World War One Poetry: Deconstructing The Soldier and Dulce Et Decorum Est

Poetry is, and always has been, difficult to define.  While some see it as a technical assimilation of economically chosen words on a page, others define it by the way it makes them feel.  Either way, poems certainly have a respected position in literature – they transcend their specific era and speak to readers of later generations.  Because they retain their thematic relevance in such a way, we study and learn from these works and use them, many times, as templates of culture.  One group of writers and their work that was extremely influential at the beginning of the 20th century was the group of British “soldier-poets” who gained popularity during World War One.  The purpose of this thesis is to argue that while the work of these British World War One poets most certainly places itself within the larger Georgian movement of the time, two significant poems from this era situate themselves not only as classical examples of this type of literature, but also as political statements speaking to cultural validation and condemnation of the British war effort.  Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est serve more than admirably as models for these two very divergent points of view in justifying England’s involvement, as close reading and interpretation will prove.  Their inclusion into the canon of World War One literature establishes the very real need for a deconstructive study and placement of the poems into not only a literary context, but also one framed by politics, intellectual beliefs of the time, and humanity in general.  Although Brooke and Owen used their poetry to convey exceptionally different themes, they are linked by what the “Great War” caused in many of the British citizenry:  a necessary examination of how society was changing with the onset of the 20th century.

In order to gain a clearer understanding of the selected poems for this essay, a solid understanding of British Georgian poetry and the historical background of World War One must be established.  The Georgian movement is best described as a body of lyrical poetry written by a variety of British poets in the early 20th century.  This period in literature succeeded the idealistic Victorians, and was a pre-cursor to the more abstract elements of the Modernist era.  While immediately preceding the war, the accepted period of Georgian work (aptly named for the newly crowned King George V) is considered to be between the years of 1910-1922.  Its early lyrical style is characterized by a touch of the romantic, using natural and realist language as a conventional means to express feeling, emotion, and intent.  Later, as the British war effort escalated, it would be accompanied by a significant shift in tone – one that gave readers a darker, more realistic illustration of the war culture, and British societal beliefs.  The movement was further distinguished by its rebelliousness in terms of challenging established poetic techniques, cultural mores, and placing a high level of importance on emotional response.

In 1914, as the fragile political balance between two main European blocks was upset by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Britain made the decision to enter the world’s first “total” war.  Eloquently, George Walter later pronounced it the first total war because “no-one who lived through it could remain untouched by it” (Walter xi).  From the initial British perspective, the conflict was only to last a short time and was necessary for England to solidify her position over Germany as the dominant world power.  The reality soon emerged that this conflict would last much longer – and be proven much more destructive – than anything prior to it.  With the introduction of different methods of warfare, equipment, and tactics, war was – in many ways – reinvented.  Millions of lives were lost during the four year campaign, and an entire generation of young British men was gone.  The deleterious effects of this were innumerable – not only in terms of the tangible loss of men, but also in how society viewed the war.  Soldiers such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen began writing poetry that reflected their thoughts on what was happening around them.  These “soldiers-as-poets” became, in a very real sense, reporters of the war activities, and they invented with their verse a different kind of literature – borne of experience, compelling, harsh, and equally sentimental.  Coming out of the idealistic Victorian age, a new readership (thanks to Victorian era educational reform) emerged for this type of writing.  In many ways, the war ushered in an explosion of literary creativity that spurred the writing of hundreds of thousands of poems during the war years.

Arguably the most celebrated of the British war poets, Rupert Brooke symbolized a sense of English nationalism that defined the era in terms of memorializing the war.  Well-educated, young, and talented, Brooke was popularly recognized and representative of the enormity of England’s sacrifice for what many (including the poet himself) believed to be a just cause.  Although he died in the early years of the war without tasting any real sting of battle, his poetic efforts centered mainly on his experience as a soldier.  The reception and praise for his most famous work, The Soldier, was perhaps magnified by his own early death.  Even the title of the work represents simplicity, yet gives the reader the complicit understanding that the soldier in the text stands for an ideal that is both significant and meaningful.

