What is war poetry? War poetry is, on a basic level just that… War-Poetry: poems about war and its effects on people. In the majority of cases war poetry is far more emotional and thought provoking than any other type of poetry especially when it is written with such experience and passion as Wilfred Owen. War poetry is written not only to inform and educate the reader about the horrors of war, but also to reflect upon events and to try and change the attitude of society. An example of my last point is, once again Wilfred Owen, his poem “Disabled” really does bring the side effects of warfare into perspective.
This essay will attempt to compare and discus the main themes running through a selection of Pre-Twentieth and Twentieth century war poetry and try and answer the question: “What do you learn of the different attitudes of the poets and their societies and which poet do you find the most effective at expressing their attitude? ” The poems this essay will compare are: (Pre-Twentieth) “The Battle of Blenheim” by Robert Southey and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and (Twentieth): “Who’s for the Game? ” by Jesse Pope and the aforementioned “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen.
Before we get to the poems themselves, here is some information about society in Pre-Twentieth Century(s) and Twentieth Century Britain; during the 1800’s war was seen as “good”. People believed that Britain was all-powerful and should be allowed to go to war if and when she wanted to. People saw war as the “right” way to win arguments and to settle scores, also few people actually had been affected by war. In the 1800’s war was viewed as something fought “over there” something that did not, something that could not hurt them.
The average person living in Britain in the 1800’s would only know of a few people killed during the war and even then, they were unlikely to be close family or friends. This is not to say no one died in Pre-Twentieth Century warfare only that the military covered it up more. Also, the sheer lack of available information made people believe that war’s side effects were a lot less severe. By the Twentieth Century, things had changed a little. For a start the way wars were fought were different. Gone were the noble cavalry charges and the heroics of old; now soldiers were faced with trench warfare.
Trench warfare was terrible from a soldiers point of view (a good source of this is “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen). They were faced with; cold, wet conditions; rats; many different diseases and infections and perhaps most important; death. The whole world had never seen death on the scale of World War One before. Pre-Twentieth Century death tolls were at most ten to a hundred thousand, now these figures spiralled into their millions. Many soldiers left the army or became conscientious objectors because of the conditions.
Day after day thousands of men were needlessly slaughtered or horrifically wounded during battle (one of these being Wilfred Owen). These high death tolls vastly increased the average Britons chance of being affected themselves and because more people were affected, society changed. War was still viewed as noble but more and more people began to doubt the reasons behind it. More and more people refused to fight and more and more people refused to at least aid the war-effort (i. e. becoming a field medic etc). All the horrors experienced during these periods of fighting made for compelling poetry, as we shall soon see.
The first poem to be disused is “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson. Here is information about Tennyson and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born in Somersby in Lincolnshire in 1809. Alfred began to write poetry at an early age in the style of Lord Byron. After spending four unhappy years in school he was tutored at home. Tennyson then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. After his father’s death in 1831 Tennyson left Trinity College and returned to Somersby without a degree.
After marrying Emily Sellwood, whom he had already met in 1836, the couple settled in Farringford, a house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wright in 1853. In 1855 Tennyson read an article in “The Times” which was written by W. H. Russell, this inspired him to write possibly his most famous poem… “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Tennyson continued to write poetry until his death in 1892 at the age of 83. The subject of Tennyson’s poem was the ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade” which occurred during the Crimean War (1854-56).
The war was fought between the Allies (Britain and France) and Russia because Russia attempted to take land from the recently deceased Turkish Empire. The actual Charge of the Light Brigade happened at Balaklava where the British Cavalry Commander misinterpreted an order to attack a Russian position. This “mistake” led to the death of over 200 cavalry, many more were wounded. Even though many men died and the battle was a defeat the 600 cavalry showed intense bravery and were awarded with a special medal. This bravery is one of the main themes in Tennyson’s poem. Also note that Tennyson was a civilian poet, he had no experience of war.
