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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