The poem itself is about a man who loves his country unconditionally (idealized) and wants to be remembered – if he were to die in battle – that he was English first and foremost.  When the speaker says, “think only this of me,” he is reminding readers to forget that he may have other titles.  We are asked to forget that he may be a father, an officer, or an employee.  His simple admonition to us is that he is England, and that is what he wishes to be known for.  He goes a step further with the image of “a richer dust concealed,” by claiming that whatever “foreign field” he may find himself in upon his death, the inclusion of his English-ness just made the soil that much greater.  The speaker now owns this land in which he died, has enhanced it through British blood, and has declared it for the glory of England.  These are strong and persuading images, and while the speaker seems not affected by the horrors of war, he shows true acceptance of the idea that dying for one’s country is an admirable charge.  In the fifth line of the poem, Brooke uses the metaphor of England as a mother figure.  She “bore, shaped, made aware” – all very maternal allusions to the rearing of a child in terms of respecting the family name [England].  It is necessarily important to point out that Brooke mentions England six times in this relatively short poem.  This is, notably, not accidental – since it illustrates his deep love of country and reminds us in very unambiguous language, what his subject is.  By literally comparing his idea of heaven to what he knows of his English experience in the last line, “under an English heaven,” the speaker assigns a spiritual connotation to match his national pride – which most certainly speaks to the sentimentality of the poem, and the Georgian movement in general.

Many of Brooke’s critics staunchly defend his patriotic style, which is to say they fully understand the context in which he wrote.  St. John G. Ervine – who knew Brooke personally – writes, “this love [of England] was strong in him, and the wayward irreverence of rebel youths could not seduce him from it.” (Ervine 439).  With this statement, we have first-hand knowledge and textual assurance from one of Brooke’s contemporaries, that his love of country was a real, tangible element – and that his love poem to England isn’t the imagined prose designed to sell books, but the “real deal.”  This translates into amazingly powerful literature.  The poet’s division of his poem from body-centric in the first half to more soul-centric in the second half shows readers how transformative his adoration becomes.  Since we are all human, and all have both physical and spiritual elements, we can relate to this mind/body connection.  Additionally, his words, “all evil shed away,” are impactful in that they remind of us the washing away of our sin or iniquity through the blessed “greatness” of England.  In terms of nationalism – of which Britain needed a heavy dose to swallow some of the atrocities that it incurred – nothing rose as high as The Soldier.  Ervine writes, that the poem “is a thing of exquisite feeling…so long as men love their land, this poem will move them” (439).  And perhaps this is the best thing that can be said about this particular work – it moved people during a time of national and cultural change.  As England came into the 20th century – shedding their Victorian skin – literature helped them to reinvent themselves.  A strong argument can be made that Brooke’s poem continues to move British citizens, as a patriotic anthem.  And for the purposes of this discussion, I would have to agree.  Nothing else symbolizes the transition and general good, nationalistic feeling than the poetry, especially The Soldier, of Rupert Brooke.

Wilfred Owen, categorized not only by his technically innovative work, but also by the fact that he eventually came to see Britain’s participation in the war as unnecessarily involved, represented the opposite side of the coin from his contemporary Brooke.  Famously stating that, “my subject is war, and the pity of war…The Poetry is in the pity,” he also reminds readers that “true poets must be truthful.”  George Walter, in his Introduction for The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, calls Owen “a tragic, selfless, talented young man whose humanism in the face of wartime atrocity spoke out from every poem (xxv).  Nowhere is this depiction of the poet more noticeable than in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est.

