I will be analysing some war poems which were written in the First World War to show how people from Britain who were not directly involved in the war perceived it. These perceptions would have been based on what they were told war was like by the government. The government was in a situation where they required as much support as they could get from the public, they knew that they would not receive the support they required if the people knew what war was really like. Therefore the government used propaganda to influence people’s attitudes towards the war.
They helped encourage the idea that it is ‘sweet and decorous’ to fight for one’s country. This can be shown when you analyse some of the poems soldiers wrote about their experience of the war. Many of these poets knew how the war was perceived at home and they wished to change these perceptions through their poems. Wilfred Owen was one of the most famous World War One poets. He wrote poems about war before after and during his experience of war. If one looks at his earlier poems and then compares it to one of his later poems they will be able to see how his attitude to the war changed.
An example of one of his earlier poems is ‘The Ballad of Peace and War’ which he wrote after war broke out but before he experienced war himself. Owen shows that he completely approves of the war throughout the poem. For example he wrote, ‘But sweeter still and far more meet/To die in war for brothers… ‘ There is no hint of sarcasm in these lines or the poem and he believed that it was better ‘To die in war for brothers’ than to live in peace. Owen was a victim of the propaganda created by the government even though he was a well educated man.
It can be assumed that his attitude toward the war was shared by the public because when his attitude toward the war changed he wrote poems in an attempt to change the opinion of people at home. He knew that he would need to change people’s opinions at home to prevent another war like this. One such poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. Owen knew he would need to shock the people to change their attitudes. In this poem he carefully describes an experience of a gas attack. Owen was very careful to choose perfectly descriptive language to create a clear and vivid picture of the experience in the reader’s mind.
Owen begins the poem with, ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks/ Knock kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge. ‘ He uses two lines of quite a short poem just to say they cursed through sludge. He has focused on the description of the conditions because he wished to emphasize that these soldiers have already been through hell. Comparing who were once young and fit soldiers to ‘old beggars’ and ‘hags’ is extremely effective as these soldiers are meant to be able to handle some of the most difficult conditions and the experience they have just had has left them in this state.
Drunk with fatigue’ has a similar affect. When he says ‘Incurable sores on innocent tongues,’ He is obviously reminding the reader of the youth of the soldiers just incase it had not occurred to the reader until this point. Owen named the poem after an old Latin saying ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ which mean that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country and ends the poem calling this saying a lie. It is effective to do so because he has already shocked and disgusted the reader when he describes the experience of a gas attack and then he leaves the reader with a line to remember.
Siegfried Sassoon was another famous world war one poet who had his own experience of the war. He had similar attitudes to the war as Owen and helped Owen develop his work when they met in Craiglockhart Hospital. Sassoon knew how to use language to persuade people. He shows this in his poem ‘Suicide in The Trenches’. First describing a young man as a boy again to gain the reader’s sympathy because the person involved is very young and also describes him as ‘simple and ‘whistling’ to show that he is not the type of person you would expect to commit suicide.
Then quite quickly writes of his suicide to shock the reader similarly to Owen. Sassoon directly speaks to people at home in the last stanza, telling them to, ‘Sneak home and pray you’ll never know/The hell where youth and laughter go. ‘ Sassoon’s found it necessary to tell the reader this because he was fully aware that they did not believe that war was a bad thing, most people at the time believed in the Latin saying. Sassoon emphasizes the age of the soldiers’ again at the very end of this poem ‘youth and laughter’, using this in the same line as ‘hell’ as very saddening.
Most of the people at home who could effect whether or not Britain had any further wars were old people and would easily be saddened to know what their youths must go through. Arthur Graeme West was another famous world war one poet who uses sarcasm to get his point across in his poem ‘God! How I Hate You’. He again uses the technique of emphasizing the soldiers’ youth. He sarcastically says he wishes to be one of them and then describes why no one would want to be one of them. Many older men at the time used to say how they wished they could be one of the younger people so that they could fight in the way but they were too old.
I believe that West’s poem is imitating the voice of these older men but then describing what the soldiers are actually going through to show why no one in their right mind would want to do so. If this is the case then the older men of the time either saw it as an honour to be able to fight in the war, or they just used to say this to encourage the younger people to go and fight in the war because it may make them look good. All of the poems show that people at home used to have the wrong impression of the war.
They believed that it was sweet, decorous and honourable to be able to fight in the war for your country and family. Most poets who experienced the war themselves may have held these views before they had this experience but most of them changed this afterwards. They then knew that what people thought at home was wrong and they wished to change these views. This is obvious from just reading the poems I have studied because you can feel the urgency of each poet to get their point across to the people. All of the tactics used are an attempt to change the opinion of the public.