Poetry (and all literature) written before the Great War differs greatly to poetry written during and after it. This is because the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, methods of warfare and fighting changed from traditional ways. These affected people, and subsequently caused differences in attitudes towards war. The techniques and the use of language in poems differed, giving the poems written before and after the war greatly contrasting moods. Attitudes that differ include those towards war, principally in war poetry, but also attitudes towards life and such things as manhood.
Poetry of the Great War is wholly more negative in its attitudes, whereas ideas such as ‘honour’ are present in poetry written before. The poems studied in this essay are ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen. The latter two are from the Great War and the former two are from before. In ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ Owen portrays the soldiers as not very honourable or courageous, but instead exhausted and vulnerable.
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However, in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, the soldiers are described as noble heroes. Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge” (‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’) “Honour the Light Brigade……. Noble six hundred” (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) The visual imagery used in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘like old beggars under sacks’ implies that being a soldier in the Great War is tiring and hard, but it also implies that the soldiers’ spirits are not high and the mood created by the comparison to beggars is dull and deathly. The soldiers are also very vulnerable in the face of the war, as they are ‘coughing like hags’.
This also distances those soldiers from the traditional image of the brave hero who is healthy and unharmed. This conveys the writer’s attitude that war is not a great or honourable thing, and that it does not produce great heroes, instead it produces only weakened, exhausted men who are ‘knock-kneed’ clearly finding it distressing to walk in the battlefield because of their fatigue. In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, however, the men are described as ‘Noble’. This implies that at the time of the poem, going to war was considered a noble act.
Therefore attitudes apparent towards war in this poem are more about how ‘honour’ is gained by taking part in war. Overall, in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ war is shown to be a good and correct thing, as men who go become honourable (honour has always been desired), but in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ the reverse is shown, and a horrific war is described in the soldiers’ appearances – as they show no such honour. In ‘If’, Kipling’s attitude to life is of perseverance against any adversity, even if it means starting over.
However, in ‘Futility’, Owen (directly) questions the very reason of existence, and asks whether there is any point in being alive (if the outcome is just a meaningless death in a war). “And lose, and stat again at your beginnings And never breath a word about your loss” (‘If’) “Was it for this the clay grew tall? ” (‘Futility’) Kipling states how it is good to ‘never breath one word about your loss,’ which means starting over without doubt, and without looking back. This requires perseverance to do, to build up life again, but Kipling implies this is a positive thing.
The attitude towards life is that life is very valuable, and hence it is important, even after a loss, to ‘start again at your beginnings’. This implies that one should always be strong in life, and that one should never give up. This attitude towards life is totally dismissed in ‘Futility’. Instead, Owen asks whether all creation was made to die. He asks whether all creation is futile. He uses a rhetorical question to further strengthen his point, and to create the feeling that he is really uncertain of the meaning of life.
The ‘clay’ is an allusion to the Bible, that man was made from clay, and therefore Owen brings in a religious argument, stating that if this is how mankind dies, then there is no point in life, even if mankind was created in image of God. The reader therefore also gets the feeling Owen is questioning God. The Great War poem, Futility, sees life as a weak and pointless thing, and asks about how one cannot be revived from death, whereas ‘If’, which was written before the Great War, is much more optimistic about life, and states how life is worth living to the best standard possible, instead of giving up.
But, because Owen also refers to war in ‘Futility’ as well as referring to life, the same questioning attitude towards the meaning of life in ‘Futility’ is also the attitude towards war. Owen questions that if all war is going to achieve for mankind is death, that cannot be reversed, then there is no point in war. These interpretations of Futility are because the poem can be interpreted at different levels (in the simplest, a man grieving for a fellow soldier who has just died in the Great War). They deepen the meaning of the poem.
In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, an attitude which is apparent throughout the whole of the poem is the attitude of bravery and fighting for your country. However, in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ Owen does not describe any courage like a charge at the enemy. Instead a poisonous gas is used against the soldiers in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ – this is very much unfair and horrific method of fighting, and attitudes towards fighting are of the lone survival of just yourself, and not saving anyone else. “Cannon to the right of them Cannon to the left of them Cannon in front of them….
Boldly they rode and well,” (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling……….. But someone still was yelling out and stumbling” (‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’) Tennyson uses the rule of three to emphasise that the Light Brigade were outgunned, but they still kept on riding. The word ‘well’ implies that even under times of extreme pressure and stress, they were brave enough to continue what they were doing at a good standard. This is the attitude towards fighting, of bravery and standing up against all odds and is considered important in this poem.
