War Poetry

Poetry is an art form and therefore must do something that all art does – represent something in the world, express or evoke emotion, please us by its form, and stand on its own as something autonomous and self-defining. Wordsworth described it as “emotion recollected as tranquillity” and “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and there is no area of human experience that has created a wider range of powerful feelings than that of War: hope, fear, exhilaration and humiliation but to name a few.

There are many poems that back War patriotically; they support it, and they impose it upon the younger generation, Winston Churchill said, “Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter. ” However there are others that are completely against the bloodshed; people like John Scott who composed the poem The Drum. In the poem he describes how much he hates the noise that the drum makes to call up young men to fight. Meanwhile there are poems that convey the idea of fighting as a vocation, an instinct that is in the blood of men, which they cannot help.

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On the Idle Hill is one of these poems; it was composed during peacetime in the mid -1800’s and is pre – American Civil war. Alfred Edward Houseman was English and tended to write in the tone of the Latin poets he had admired. On the Idle Hill is a misleading title, as it does not hint the poem is going to be about War. It begins “On the idle hill of summer” this line with its consonance of ‘l’ and the use of the adjective “idle” is symbolic of peace and quiet; this is continued with an alliterative ‘s’, “sleepy with the flow of streams”. It creates a soporific feeling that is far from the normal noise of war.

The first stanza ends by bringing to us the first clue of conflict with the introduction of the drummer, which was a centuries old war sound, which John Scott described his hatred for in his anti-war poem. “Drumming like a noise in dreams” plays off the assonance of ‘e’ and works with the onomatopoeic word ‘drumming’, creating imagery for the reader and this also makes it flow with ease and thus is not difficult to say (more soft than hard constants) and has an almost hypnotic end to the first quatrain. “Far and near and low and louder” is an example of a phrase using deliberate oxymoron’s.

This starts to give a faster, almost urgent rhythm to the poem unlike the heavy, sophoric pace in the first stanza. A metaphor is used in the next line – “On the roads of earth go by” and the emphasis on earth illustrates the idea that warfare can happen in any part of any country. The final line of the stanza is ironic. “Soldiers marching all to die”, presents the thought that even though death is inevitable, the men still march off to fight. The third stanza is the most horrific and hard-hitting. It allows readers to see, through the imagery created by the graphic phrases, the reality and the consequences of battle. East and west on fields forgotten” gives the poem a timeless appeal, as it is again a reference to anywhere. The phrase ‘fields forgotten’ is emphathetic but doesn’t prepare us for the rest of the verse, which is brutal and horrific. “Bleach the bones of comrades slain/Lovely lads and dead and rotten;/None that go return again. ” Consonance and alliteration are used many times hear to really shock the reader, the use of these conjures up ghastly images of war’s aftermath, compared to the free and calm lifestyle presented at the beginning.

The final stanza uses the instruments and uniforms of war to bestow the real meaning of the poem that is the human curiosity that, prompts so many men to enlist for war. Thousands of men join, “gay the files of scarlet follow”, (‘files’ presents the idea of scores of men), excited, as war is different from the “idle hill of summer”. This natural instinct is evident in Houseman’s final line – “Woman bore me, I will rise. ” On the Idle Hill is a well controlled and more or less biblically balanced as it begins naively and finishes by shocking us and thus the poem is memorable.

Houseman’s ability to change the poem in every stanza makes the reader more conscious of the horrors of war. The rhyming scheme of ABAB also makes the reader more aware of this. When I first read the poem I thought the poem was pro-war but Houseman actually wrote this as one of a series of anti-war poems that were meant to be as an antidote to the mystifications of war. Another poem, which explains the impulse that men have to fight, is W. B Yeats poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death. Yeats wrote this poem in honour of Major Gregory who fought and died in the air war against Germany in WW1.

Major Gregory was the son of Lady Gregory who was a great supporter of the arts and a close friend of Yeats’. The poem is about an aviator who is going to meet his demise. The first two lines prepare the reader for what is ahead; the pilot will die, it is an evitable being a fighter pilot in the First World War. He begins with apathy in his voice as he is carefree, (almost dreamy) and knows he shall “meet [his] fate,” wherever it may be, in the clouds. He then moves on to discuss the aviator’s motives.

Yeats conveys the absurdity for fighting because the enemy (Germany) he fights against “he does not hate”, and the country and its people he defends “he does not love”. The poet uses repetition in lines 3 and 4 to emphasise his intentions – “Those that I… I do not… ” Alliteration in the next lines stresses the pilot’s pride for his place of birth, “My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor. ” However he is dismayed at the fact this fighting will not make his fellow country men “happier than before” or his death “bring them loss”.

As a result his situation seems dismal and hopeless, yet he has a rational view of the world. Yeats then justifies why he [the pilot] is taking part in the War. “A lonely impulse of delight”, is his motivation. The word delight brings optimism into the poem and amplifies the aviator’s adventurous nature as this life in the clouds gives him an intense feeling he had never had before. This is similar to the final line in On the Idle Hill -“Woman bore me, I will rise” and expresses the need for excitement and thrill. This is the aviator’s first irrational reason. Drove to this tumult in the clouds,” the word ‘tumult’ contrasts with the word ‘lonely’ this illustrates to the reader that although he is alone in the clouds he is companied with the noise of his aircraft and the sound of gunfire.

