (Corson, 1886. An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry)

So what does Browning reveal about the Duke?

He is an autocratic monster, who has a façade of an art connoisseur or collector, who collects wives as he collects art. He comes across as a Victorian Bluebeard, a monster who cannot see his own flaws, despite noticing every single flaw of his “Last Duchess.” Browning has chosen someone whose “nine-hundred-years-old” name is about to become extinct, which I find deeply ironic. But did Browning do that on purpose or not? Who knows. It is certainly ironic that this man who finds himself to be such a “gift” is a footnote in history books, completely forgettable except to Italian Renaissance history buffs, except for Browning’s poem. It’s deeply ironic too that Browning, like the sculptor in Ozymandias and Frà Pandolf, has the power to keep the Duke alive and to breathe life into him. Perhaps then, the real power lies in the hands of the artist, the writer or the sculptor, who has the power to immortalise (well, sort of, and if they are lucky!) their subject as well as how they are remembered. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare here, who is largely responsible for how we view Richard III or Macbeth, despite the fact his art is fiction.

What Browning does in the poem is skilfully create an image of a petty, autocratic monster who cannot see beauty where it truly is. Browning’s use of language creates deliberate ambiguities which leave us wondering if the Duke is just stupid and ill-bred, despite his family name, or whether he is indeed a man who has ordered his wife’s death, a petty tyrant who is using the painting to give a subtle threat to the marriage broker that the ‘next’ Duchess better be more biddable and more appreciative of his “gift” of the family name.

The end of the monologue ends in a very business-like way, with a discussion about the bride-to-be. The Duke asks the marriage broker to come with him, putting an end to the viewing, “Will’t please you rise?” And the Duke says that they will meet the rest of the group downstairs. When he says, “I repeat,” he seems to be picking up something he was talking about before, the generosity or “munificence” of the Count, whose daughter the Duke is arranging to marry. It is like he is flattering the broker, saying that the Count is known for his generosity. The mention of the dowry, the money, property or goods that a wife brings with her as a “gift” from her family to the husband shows this to be a business transaction, despite the Duke saying that he is interested in the Count’s “fair daughter”. He comes across as mercenary. His discussion of business and money in such an overt way also comes across to me as being crass and ill-mannered. Goodness only knows who instilled upon me the rudeness of talking about money. Emily Post, one of the most famous people who decided on good manners and wrote books about etiquette and manners, said that it is very vulgar to talk money. Maybe that’s why I find it very vulgar of the Duke to be discussing money. But then he is a very vulgar man. Mind you, I’m of the generation that finds it rude and unthinking to give money as a present, so I’m no doubt hideously old-fashioned and that view of the vulgarity of the money talk at the end is mine and mine alone!

The Duke can’t resist, as he goes, a final show-off moment. Have a look at my wonderful bronze statue of a God taming a sea horse, if you will. I think it remarkably telling, revealing much about the Duke. Perhaps it acts as a metaphor for his relationship with the Duchess, that he too tried to “tame” her or “break” her. Either way, the moment leaves us in no doubt that the Duke is a collector of fine art and likes to show off about it.

What I think, then, is that we have a man who thinks he is cultured, a collector if you like, who has no true appreciation of what is beautiful. He is ill-mannered and snobbish, the worst of the aristocracy. He has not merited his title and his ugly personality is far from refined or cultured. He is a boorish show-off. If you ask me, I don’t think his last wife died of anything in particular. I don’t think the Duke’s words show that he cared about her, only in that she was his possession, in return for his name. He is a colossal snob, who doesn’t realise that his artwork as well as his speech reveals him very perfectly. He is a petty dictator, but he couldn’t even manage to get his wife to bow to his bidding. Kind of ironic that her painting, which he may choose to only reveal to a very select few, is a depiction of her ‘defiance’.

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.