The poem opens with the words: “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward” This statement immediately sets the tone for the whole stanza. The words create a prominent rhythm, which sounds almost like the galloping of horses. The repetition of the words “Half a league” in a way creates a feeling of urgency, that the cavalry were spurred into motion. “… valley of Death” This metaphor found in lines 3 and 7 adds to the already heightened imagery and exonerates the extreme bravery of the cavalry, they knew they were heading into the “valley of death” yet they continued. “‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns! ‘ he said;” This statement sum’s up the mistake made by the Cavalry Commander; charging into a valley with cannon and guns firing at you is always going to lead to many deaths, but at the same time as it is pointing out the incompetence of the British Officer, it adds to the sense of bravery which surrounds the Light Brigade. “‘Forward the Light Brigade! ‘ Was there a man dismay’d? This quote again emphasises the bravery and fearlessness of the Light Brigade, no one was dismayed, no one turned back, they knew it was a mistake to charge the valley but they did it anyway.
Also in this extract, Tennyson has deliberatly missed out letters in the word dismayed to keep the rhythm and flow of the poem going. “Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die:” This is once again a tribute to the Light Brigade, it says that the cavalry didn’t waver, they didn’t question orders, they knew their role and they furfilled it. “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them” This repetion of the words “Cannon to … of them” creates the feeling that the soldiers were trapped, that they couldn’t escape from the so called “valley of death”.
This also reinforces the stupidity of the officer in charge… the battle was allways going to be a failure, it ended up being a wadte of two-hindred lives. “Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell,” The words volleyed, thundered and stormed (all shortened to keep the rhythm) create the image of a lightning storm. This imagery makes the reader relate to the soldiers more and more, everyone has experienced a lighting storm and how uncormfortable it can be when your outside during one; the soldiers were experiencing this uncomfortableness ten-fold.
Also the words “stormed … shot … shell” are alliteration which adds to the rhythm. “Boldly they rode and well. ” This statement can tell us tow things about the Light Brigade; i) the Light Brigade had no regrets about what they were about to face, they rode boldly, without thinking of the consequences ii) even though the Light Brigade were face with to say the least; an uphill struggle, the men still tried to pull a victory out of the bag, “… they rode and well”: they rode and they did it well. “Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell”
This personification of death and hell adds tension to the poem. The euphemisms (“Jaws of Death”, “Mouth of Hell”) are both linked to the mouth, it makes the valley seem like it is going to swallow up the men, this adds to the tension of this stanza. These euphemisms also sound very noble which again adds to the sense of bravery and courage surrounding the Light Brigade. “Rode the six hundred. ” This has been repeated at the end of the first three stanzas. It represents the loss of life. Also note that the cavalry still rode… none had died yet. “Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air,” Here Tennyson uses the repetition of the verb “flashed” to give a vivid impression of the battle going on around. The passage is quite powerful in the way it describes the fighting, it leaves enough to the readers imagination to make the reader actually think about what’s going on, but gives away enough information as to not leave the reader in the dark so to speak. “Charging an army, while All the world wonder’d:” The first line of this particular extract “Charging an army” adds to the courageousness of the men even more.
Tennyson exaggerates the enemy’s forces to make it sound like the Light Brigade attacked not just a Russian position, but a whole army! The second line gives the impression that the whole world eagerly awaited news of the Light Brigade before and during the battle. This implies that the Light Brigade were hero’s before their ill-fated charge, the reality being… they were not. The second line also contains alliteration and word shortening for the already written reasons. “Cossack and Russian Reel’d from the sabre-stroke” This statement implies that the Russians were loosing the battle, which is another “lie” written in this poem.
Tennyson “bends” the truth in the poem sometimes to add effect, in my opinion phrases like “Charging an army” and “Cossack and Russian / Reel’d from the sabre-stroke” add to the bravery and courage of the Light Brigade a lot more than the facts i. e. “Charging some men on a hill” and “Cossack and Russian / Obliterated the British” don’t you? “Then they rode back, but not, Not the six hundred” The Light Brigade had retreated but Tennyson implies by the words “rode back” that the Light Brigade had forced the Russians to withdraw, once again, this was not the case.