The word ‘tumult’ is juxtaposed with ‘clouds’ to form the idea of heaven. “I balanced all, brought all to mind, The years to come seemed waste of breath, a waste of breath the years behind, In balance with this life this death. ” Repetition is used regularly with ‘the years… ‘ and ‘waste of breath… repeated several times in a short space to add to the slow, logical style of the poem. It makes the final four lines sound like the pilot is psyching himself up to go on a mission which could be his last. The pilot realises it is no good living in the past and no good planning for the future as they are insignificant compared to the present moment as he faces death. Yeats also weighs up the rational and irrational aspects in the poem such as the world, which he lives in, is a realistic place but war is an illogical ideal.

The attitude of the poem compels us to sympathize with the soldier and convinces us that death is his only raison d’i?? tre. The poem is only one stanza long and the rhyming scheme of ABAB is not very noticeable, but still adds to the dreamy atmosphere within the poem. An Irish Airman Foresees his Death and On the Idle Hill are similar because both put into words the helpless excitement felt by men when it comes to war. They both express a man’s reasons for fighting in the same way; both are curious and wish to escape their normal humdrum lifestyle. Also together Yeats and A.

E Houseman suggest to reader that even if the men go and fight then the loss of their lives will not make a big difference. “Lovely lads and dead and rotten, none that go return again” (OTIH) and “No likely end could bring them loss” (AIAFD). However in my opinion On the Idle Hill has a more timeless appeal compared to An Irish Airman as it is mainly anonymous and gives no detail of place or people. However, war has come along way from when Houseman and Yeats composed their poems: the atom has been split. It doesn’t sound like much but the power created by it could destroy human civilisation.

Albert Campus said in August 1945, “we can sum it up in one sentence: Our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests… Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only goal worth struggling for. This is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments — a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason. The Forest by Miroslav Holub describes the mushroom like explosion of an H-Bomb like it is part of nature.

Miroslav Holub was a Czech poet and immunologist born in Bohemia whom for many years wrote in his native language; he used both humour and fact to put across his point. The first stanza is colourful and goes into detail describing, what seems to be the beginning of the earth. “Among the primary rocks/ where the bird spirits/ cracks the granite seeds/ and the tree statues/ with their black arms/ threaten the clouds. Enjambment is used so the reader focuses on the imagery. Holub uses personification in lines 4 – 6 to give the poem an eerier edge. The description of granite seeds suggest the splitting of the atom and the metaphors of “birds statues” and “tree statues” give the impression that nature is seemingly indestructible. The imagery is then broken with a comma and then onomatopoeic verbs and assonance are used to depict the mushroom emerging from the forest floor.

“There comes a rumble… the grass bristles, boulders tremble, the earth’s surface cracks. Here Holub writes in free verse rather than a structured format, which insinuates the freedom that nature has and also the importance of what he, as a person has to say about nuclear control. The poet then uses the rest of the poem to illustrate the bomb from a science point of view; Holub portrays the mushroom in a simile, “immense as life itself, filled with billions of cells/ immense as life itself, eternal, watery… ” The mushroom is said to be “eternal” as the effects it has can last forever, such as; climate changes, burning acid rain and the extinction of many species.

The word “immense” is repeated to convey the idea that this discovery is so great but yet so dangerous. “Watery”, is a reference to Genesis: waters covered face of deep and the “billions of cells” is about the splitting of the atom. The final two lines are shocking – “appearing in this world for the first/ and last time. ” It implies that it is likely that no one will ever live to see another one of the mushrooms erupt. The Forest is about nuclear power killing the very heart of itself: nature.

Holub, a product of Stalinist Czechoslovakia, believed that poetry should be composed in plain, unadorned fact, as he disliked the poetical embellishment, with this view in mind he expects his readers to react like scientists, thus using graphical descriptions. The Forest allows us to imagine what the mushroom is like and here is an account from the Trinity Test, which demonstrates even more the mighty power, it produces; this was published in 1945 in the New York Times, “And just at that instant there rose as if from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one.

It was a sunrise such as the world had never seen, a great green super sun climbing in a fraction of a second to a height of more than eight thousand feet, rising ever higher until it touched the clouds, lighting up earth and sky all around with dazzling luminosity. Up it went, a great wall of fire about a mile in diameter, changing colours as it kept shooting upward, from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it was expanding, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years. ”

Out of all the poems my favourite was An Irish Airman Foresees his Death this was my favourite as it approached a serious issue in a carefree manner. I especially liked the way he expressed the pilot’s incentive as a “lonely impulse of delight”. The adjectives that Yeats uses create a dreamy atmosphere and that makes it more enjoyable to read. For years war and poetry has gone hand in hand and it is through sonnets and ballads that many truths have been revealed to world about war. Some might say poetry is a more romantic way of expressing feelings or is it because reading between the lines is easier in a simple stanza.