Owen used his poetry as a means of exposing the truth to the ordinary citizens and propaganda at the time of World War One, becoming a stark contrast to the information distributed by the army and government. He was a soldier himself and was killed in action one week before the war ended. In this analysis I will by focusing on how Owen exposes the conditions that soldiers in World War 1 had to endure. He uses many different techniques, including personification, symbolism, imagery, questions, emotive language, contrast, repetition and more.
Owen uses the technique of asking questions throughout the poem in order to portray exactly how bad the conditions for the soldiers were, such as ‘what are we doing here? ’ It gives the reader time for reflection and encourages them to read more deeply into the poem, considering exactly why the soldiers are where they are – in order to save our country. Another example is the question; ‘Is it that we are dying? ’ This question is particularly effective as it reminds the reader exactly how harsh the conditions are and the life-or-death situation the soldiers are facing.
The positioning of the questions is also very effective – the above two examples are situated at the end of two stanzas, allowing time for the reader to reflect on one stanza before moving on to the next. Another technique Owen uses is symbolism. He often gives words and objects deeper meanings; frequently making them symbolize something else. An example of this is ‘dawn massing in the east her melancholy army’. While this is clearly referring to the weather and clouds, it could also mean the enemies preparing themselves for battle en masse, or that everything is against the soldiers, even nature and therefore God.
Another example is that ‘all their eyes were ice’. On the surface, this could mean cold temperatures, but if looked at in more depth it could symbolize inner mental turmoil. In addition, it is believed by some that eyes are subject to inner emotions. If eyes are windows to the soul, ‘ice’ could suggest that they are numbed on the inside, either by the extreme cold or the horror of war so great one cannot cope fully in control of his emotions. In addition, Owen uses similes to try and portray the horror of war.
Similes help readers to understand things that they have never experienced or cannot imagine by relating them to things everyone can comprehend. The similes Owen uses are particularly disturbing as they illustrate the pain and suffering of the soldiers. Stating that something is ‘like twitching agonies of men’ is troubling as we do not expect soldiers to be ‘twitching’ in agony. We expect them to be fighting valiantly, which makes it even more disturbing. Owen also describes bullets in the distance as ‘like a dull roar of some other war’, suggesting that these men are feeling detached from the war and life itself, either due to shock or loss.
It is easier for us readers to comprehend the soldier’s extreme emotional states through Owen’s use of similes. Repetition is another of Owen’s effective techniques. Phrases such as ‘but nothing happens’ are repeated many times throughout the poem and this helps us understand in part the depression and helplessness that the men are feeling. It also shows represents their disappointment after waiting in extreme anticipation. These repetitions are also at the end of different stanzas, increasing the sense of finality and assurance that no help is coming for the soldiers.
In addition, Owen repeats the word ‘dying’ at the end of stanzas, reiterating the point that these men are on the brink of death and are dying from the weather conditions, not enemy bullets. Death from weather conditions is preventable, and Owen is subtly accusing the army and government of abandoning these men. Another particularly effective technique Owen uses is personification. He particularly personifies the weather, giving the impression that even nature and God are against them.
For example, the ‘merciless iced east winds that knife [them]’ implies that the ‘winds’ are alive and are causing them even more pain. It increases the sense of isolation the soldiers are feeling and also their helplessness and vulnerability. The ‘mad gusts’ of wind where also ‘tugging on the wire’, implying that the winds are trying to rip away the barbs. Perhaps the most effective example of personification is the fact that ‘dawn [was] massing in the east her melancholy army’. Dawn then ‘attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray.
This means that dawn is preparing clouds for further snow and cold in order to attack the ranks of soldiers on the ground. Dawn is supposed to be a new day and therefore new hope, however Owen has portrayed it to be an enemy that is trying to kill more of them. The snow is also personified; it flakes ‘wandering up and down’ on the wind. The ‘flakes’ are described as dainty and harmless, but in truth they are freezing the soldiers to death and more lethal the enemy bullets. The ‘flakes’ are also described as ‘feeling for [their] faces’ with ‘lingering stealth’.