Tennyson also doesn’t refer to the death of the men directly he only says “Not the six hundred”. This is very vague and leads me to one of two conclusions: i) that Tennyson must be extremely patriotic for in every line something has been say in a way that portrays the Light Brigade as heroes or ii) Tennyson is very much against war. His “hero-ism” of the Light Brigade is in fact irony, he is saying that the public view war and the actions of Light Brigade as “good” and “heroic” but how can this amount of death be these things? Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volley’d and thunder’d Storm’d at with shot and shell,” The repetition of this extract from stanza three reminds the reader exactly what the Light Brigade did and what they went through.
Tennyson uses this to build up to the triumphant end to the poem. “While horse and hero fell,” Tennyson once again uses words like “hero” to exonerate the Light Brigade, to make them sound more brave and more courageous then they actually were. “They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death Back from the mouth of Hell,” Tennyson again uses phrases like “fought so well” and “Back from the mouth of Hell” to further the heroics of the Light Brigade (who to the casual reader must seem like gods now! ). Tennyson implies that the Light Brigade had won (for the second time) the battle and were casually riding back. “All that was left of them, Left of six hundred. ” This is one of the few occasions that Tennyson hints at the failure of the Light Brigade, he still doesn’t say how many had died only that some had.
This could be viewed either way when it comes to the question “is the poem ironic? ” Tennyson does say that men had died, therefore he is being ironic (saying how can the loss of life be heroic) but because he is only vague in his description of the amount dead, it can be viewed as just trying to say that only a few died therefore the battle was a draw instead of a defeat, that the Light Brigade had to withdraw themselves but the Russians were “hurt” more, typical patriotism. “When can their glory fade? ” Here Tennyson uses rhetoric to involve the reader with the poem.
He states that the Light Brigade deserve glory and he asks, “when can their glory fade? ” this implying that the Charge of the Light Brigade should be remembered forever. “Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred! ” Notice how by now the “six hundred” has became the “noble six hundred” and the repetition of “Honour”. These devices seem like Tennyson’s final attempt to get the reader to feel as patriotic about the Light Brigade as he does, the exclamation mark adding power to the last verse.
Overall I believe that Tennyson was very patriotic, he constantly refers to the Light Brigade as being brave and noble. There are however some instances that Tennyson seems to be ironic about war but these are in such small amounts that Tennyson probably didn’t add them in on purpose. The poem is effective as a remembrance to the Light Brigade but not very effective at either being pro or anti war but I doubt that that was Tennyson’s plan in the first place.
He is patriotic and clever in his poetic devices but his poem lacks the emotion and depth of someone like Wilfred Owen’s works. The Charge of the Light Brigade was very fitting for the time because it would of raised morale but now Tennyson’s ideals and thoughts have become dated. Having said all this I did enjoy it more than most war poetry since it has a lighter view on things and the rhythm and rhyme makes it much easier to read and comprehend. The next poem is “The Battle of Blenheim” by Robert Southey. Robert Southey, the son of a linen draper, was born in Bristol in 1774.
After his father’s death his uncle sent him to Westminster School but he was expelled in 1792 after denouncing flogging in the school magazine. In 1794 Southey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Bristol and the two men became close friends. They developed radical political and religious views and began making plans to immigrate to Pennsylvania where they would establish a “Pantisocratic Utopian Society”. Southey and Coleridge eventually abandoned this plan and instead stayed in England where they concentrated on communicating their radical ideas.
795 saw the publication of his book Poems and the epic poem, Joan of Arc. Between 1796 and 1798 Southey wrote many ballads, including The Inchcape Rock and The Battle of Blenheim. Southey gradually lost his radical opinions and in 1807 he was rewarded by being granted an annual allowance by the Tory government. In 1813 Robert Southey was appointed poet laureate. Southey was criticised by Lord Byron and William Hazlitt who accused him of betraying his political principles for money.
Robert Southey continued writing poetry until he died in 1843. Southey’s political and religious views inspired him to write the anti-war poem “The Battle of Blenheim”. The poem revolves around a battle, which occurred ninety-six years previously where the British under the command of the Duke of Marlborough defeated the French and the Austrians. The poem was written to oppose the imminent war with France. Also the main characters in the poem are Kasper and his two grandchildren, Wilhelmine and Peterkin.