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

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

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

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

Anyhow…

The form of the poem.

When I think about form, I think about this:

Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why the finishing couplet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does this work when I look at Remains?

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

It asks more questions than it answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week, an exploration of Remains by Simon Armitage

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

But here, we don’t know who “we” are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

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

 

 

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An analysis of the context, form and structure of Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island

The second of the 20th Century poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology, this poem is by one of my favourite modern poets, Seamus Heaney.

Yesterday, I read an article in the Washington Post documenting terrorism in Europe since 1970. I imagine most GCSE students will be surprised to see that very heavy cluster of red over Northern Ireland. Somehow, ‘The Troubles’ as they came to be known, seem to have faded in significance compared to other threats, and there will be many sixteen-year-olds who will have no idea who Tim Parry or Johnathon Ball were, or why a post box in Manchester is a permanent reminder of the conflict over Northern Ireland. If you ask most of today’s students who was responsible for the biggest bomb on mainland Great Britain since the second world war, I’m pretty sure the image of the IRA has all but faded.

Seamus Heaney’s life saw both the escalation of conflict over Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s and a tentative peace in 1998. In Northern Ireland at this time, politics mattered. Politics and religion. Heaney manages to by-pass most of that in his poetry, yet it’s a theme that very much touches his work. There are poems that tackle issues around the conflict, and in many I find a sense of conflict, an uneasy tension, even if they are not about the Troubles themselves. Storm on the Island very much fits into that tradition. To me, Heaney manages to avoid the conflict, and not avoid it, if you like. It seems to hover over a lot of his poems like a shadow. Some are more overtly about politics, like Requiem for the Croppies and the collection, North, This collection was Heaney’s most controversial: people wanted him to be more political. Some people wanted him to use less violent images. Some people wanted him to write about the present, not the past, or not blend the two. For me, I think the past was very much tied up with the present for Heaney, and with his mixed heritage (he was both Catholic and and an Ulster-man, who then moved into the Republic of Ireland proper) and I think he must have felt profoundly uncomfortable to be expected to be political. What mattered to him was Ireland itself, a place with no boundaries, a place as old as the earth, the landscape of the place, its eternal qualities. But that’s just one English Teacher’s opinion.

Incidentally, I met Seamus Heaney once in the bar in Stratford, during the intermission of Julius Caesar. I told him I was his groupie, which made him laugh. When you have studied Heaney at GCSE, A level and degree, and then spent 20 years teaching it in successive GCSE specifications, those lines stick in your head. He asked me what my favourite poem of his was. It’s Personal Helicon, by the way, but I think he found it funny that I knew it by heart. For me, those final lines, “I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing” sum up much of his own poetry. It’s intensely personal. It’s a story of himself. But it’s also a story of how he looks into the land to find himself, how he looks to the past as a source of inspiration. A poet, for me, who writes to see himself, to reflect upon himself and see the ripples.

You may be right to ask, then, if the Troubles in Northern Ireland had anything to do with Storm on the Island. Isn’t it just a “conflict of man and nature” poem like Exposure or Stealing the Boat? Isn’t it just a reflection on how pointless our best-laid plans are, the way nature and the landscape will always triumph? Of course it is. But I’d be interested to read any interpretation of how it comes to have this dark shadow of Ireland’s Troubles. Ironic, indeed, that the Troubles themselves were a metaphorical ‘storm’ on the Ireland. When he published North in 1975, some critics thought he should have steered clear of politics altogetherI find that there’s a deep sense of discomfort in Heaney’s work. The land of Ireland seems to give him roots, make him strong, remind him of who he is, like the house itself in the poem, but at the same time, how can you be a poet of the time and NOT be influenced by all those red dots on the Washington Post article? It feels sometimes that Heaney is avoiding the huge, great elephant in the room which in itself has a lot to do with who he is.

Heaney, by the way, did an in-depth interview with another Seamus, Seamus Deane, which you can read here if you are very, very interested in what Heaney thought about poetry and politics, or you’re a world-class geeky curious-mind like me. What I particularly like about what he said is this: “Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self.” – it’s like a way of seeing yourself. I like to think of Storm on the Island as part of that tradition, that he reveals a lot about himself in the poem. I also think that ‘home’ for Heaney is always tied-up with a sense of conflict. In another poem, Tollund Man, he finishes by saying how much the Iron Age Scandinavian human sacrifices feel familiar to him: “I will feel lost, unhappy and at home” – that internal conflict about home life is something that we see often in Heaney. You know, the kind of conflict you feel about your home town, your family… how you love it because it’s who you are, but at the same time, it often makes you unhappy.

I think it’s important to understand the role of all this internal conflict for Heaney before you start reading Storm on the Island.

Storm on the Island comes from Heaney’s earliest published collection, Death of a Naturalist. This collection seems very much about how he realises that nature is not some gentle, lovely thing, but it has its moments when you realise that we put a real gloss on it. The title poem tells about him being told in school about the “Mammy Frog” and the “Daddy Frog”, which is all very lovely and sanitised, only for the young Heaney to end by feeling that “the great slime kings” were an “obscene threat” and he feels like the frogspawn would grab his hand and pull him into the water if he tried to steal any of it, as if it was some scary B-movie monster. I think that sums up Heaney’s ambivalence about nature. It’s not this lovely, pretty thing. Do a Google Image search for ‘Nature’ and you’ll see how people view it… waterfalls and lovely forests, sunshine and trails. And then do a Google Image search for ‘Scary nature’ and you’ll see what Heaney’s suggesting Nature can be. For him, it’s not one or the other. It’s both. As a whole, this collection is very much about the issues that Nature brings for Heaney, how blackberries ‘rot’, how farmhands drown kittens. The world in itself is a place that gives Heaney not only a sense of wonder and joy, but also a sense of terror and fear, just like the young Wordsworth.

