These two poems are both written concerning the same subject of War. Owen writes from a personal viewpoint, recanting the horrific events he lived through during the Great War and exploring the mythical status of the soldier by using images that are unexpected of a soldier.
“Bent double like old beggars under sacks…coughing like hags.”
People expected soldiers to be strong, young and healthy fighters with a strong sense of patriotism, but instead see images of weak, vulnerable despairing men.
The main theme in his poem, of how it is not sweet and just to die for one’s country, is presented by the way in which he describes the scenes, showing his anti-war feelings to the reader.
This poem was originally a personal letter aimed at one of Owen’s opponents, Jessie Pope. She wrote pro-war poetry that encouraged young men to join the army “with such high zest”; this can be seen throughout the poem, but particularly strongly in the last stanza where Owen seems to be telling the story as it is happening in real life.
Owen was later dissuaded from sending this to her alone by Siegfried Sassoon, and adapted his poem to address a wider audience- the supporters of the war.
He forces the reader to experience the war with him, making the reader feel almost as strongly as himself by showing his pure hatred. This can be shown for example when he says:
“His hanging face, like a devil sick of sin”
This creates an image of the soldier spitting out the words with such hatred at the moment one of the soldiers dies from the gas attack.
Auden writes before the outbreak of World War II, from a different point of view to that of Owen. He writes from the viewpoint of a group of German Jews, fleeing the Nazis. He strongly conveys the feelings of not belonging and persecution against the Jews, for example:
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”
“Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.”
This shows how they were not accepted by the countries and people who thought they could ignore the problem by denying the Jews into their environment.
There appear to be three different protagonists within the poem:
The Country officials and people within the countries acting as bystanders; ignoring the people hoping that the problem will go away if they cant see or experience it themselves. Hitler and the Nazis acting as the perpetrators, wanting to hunt down and exterminate all the Jews, and finally the victims being the Jewish people in Europe, having been persecuted throughout history.
This is shown when Auden writes:
“Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.”
Auden writes from a Jewish point of view, although he wasn’t in fact Jewish, and spent most of the war in America.
Auden’s usage of these three different viewpoints contrasts the way Owen uses the soldiers and himself, as the protagonists, making them seem heroic in the way they put up with the traumatising events and appalling conditions of the war,
“Men marched asleep, many had lost their boots, but limped on, blood-shod…”
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”…
He shows that he is present and acting within the troop and that they are helping each other by using the 1st person plural:
“We cursed through the sludge”
“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face”
Owen’s poem also creates a strong image of hatred towards the people who want the war to continue, the antagonists of the poem, prolonging the soldier’s arduous duties. He does this by showing how the soldiers wanted to do everything they could o help, but because of their lack of energy, they could only watch ‘through misty panes’ ‘before [their] helpless sight’. This is further explained during the gas attack:
“And floundering like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
Owen uses the second stanza to quicken the pace of the poem and to bring the atmosphere and morale surrounding the soldiers even lower. Previously he described them ‘trudging through the sludge’ and now they are frantically fitting their gas masks in ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ until they reach the nadir of their energy and will to live. This can be shown by the lines:
“All went lame, all blind; drunk with fatigue…smothering dreams…froth-corrupted lungs….”
Owen obviously feels disgusted by the events that he is forced to relive in the poem, because of the macabre rhetoric and imagery that he uses throughout. He builds up the pace in the second stanza in order to produce a crescendo effect making the climax at the end all the more effective, and intense.
Auden does not build up the emotion as thoroughly, because most of the stanzas are talking about subjects like seeing how they are always unwanted while animals are welcome in society,
“Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.”
…and how they are able to drift around Europe but they aren’t actually free to do anything at all.
“Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.”
“Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.”
These are saddening thoughts as well as those in the other stanzas, but compared to the physical human struggle shown by Owen and described with vast detail and effective rhetoric, it seems less significant. This idea could be developed further though, showing how Auden’s interpretation of the suffering affects the Jews more in the long run-6,000,000 Jews died in WWII alone. The diction used by Auden is also important as he manages to create a strong feeling of sympathy and pathos without having experienced the war himself;
“If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead”
This line, illustrates the way in which Auden wants us to understand the feeling of the Jews, having nowhere to call home, living a completely nomadic life.
This is all made personal by using the repetition ‘my dear’ at the end of each stanza:
“But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive”
This is because of the way it sounds like the matter at hand is offending the reader, because ‘my dear’ sounds like he might me talking to the reader or someone else close to him.
Owen uses his diction in a vivid and realistic way that implies that he has personally experienced this, making it increasingly powerful as the reader continues. Auden manages to produce a similar feeling of narrating the story from memory, although he writes from his knowledge of the subject, not actual memory.