This is not only towards war, but in this case it is for England, and also for the Empire. It can also be interpreted as being strong to your foe in times of battle, and answering the call of your country. Owen, on the other hand, describes an event that is not noble or brave by any means. But, it is a reality of the new weapons used in war at this time. He describes a gas attack, again, describing one of the horrors of war. The attackers may even be called cowards, but the gas attack was so horrific that even surviving was not very noble or brave: the terror that the gas attack created in the fatigued men was “an ecstasy of fumbling”.
This imagery conveys an image of tired soldiers, returning from a battle, desperate to get their masks on, some helpless, and this is by no means noble or courageous. Furthermore there was no ‘noble’ rescue effort to save the man who was “still yelling out and stumbling”. Therefore attitudes apparent towards fighting in the Great War were to concentrate mostly on your own survival. Warfare had developed in the time of Owen meaning that no such things as noble charges or brave rescue attempts could be made.
The imagery used to describe death in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is visual and aural, which creates a vivid, albeit horrific image into the soldier’s death. However, in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ the death of soldiers is merely stated. The poets therefore had different attitudes towards death. “… the white eyes writhing in his face… If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs” (‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’) “While horse and hero fell” (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) The imagery in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ shows the horrors of war, and also the horrors of dying in a war.
The soldier that has been a victim of gas poisoning has blood ‘gargling’ from his lungs. ‘Gargling’ is especially powerful because it is not only visual but it is also aural, and therefore makes the image even more vivid in the reader’s mind. As it is the description of a horrific death it shows that death is not glorious. Therefore it is possible to denote that the attitude towards death in the Great War was that death was indeed a gruesome affair, and dying was really not glorious or honourable as people have thought before.
In ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ however, there is only one line directly related to men dying, and that refers to the dying men as ‘heroes’. Because the death is not described visually, (no horrors of war are described visually in this poem) the reader feels as if the ‘heroes’ who died did so while being brave and facing the enemy, and that they died with dignity. Although this may not have been the case, because there were no mass casualties at the time dying was seen to be honourable, and this is what is conveyed by this poem.
Fell’ is also a powerful verb because it is more metaphorical than stating literally that they died, and it implies that they were killed while they were trying, and while they were fighting for what they believed in. It implies they were martyrs. Overall, the description of the death in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ implies that death was not seen as noble or brave in the Great War, whereas the metaphorical statement of the ‘heroes’ dying in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ implies that death was honourable before. In Futility, death is shown to be stronger than life, and Owen shows that all creation is weaker than death.
If anything might rouse him now The kind old sun will know” In the most basic terms, these lines suggest that the sun will wake him up, as it has done before. In these lines, Owen is suggesting that even the Sun, which is what makes life on Earth possible, cannot revive a dead person, as the reader knows this. Therefore this makes a direct comparison of death with the sun, which is ‘kind’ – in this case this means natural, and therefore the giver of life – and also ‘old’ – the Sun was there from the beginning.
After this comparison the reader feels that death cannot be reversed, and that death is inevitable, and therefore it is not a good thing. This is Owen’s attitude to death in this poem. Of course, this means that death is a terrible thing, and so there is no point to dying young in a war. The ‘sun’ in ‘If’ is also a metonymy of God. In this way, Owen shows how God cannot stop death, and also the evil of wars, on Earth. Therefore it shows how death is superior to all creation, including the Creator. ‘If’ also refers to principles such as manhood and leadership.
These two are outlined in the first four lines of the poem, and also the climax of all of the ideas of ‘If’ is manhood. In the Great War Poems ‘Futility’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, however, there are no such values outlined. “If you can keep your head…. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you But make allowance for their doubting too… you’ll be a Man, my son! ” The attitudes to leadership in ‘If’ are that it is important to manhood, and also that it is important to keep calm. Kipling states that it is necessary to ‘keep your head’ – this relates to becoming a good leader.
Attitudes towards manhood at the time were therefore that it was vital to be a good leader to be a man, and also that to be a man you have to ‘trust yourself’ but at the same time listen to others. Manhood was considered therefore very important at the time. The best example we can gather of this from ‘If’ is that the whole poem is written about manhood. Therefore manhood was seen as vital in the society. Also, manhood in ‘If’ is mostly solitary, ‘you’ is repeated many times in the poem, – it was about you facing up to challenges on your own – that was how a man was perceived in those times, and therefore these attitudes were common.