In stark contrast to Brooke’s sentimental look at English patriotism, Owen’s poem is a chilling account of the futility of war, based on personal experience of the appalling conditions of trench warfare.  In direct and painful language, the speaker describes a chemical attack on a platoon of soldiers – using such vivid language as “guttering, choking, drowning” to give his public audience a very real look at war – and something very much different from what the British media was offering.  The title itself is Latin for “it is sweet and right,” but the full quote – borrowed from one of Horace’s Odes – adds “pro patria mori” to the end.  This changes the meaning to “it is sweet and right to die for your country.”  In other words, it is a wonderful and great honor to die on the battlefield representing your nation in war.  Since the poem in no way speaks of honor or glory or rightness, or sweetness, it is an ironic choice for a title.  Owen, with a sneer, calls this statement “The old Lie” at the poem’s conclusion.  While the realism is mixed with an equally compelling sense of compassion, the poem presents a disturbing illustration of what battle truly looked, smelled, and sounded like.  Utter despair is represented in phrases such as “froth-corrupted lungs,” and “incurable sores on innocent tongues.”  Owen mocks those with “high zest”, or what this interpretation sees as enthusiastic idealism, when he presents to them the “hanging face” of a dying soldier.  The tone of this poem is dark, realistic, and full of the negative aspects of war.  It does not celebrate the flag-waving, Brookian view of battle as glorious, but tersely gives readers the practical snapshot of war as a hellish and helpless endeavor.  It shows the true investment of the poet as being genuine in his work, with an attempt to combat the public’s complacency over the war effort.  Since context is important for analysis, it is fair to say that the majority of the English people were misled by reports coming from British newspapers regarding the conflict.  Owen’s work helped to educate the cynical masses, and served as arguably the most well-known World War One poem in terms of actual truth and realism.

One aspect of Dulce Et Decorum Est that is particularly compelling, at least from my perspective, is the relevance of the poet’s point of view.  Owen the soldier was active in trenches such as the ones he writes about.  He wasn’t back home in Shropshire, reading about war in a newspaper article from a comfortable living room sofa.  He literally saw men die and could hear “the blood come gargling.”  He was injured on the battlefield in 1917 and knew the first names of the men in his platoon who strangled to death from the effects of German mustard gas.  Because of this, his poetry has the especially real sense of power by experience.  When he talks of being “Drunk with fatigue,” in Line 7, readers should understand that he absolutely felt the depths of this same fatigue.  He more than likely knew what it felt like to have “blood-shod” feet.  Readers should realize that this example of “soldier-as-poet” isn’t what many might perceive this group of men to be.  They weren’t “poets by trade” thrust into battle – but legitimate military men – writing of their experience in an extremely heightened and emotional way.  This is what makes Owen’s poem so powerful in retrospect.  Because he was, in fact, part of the fighting, we can respect his work at an even greater level.  When A.J.P. Taylor wrote that, “Idealism perished on the Somme” (xx), it was the words of Owen that served as literal proof.  “The old Lie,” ironically, speaks a very sobering truth.

While many scholars might interpret the poetry of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen in a variety of different ways, this is only one interpretation of two of their best known poems.  There is no question that the writing of this period was affected by Britain’s culture at the time.  How could it not be?  World-power Britain, suddenly thrust into a war it could not readily remove itself from, while watching thousands of their young men die by the trench-ful, became a ripe proving ground for some very talented writers.  As the Victorians waned into history and the post-war Modernists had not yet come into prominence, the Georgian movement bridged a crucial gap in British literature.  Interestingly, as British literature progressed more deeply into the 20th century, the writing of the war poets declined.  One reason being:  many of them did not survive the Western front, such as Brooke and Owen.  For the ones that did, they had lost their muse – so to speak.  This is most likely due to the fact that their writing was so dependent on being in battle and relating the atrocities of what they saw.  It is understandable that once the guns over Europe were silent, so were the literary voices of this group of young poets.  We are now a century removed from the work of these men, yet our studies still continue.  It would, as this argument contends, be a disservice to literature not to recognize their canon of poetry as significant and worthy of discussion.  In this attempt, my hope is that while we use the texts of The Soldier and Dulce Et Decorum Est as models of cultural, war-time literature, we also appreciate their relevance.  As Wilfred Owen himself reminds us, as “children ardent for some desperate glory,” let us as students of literature remember the importance of these poems.  Their place in history deserves as much.


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