The poem itself makes an easy comparison with Stealing the Boat, especially when you look at the form of the poems.

The poem in itself is one single, solid block. 19 unrhymed lines of 10 or 11-syllables ended by a half-rhyme couplet. The form in itself echoes the “squat” houses, the solidity in the way that they are built to bear the brunt of the Atlantic weather fronts. It also does something else, capturing the storm as one single event, the lines themselves reflecting the unrelenting storm. Like Stealing the Boat, this too is free verse, apart from that final half-rhymed couplet. It seems to bring the poem to an end. Shakespeare often used the rhyming couplet to draw an end to a scene, but also to encapsulate an idea. Those words, “air” and “fear” echo each other, but not quite. It is not harmonious, but not completely dischordant. It serves to bring attention to those lines, but also to give a kind of finality to the lines. They are set apart from the blank verse of the rest of the lines. It heightens the build-up to the content of these lines. Like Wordsworth, Heaney is not bound or restricted by the syllabic length of the lines, and his words do not adhere to the ‘one-TWO’ stress of iambic pentameter. They’re pretty free-ranging.

He also uses the enjambed lines and the caesura to break up and fragment the poem in parts, and to build to a crescendo in others. Like the Duke in My Last Duchess who loses control of his emotions which spill out over several lines and then are broken up by caesura, Heaney is also using enjambment in places where there is a crescendo of emotion, but what marks this poem for me is the use of caesura, not enjambment. Look at the way he takes all those words and dumps them at the beginning of a line before stopping, disrupting the rhythm…

We are prepared:
or stooks that can be lost.
Blast.
But no:
Turned savage.
And strafes invisibly.

19 lines, and 6 of them include a caesura that picks up some ideas from a previous line and dumps them on the next.

We should, of course, be asking Heaney’s purpose in doing this. What is the reason for all this caesura? That abrupt stop, particularly on those hard, stressed monosyllabic words ‘blast’ and ‘lost’, really gives the poem some force. Or, rather, it gives the storm itself some force. It’s an uneven rhythm, like the storm itself, picking up ideas in one place and dropping them in another, like a storm picking up trampolines and dumping them in a garden down the road. That pause also makes us stop a moment and adds emphasis and importance to those words. Why does Heaney want us to think so much about that word, “blast” or the word “savage”? Remember that in poetry in particular, the punctuation and line breaks are about where you breathe, and it’s interesting to me how Heaney is playing with the way we breathe here. It’s not a coincidence to me that he’s using these caesuras to drop words onto the next line so frequently.

One of the places in the poem where Heaney uses enjambment very effectively is in the ‘growing’ idea of:

You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage.

What you get here is a sentence that runs over five lines of the poem, spilling out over those lines, a crescendo in itself, just like the sea. You’ve got some very interesting monosyllables there too, with the “the flung spray hits” and “down on the cliffs”. In fact, with “like a tame cat”, you’ve got three lines there that finish with a very staccato four-word group, and the assonance of the “i” in “cliffs” and “hits” which also adds to that staccato effect. Lots of short vowel sounds, the “uh” of “the” and “flung”, the “i” of “cliffs” and “hits”, the internal rhyme of “spits” and “hits”… lots of things going on here with the words, with the sounds. Short sounds are hard, mitigated by the occasional “ay” or “oh” in “down”, “spray” and “tame”. Couple that with the monosyllables and what you’ve got is words with a very staccato effect. They’re brief, strong and articulated clearly, the words detached from one another in “FLung SPRay HIts”… I’ll write more about this in the next post, looking in more depth at those words, at the way Heaney describes the house, the storm, the wind, the sea. But what the form gives us is this unrelenting, unstopping sentence that keeps coming at you with a wordy assault. P.S. if you know someone who enunciates like Gary Oldman in Friends, stand a good few feet back when they read these lines.

Those plosives and sibilants do have a remarkable spitty effect if you know someone who enunciates like that!

Now why might Heaney want all of those sounds in there?

In terms of the structure, we start with the poet and his use of “we”, which compares well with Exposure, suggesting a sense of community maybe. We notice another thing, too, about the structure, as to why there are no stanzas or verses. Not only does it help create that ‘squat’ effect on the page as I mentioned before, but we realise this is one single moment: there is no structural need for breaks. It helps emphasise once again that sense of relentlessness. Still, as it goes, it provides an internal commentary at first, that they are prepared, a justification for the way they build the houses, a commentary on the landscape and its barren tree-less, feature-less appearance, It moves on with the thoughts, in “you might think”, where I get the impression almost that this is a conversation between poet and reader, that he places us inside the cottage on the island alongside him almost. It takes on properties not unlike My Last Duchess, where we are given a role to play as reader. We’re very much ‘inside’ this poem with Heaney, listening to the wind outside. The poem finishes also with a final reflection:

Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear

For me, the voice of the poet, the position of the reader, it’s like we’re the “we” together, like we’re with Heaney listening to the wind outside. It finishes as it starts with a kind of commentary on the wind. Much of the poem is focused on us and on our reactions, despite the title being “Storm on the Island”. Apart from the earlier bits where we had the enjambment and the monosyllabic words about the sea, and a few lines about the wind, it is glued together with a kind of personal reflection on them, a commentary if you will, as if the poet is justifying or explaining things to us. It is not so much about the storm as it is about the preparations of the community, the way the community live to counteract the storms, which sound like a regular occurrence.

In the next post, I’ll look at the way that Heaney uses language and imagery in this poem, exploring how he uses words, sounds and ideas as well as the effect that they have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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