The flakes seem more formidable here, as if they are deliberately trying to land on the soldiers and therefore make them even colder. We can read lots of meanings into the personification Owen uses, helping us understand the true meaning of war. Imagery is another particularly effective technique that Owen uses frequently. It is effective because it allows the reader to use their imagination, thus making the poem more interesting but also describing an image too disturbing for words alone. Imagery engages the reader and adds an extra dimension to the poem.
One example of disturbing imagery Owen uses is when he states that they ‘cringe in holes’ in a vain attempt to keep out of the cold. We imagine soldiers to be masculine and engaged in battle, not cringing in ‘holes’ to try and avoid an inevitable death. Owen also states that ‘slowly [their] ghosts drag home’, which is a very effective example of imagery due to the fact that it implies that men are dying. It also implies that they are leaving family and relatives behind and that they were ordinary people with homes and lives, not insignificant cannon fodder.
The soldiers are ‘lie out [there]’ in the snow and ice, freezing slowly to death. Is seems that they have to proper equipment to keep them warm and are too exhausted to carry on. It is as if they have accepted that they are going to die out in the cold, so far from home and in preventable conditions. In addition, Owen states that ‘His frost will fasten on this mud and us’, implying that God has sent the frost to settle upon them, pushing them closer and closer to an inevitable death.
People of this time would have been very religious and believed in the love of God, therefore to comprehend that perhaps God is not looking out for them must be an acceptance that nobody is looking out for them anymore and they are certainly going to die. The imagery of ‘fires’ and ‘red jewels’ is displaying two things that are red. This could also be perceived two ways – firstly, red is the colour of love. It reminds the reader of exactly what the men are missing at the moment…warmth and love. However, red is also the colour of danger.
The men are in danger at this point – not from physical enemies, but nature instead. The last piece of imagery used in the poem is the most disturbing and depressing. The men have died and ‘the burying-party’ is burying them in makeshift graves with ‘picks and shovels in their shaking grasp’ and ‘pause over half-known faces’. The men are not even getting proper funerals, nor are they being sent home. The reader can guess that this is because there are simply too many deaths and that the burying-party needs to go and bury some more dead soldiers.
All the imagery that Owen has used helps him immensely in portraying the true horrors of war as human imagination often exaggerates and runs away with itself, therefore showing exactly how bad war was for these men. To add to this, Owen uses metaphors to embellish his writing. On the very first line he states the ‘[their] brains ache’, possibly meaning that they are so tired and perhaps grief-stricken or shocked that they feel like their very brains are aching with the strain of the extremity of their emotions and hardships.
Another metaphor used describes their eyes as ‘ice’, when of course they are not in reality but a deeper meaning, as previously suggested, could be that they are numb on the inside to the horror and grief. All Owens metaphors are implicit, therefore we have to read the deeper meaning ourselves and find the comparative meaning. Too add further, pathetic fallacy is used to try and show the truth of war for the soldiers. Pathetic fallacy is effective in its own right as inanimate objects are viewed as if they have human feelings, emotions or sensations, when the soldiers themselves are not being treated as if they have any of these human things.
It is as if things that are not even alive are taken more notice of than dying soldiers. The one example of this that Owen uses is that the ‘rain soaks, and clouds stay stormy’. It implies that conditions are not getting any better for the soldiers and that there is still no hope for them; there is no light at the end of the tunnel for these men and death may even come as a blessing. Emotive language is also used a lot throughout the poem, making us feel sorry for the men and also provoking us to join Owen in his disapproval of the army and government.
This technique is used from the very first line in the form of ‘our brains ache’. We feel compassion for the soldiers as they are in this state in the first place because they signed up to fight for our country and defend it, and they are definitely paying the price for their decisions now. Vocabulary such as ‘merciless’, ‘dying’ ‘wearied’ and ‘shivering’ add to the suffering of the men as they are all harsh words. They couple with phrases like ‘twitching agonies of men’ to make the mood of the poem sombre and full of pain.
