Gwendolyn Brooks and Wilfred Owen: Exploring the Life of a Soldier

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In different ways, both Gwendolyn Brooks’ and Wilfred Owen’s poems, ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar’ and ‘The Send Off”, respectively, explore the complex relationships that both soldiers and civilians have with war and home. In Brooks’ poem this is done by highlighting the fear of the African American soldiers in returning to a home of racism and segregation but also knowing that by staying in their positions in the war mean they will inevitably die. Similarly, Owen on the surface considers the soldiers leaving home to fight in the war and the pride associated with this though it was known that few of them would return home unscathed. However on a deeper level, the poem seems to be exploring the relationship between right and wrong, good and evil and the deep rooted conflict felt by many as to whether the war should be happening. The key notion in Brook’s poem is shown primarily through the image of education. The soldiers were never taught how to deal with death or fight effectively, and in their position, death is something that they are staring in the face, it is effectively inevitable.

“But nothing ever taught us to be islands.

And smart, athletic language for this hour

Was not in the curriculum. No stout

Lesson showed how to chat with death.”

These soldiers were only taught segregation and so this all they know and are able to deal with. The language of education “curriculum” (line 10) could suggest they are only just out of school, reinforces that they have entered the unknown, left the familiarity of their schools, and are left feeling separated and lost in the real world, in part because of their racial segregation, but also because of their lack of preparation for war and death.

‘The Send Off’ in contrast uses two key images to explore the complexity of its theme. There is a stark contrast between the two main images in the poem; first the darkness, despair and the fear of imminent death. We see this in the language used through the poem, such as “grimly”[2], used to describe the soldiers as they are leaving; second the women at home waiting for soldiers and the hope that they have for their survival and success. However, these two contrasting ideas are not shown by Owen to be in opposition to one another, rather the aim of the poet could be trying to show that these two ideas are working together and were being felt by everybody involved in the conflict in equal measure. The soldiers are feeling both pride and fear and so in a broader sense the poem could be Owen exploring the blurring of lines between right and wrong, good and evil.

Both poems use the poetic voice to shape the poems meaning. On first reading it seems that ‘The Send Off’ is written from an ambiguous and seemingly impartial 3rd person perspective, with a cold and impersonal tone, however by looking closer, there are elements of the poem that would suggest otherwise. In the 3rd stanza, the poetic voice seems to take a side, “They were not ours/ we never heard to which front they were sent” (line 12-13). It is now clear that the persona is has been left behind while the soldiers have gone off to fight at the front. It is at this moment that the poem becomes much more full of anger and frustration at being disconnected from the soldiers. Furthermore, the use of “we” (line 12) and “ours” (line 13) creates the sense that this is a collective idea, that this could be the cries of many people rather than one individual onlooker. This could be suggesting that this negative view of the war is widespread and felt all over the world though on the surface people seem to be celebrating the heroism and pride associated with the war.

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Brooks also uses this device in her poem, by starting the sonnet with the collective pronoun “We knew how to order.” (line 1). In this way, the persona in Brooks poem is speaking for the collective African American servicemen fighting in World War Two and the issues of race and home that are raised in the poem are widespread, universal issues, just as the poetic voice in Owens poem is showing the collective feeling of anger towards the war. Furthermore, the colloquial nature of some of the language in Brooks’ poem, in particular the final line, “To holler down the lions in this air.” (line 13) reinforces the idea of this being the African American collective voicing their opinion, and their social status of this time. While doing this, it also makes the poem seem much more personal, and gives a point of connection for the reader, it is linking to what they already know, thus making the poem much more relatable to the reader. Similarly, in the final stanza of Owen’s poem, the line “A few, a few, too few for drums and yells” (line 18) the repetition of “few” elicits the feeling of frustration at the lack of soldiers returning home from the war. The relentless and fast nature of the line is palpable and it feels as if the reader is being almost shouted at by the speaker. In this way Owen is also using the poetic voice to get an emotional response form the reader.

The poetic voice in the Brooks is yet more complicated. As Anne Folwell Stanford believes, “By writing in male voices, by revising “the old stories,” Brooks resituates herself, moving from the peripheral “woman’s” place of observing war, to the centre of the action. In so doing she both decanters the traditional male voice and reinscribes war with her multi-levelled meaning, resisting and refuting the traditional notion of women’s exteriority to war. The poet’s female and marginalized voice then, by cross-dressing in soldier’s garb, gains a more central position from which to speak”[3]. In this way, Brooks is allowing herself to express widespread thoughts about African American soldiers through the words of men. Quoting the letters of men at the start of the sonnet reveals the sonnet itself to be a guise, a front, but it allows her to, through this technique, express her view as a woman on the situation, which she would otherwise have been unable to do due to her social status. In this way, she is blurring the line between male and female in order to address her own opinion.

Interestingly, Owen uses a similar technique within his poem. It is made clear that the poetic voice in ‘The Send Off’ has been left at home while the soldiers have gone to fight, which can be seen in the 4th stanza “We never heard to which front these were sent” (line 13). At this point, it could be argued that the poetic voice is female, as they are unable to go off and fight and are having to look at the war from an outside perspective. In this way, it seems both poets explore using an opposing gender to their own to explore their themes.