The general structure of the two poems is also different with Owen using a 28-line poem with 4 irregular stanzas. It is written in an iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB, where as “Refugee Blues” has twelve regular stanzas of three lines, and almost a rhyme of AABB, with a repetition within last line at the end of each stanza, similar to the repetition in the chorus of a song, using ‘my dear’:
“Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.”
The poem has some characteristics of blues lyrics, which are traditionally slow, and sad with three lined stanzas. Also hinted at by the title: Refugee Blues, the poem obviously seems to be based on this type of music.
– Coincidentally, Hitler had banned Blues music from Germany because its musicians were inferior, black Americans – This could be a deliberate mention to Nazi Germany, because behind the main story of the poem, Auden generates an image of the Nazis closing in on the Jews. There is a direct reference to this when Auden says:
“It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘ They must die’;
we were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.”
This shows how, ironically how the only person who thought about or cares for the Jews is in fact, Hitler, whose main ambition is to exterminate them entirely.
The long period of time in which ‘Refugee Blues’ is written contrasts the shorter ones witnessed in ‘Dulce et decorum est’.
Auden narrates over a large time, in which this particular group of Jews has visited many countries in hope and attempted to restabilise their life:
“In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.”
This shows that the Jews have been drifting around the countries for a year or more in hope of being accepted. This subject of being denied, and systematically ignored by everyone becomes a major theme within Auden’s poem to do with human rights – or the lack of it – and the way that we might think that a British or French person might be more important than an Arab or Jewish person.
Although Owen portrays the events as happening quite slowly to begin with, this is just accentuating the current stat of the soldiers, the pace quickens and the time span shortens near the end, this gives the impression that the whole poem is only describing about half a days worth of fighting. This can be supported by the way Owen describes the moments leading up to the gas attack:
“through the sludge…on the haunting flares we turned our backs
and towards our distant rest began to trudge.”
This soldiers here create a very lethargic and languid atmosphere that allows the reader to think carefully about the imagined scene around him.
Then the appearance of the gas shells ‘dropping softly behind’ the thundering artillery, shifts the men into a frenzied moment and an’ ecstasy of fumbling’ where seconds could be the difference between life and death.
This becomes the primary focus of actual events, happening in the poem as the third stanza is the transitional zone of a dream where Owen begins to relive the moment,
“In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”
…and finally, the fourth stanza is his more detailed account of that day and his feelings at the time.
Both poets use the last sections of their poem to deliver a key line that supports the whole of their argument, and reason for writing the poem. Owen’s whole poem leads up to the last point very effectively as from the first line of the fourth stanza:
‘If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in…”
Owen is asking a question that he starts adding more evidence to, in order to gain the readers attention of how serious he feels about this:
“If you could hear…,”
Then, Owen delivers the vital four lines of the poem:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory,
the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Owen is explaining here how all his previous evidence of the ‘children ardent for some desperate glory’ – the war itself, are all pointless. He is trying to gain the readers support in his argument, and at this point it seems that the reader is imagined in the place of the person Owen might be telling this to.
When concluding his poem he uses the phrase: ‘the old lie’ this is a bitter end to his argument, where he knows that the listener cannot offer an argument against it in word or action, but only feel the sense that they have been beaten.
In contrast to this, the last stanza of ‘Refugee Blues’ does not appear with such obvious importance, but after a more careful analysis, the reader understands how the Jews have been fighting for a place in Europe knowing they are sought after by Hitler and now they arrive at the terrible conclusion where they can see the ‘ten thousand soldiers’ wanting to eradicate all of the Jews ‘marching to and fro’.
From all the evidence we can see how both poets use death as a minor theme throughout, making variations on it, when either talking about the planned extermination of millions, or from the front line in a war, they are both equally significant.
The theme used mostly by Owen of how it is not sweet and fitting to die for one’s country is also used by Auden in an imaginative sense. The Jews within the poem do not comprehend why they can not gain entrance to any country, because of their religion, or international status, and therefore feel the pointlessness of it all.
Another shared idea of the poems is that of the ‘silent majority’. This occurs in Refugee Blues as the Jews, and in Dulce et decorum est, as the soldiers. They both feel as though they cannot voice their opinions during the war, even thought they are a vast majority. The soldiers would feel this in war, putting up with the fighting for as long as they could and not having significant power to do anything about the deaths of all the young men, and the Jews not being able to say anything important because of their religion.
Both poets use these poems as ways in which they can voice the opinion of their own ‘silent majority’. With the help of anti-war poems like these, they may be recognized, and the problems repaired.