In addition, phrases such as ‘forgotten dreams’ and ‘but nothing happens’ show loss of hope and acceptance of their fate. Towards the end of the poem Owen states that ‘love of God seems dying’, meaning that it seems like even God, who loves all humankind, does not love them anymore. They have been subjected to such horrendous suffering and helplessness – all their faith in God has disappeared, increasing their feelings of isolation. Also, Owen reminds us that ‘[they] lie out [there], therefore [they] were born’. The fact that we have to be reminded that these are men with lives, exactly the same as any of us, is appalling.
Owen clearly thinks that these men are not being treated as if they were humans or he is reminding us that these men are not ruthless killing machines, they are brave soldiers with feelings and sensations. We are also reminded again that they are humans with needs when Owen says that ‘wearied, [they] keep awake’. We are reminded that they do need sleep but are deprived of it due to their situation. They have been deprived of such a basic necessity because if they do sleep they will either die from cold or will die from an enemy attack.
In addition, the bullets are described as being ‘less deadly than air’. The use of the word deadly is effective as it reminds us how dire the situation is, but the phrase itself shows that something as harmless as air could turn so deadly, killing more people than weapons that were designed to kill. To add to this, the soldiers ‘cringe in holes’. This means that they are recoiling from danger, the danger presently being the natural world – snow, wind and cold. This brings to the public eyes that the danger of war is not just the enemy – but everyday things that can turn sinister in the wrong situation.
The most troubling example of emotive language is ‘on us the doors were closed’, referring to a house in which ‘innocent mice rejoice’. Sadly, this shows that even the mice have better living conditions than they do and that the soldiers could have been given shelter – instead, the doors and shutters and closed on them. This shows exactly how much help the soldiers have been given. The truth is that they haven’t been given any support at all and have just been sent out and abandoned without a further thought.
Owen very cleverly implies that the army does not care about its men and neither does the government. Yet another technique Owen uses is contrast. The general mood of the poem is depressing and sombre, however there are references to things that are the opposite, such as ‘home’. Home is warm and inviting, something that we are all familiar with. However, instead of having this basic human need they are alone in a hostile environment. This major contrast reminds us exactly how much to soldiers have lost.
Another contrast Owen uses is the seemingly endless hardship they are suffering to the shortness of their lives. Words such as ‘successive’, ‘slowly’ and ‘drag’ and phrases such as ‘war lasts’ show us how long these men have had to endure these conditions. They would all also be young men, therefore their lives have been cut short with more than a lifetime’s worth of suffering. We also get the impression that these men represent a lot of other soldiers of the time, showing us exactly how much hardship the war has inflicted and some idea of how many live shave been cut short.
In addition, Owen uses an oxymoron to create more contrast – ‘the poignant misery of dawn begins to grow’. Dawn is seen as a fresh new start, however is only brings these men another day of ‘misery’ and suffering. The last techniques that Owen uses effectively are stanza structure and punctuation. The stanzas are organized in a way which shows each of them getting worse and worse, ending with death and burial as a very tragic ending. This is effective as it leaves the reader with a sense of loss and the idea that many, many soldiers died in this way.
The stanzas are also ended with a shorter line such as ‘but nothing happens’, displaying finality. Ellipsis is also used effectively as it adds a sense of foreboding, for example in the line; ‘The poignant misery of dawn beings to grow…’. It also creates a pause for reflection. In addition, the slow pace of the poem achieved by many commas, full stops and ellipsis shows how slowly the men are dying and their prolonged agony, waiting for death. This is very effective as the reader feels as though he or she is waiting with them for the end.
In conclusion, the variety of techniques stated above that Owen uses all aid him in his quest to reveal the true horror of war. Even his title ‘Exposure’ reveals a little of the truth. This could mean that either that Owen is exposing the truth or that the soldiers are exposed to the elements with no shelter. This cleverly created a deeper meaning and gives the reader an idea of what the poem is going to be about. The simple one word title is also very effective – it seems more final and dramatic.