The two poems rhyme schemes are a point in which they differ greatly. While ‘The Send Off’s rhyme scheme has a rigid structure, ‘Gay Chaps at the Bar’ is complex and confusing, however, in both, the poet uses their rhyme scheme to reflect the meaning of the poem. ‘The Send Off’ is split into 4 stanzas of 5 lines, with each stanza being split in to two, 3 lines followed by 2 lines and its rhyme scheme following ABAAB. Owen does not take any risks in this structure as is the only real constant in the poem as the other elements of the poems structure is inconsistent and broken. This consistent and extremely clear rhyme scheme speeds up the reading of the poem and gives it momentum. It could be possible this is a reference to the fast pace firing of guns, its relentless nature is reminiscent of the relentless nature of death on the front line of the war. In this way, the poem has an intrinsic link to the movement of soldiers from home to war and in that way, the message of the poem.

In the same way, Brooks’ reflects her poems message within its rhyme scheme, however, it is much more complicated than ‘The Send Off’ and not immediately obvious in a first reading of the poem. Brooks said about her poem, that it is a “sonnet series in off-rhymes, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation”[4]. The African American soldiers that Brooks is writing about have a complicated relationship with home and the war, not wanting to return to a home of racism and segregation but also knowing that by staying in their positions in the war mean they will inevitably die. This is shown in the poems unclear rhyme scheme, which also creates a sense of uneasiness for the reader as while reading the poem something may feel strange and wrong. However, this is how the reader should be feeling as if this is not an easy situation that the soldiers have been placed in. In this way the rhyming in the poem is reflecting the uneasy feelings towards the situation of African American Soldiers.

In a similar way, Owen reflects movement of soldiers through the rhythmical structure of his poem. ‘The Send Off’ is written for the most part in iambs, in which the rhythm has a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This is a marching rhythm creates a rising tension as it goes along, mimicking the walk of the soldiers on their way to the war and therefore replicating what is happing in the poem as it is about the soldiers leaving. However, the use of double stresses or spondee’s within the poem breaks this regimental and fixed rhythm. This is shown first in the second stanza, “Dull porters... Stood staring” (line 6-7). On the one hand this could be reflecting the uneasiness in the minds of not only the soldiers but also the civilians at this time about men going away to fight as they are conflicted as to whether this act is right or wrong. However it could equally be reflecting the physical motion of the poem and the movement of the train that the soldiers in the poem are on. Furthermore, the frequent use of enjambment and caesura throughout the entire poem also helps to emphasise both of these ideas. While the enjambment, such as in the final stanza “great bells/In wild trainloads?” (Line 16-17), pushes along the reader and creates speed and movement through the poem, the caesura, also in the final stanza “May creep back, silent, to still village wells” (line 19) break this and means the poem has a disjointed nature. In this way the poems complicated structure is reflecting the poems subject matter.

Owen focuses heavily on his use of sound in ‘The Send Off’, much more than Brooks does in her poem, though the use of alliteration is used to great effect in both. Alliteration is a prominent feature throughout ‘The Send Off’, beginning in the first stanza. The alliteration of “grimly gay” (line 3) draws attention to it being an oxymoron, alluding to the tensions the soldiers would have felt in leaving their country to fight, proud of themselves for what they are doing but in the same breath, they are also likely to be terrified of what is to come, this is a theme that Owen returns to throughout the poem. Furthermore, the end of stanza one and the beginning of stanza two are connected through the repetition of the ‘d’ sound in “dead” (line 5) and “dull” (line 6), joining the thoughts of the two stanzas together and creating a flow which is unusual in the poem considering the strange and inconsistent punctuation.

The sound of the ‘d’ is in itself a very dull sound, and so is reflected in the words of the poem, but it also creates a tone of despair and hopelessness, this is further enhanced in it connection with death. This sound cluster could be reinforcing the poems narrative of inescapable death for soldiers in the face of war. Owen also uses the image of light and flowers in the poem, “white with wreath” (line 4). On the one hand the white flowers could be associated with light and life, therefore hope for the survival of the soldiers. However, the wreath is typically used to commemorate death, therefore the soldier are being sent off to war wearing a symbol of death. It is therefore possible that the persona feeling is that the soldiers are being sent off to die rather than to survive, and could be the persona commenting on the pointlessness of war. In this way, Owen uses repeated sounds throughout his poem in order to draw attention to the idea of war bringing meaningless death as well as the soldier’s hidden fears of going to fight.

Similarly, Brooks’ poem uses sound clusters to emphasis it’s meaning. In the second line of the sonnet, “The length of gaiety in good taste.” (line 2) the long ‘a’ sound in both words, connects the two, the connection shows that for these African American soldiers there is a limit to how much gaiety they can experience. They are only able to taste the gaiety and are unable to fully experience it. Furthermore, the alliteration of the ‘b’ sound in Brook’s poem highlights the inadequacy in the preparation for war of the African American troops being talked of in the poem. “We brought – No brass fortissimo, among our talents” (line 11-12), here Brook’s considers how the African American troops were being sent to war without the necessary preparation for fighting or for death within their position seemed to be inevitable. Instead the soldiers had been taught segregation, this is what they had been prepared for throughout their lives and so are ill-equipped for the realities of war.

Ultimately, both Brooks and Owen seem explore the complicated relationship of soldiers with the front line and home and how neither places are right or wrong, which on a broader level allows each poet to comment on wider issues. For Owen, this is the blurring of lines between right and wrong and whether war is right or wrong, or even necessary. For Brooks, on the other hand, this allows her to explore social issues in the 1940’s, most prominently racial segregation of the African American in both their American homes but also when at war. In some ways the poets deploy the same techniques in order to do this, such as both focusing on a complex and layered poetic voice, which is arguably the most prominent feature in both of the poems. However, in other ways, the poems are extremely different, as Owen chooses to focus heavily on rhyming and sounds in his poem and Brooks choosing to focus much more on not creating any rigid structure in order to create a sense of unease. In this way, the differences allow the poets to highlight different areas of one common message, the relationship between home and war.

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