However, in the Great War, the “standing tall” and “being brave” attitude did not work, because of the conditions of the trenches and also because of the heavy casualties of the war. Men now had to work in teams of soldiers, units. However, one similarity between ‘If’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ is that when the gas masks are put on in ‘An ecstasy of fumbling,’ everyone puts it on for themselves, and the man who is poisoned is not, and cannot be rescued. This is similar to the solitary attitude of ‘If’ and manhood, showing that all of the values had not completely changed.
In the last line of ‘If’ the poet ends the poem positively, with a climax of the previous points, whereas the last two lines of Futility create a dull atmosphere that stays with the overall tone of the poem. These lines give an overall impression to the poets’ – and so the people of those times’ – attitudes towards life in general. “And-which is more-you’ll be a Man, my son! ” (‘If’) “O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To Break the Earth’s sleep at all? ” (‘Futility’) In ‘If’, Kipling ends the poem with an exclamation mark.
This implies that the last line of the poem is one that is positive, and one that is “said” by the poet to the reader. The is conversational, and gives the whole poem a brighter, more positive mood and atmosphere. Because manhood is the central concept of ‘If’ the climax is reached in the last line: ‘you’ll be a Man’. ‘Man’ also has a capital letter at the beginning, which may mean emphasis when read, or which means it is a very important, central part to the poem or the ideas conveyed in it. The latter is probably true. ‘My son’ also keeps the conversational tone. In ‘Futility,’ the writer ends with a question mark.
This shows uncertainty towards the creation of life, and words with negative connotations of struggling, in this context, ‘fatuous’ and ‘toil’ further add to the mood of struggle and uncertainty created by the poet. Overall, while ‘If’ ends in a positive tone, outlining that the issues and values raised in the poem are morally correct, ‘Futility’ ends in a summary that implies that life is a struggle and that it is pointless, ultimately relating to dying young in wars. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ has a narrative flow, of the Light Brigade moving in and out of the ‘Jaws of Death’.
This is also a personification. ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’ on the other hand, does not, as most of the last, and longest, stanza, is spent stating the horror of death in the war. “Into the jaws of Death Into the mouth of Hell….. Came thro’ the jaws of Death Back from the mouth of Hell” (‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) The narrative flow in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ creates a story within the poem of a journey they completed. This makes them seem more honourable as the poem narrates them coming back once they had defeated the enemy.
The personification also increases the effect, as ‘jaws’ and ‘mouth’ suggest something sinister, as they are used to “eat”, and so Death could have taken them and “eaten” them. Because they have a will to do something as they are personified, they seem more sinister and elusive for the Light Brigade. Therefore, admiration for them is increased by the readers, and so they seem more honourable. This further highlights how war was seen as a noble thing and as the ‘right’ thing to do, as they did it and got commended for it. This further increases their nobility, and therefore further increases the positive attitude towards war and bravery.
However, in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’ no such narrative flow within the poem does not highlight war as a noble journey, although the men were travelling back from the battlefield. This therefore means that war was considered a negative aspect of human nature at the time of the Great War. Because it caused so many deaths, attitudes to war at the time were that it causes horrible deaths, and therefore most of this poem is attributed in describing and showing how gruesome and wrong a death is, especially with modern warfare at the time.
As is evident from these poems, there was an attitude change towards war when the Great War started. This was mainly because of the heavy casualties brought about by new inventions in firearms such as the machine gun. These made infantry charges very hard to survive, and when any soldier saw the no man’s land, littered with corpses, they knew this was a totally different type of war. Therefore all literature of this war changed, and suddenly the concept of martyrdom changed to death in a massacre.
Also, unconventional warfare, like gassing, terrified men, who had never seen these weapons before. This was seen in literature. These new weapons were in no way honourable, and so these destroyed the whole concept of fighting ‘bravely’ for honour. People, including war poets, realised that death was near and it was easy to become one of the countless casualties of the Great War. In conclusion, poetry before 1914 was very much different to poetry of the Great War in how it saw death, life, and other values such as manhood and honour (the latter two which almost totally disappeared in the War).
Before 1914, wars have relatively little casualties, when compared with the millions dead in the Great War, and so to perceive death as brave and honourable was common. The war did not only change the perception of honour, death, or manhood, however, which are just war-related. It changed, as is shown in literature, the perception of the whole of society and almost every other attitude towards the Country, towards people, and towards society.