The Two Sides of War in Dulce Et Decorum Est and Exposure
Using poetic structure, language and style, Wilfred Owen portrays the theme of suffering in his poems ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Exposure’. Both agree on displaying the truthful, negative views on war but narrate on different aspects of it. ‘Exposure’ expresses war as a disorganised, chaotic injustice, with an army having to fight both an enemy and difficult weather conditions. However, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ expresses war as an improper, unromantic act, contrary to what many people perceive it to be. Owen uses stylistic techniques to portray suffering in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Plosive alliteration in “bent…beggars” and “boots/But…blood” mimics the tough sounds experienced by a soldier, including those of grenades and rifles, capturing an auditory image of war. Plosion, also taking the form of consonance in “till…haunting…trudge” not only adds to the auditory image by imitating rapid machine gun fire directed towards the soldiers, but also expresses the never-ending rounds of attacks that the young men have to endure and suffer. Dissonant alliteration in “coughing…cursed” implies the sheer unpleasantness of fighting by using disharmonious, hard //c// sounds. However, strong consonance is abruptly interrupted by softer, nasal //m// sounds such as in “Men marched…Many”, depicting an image of soldiers who are too fatigue-stricken that they are oblivious- the blaring noises in the background are reduced to muted rumbling. Finally, the metaphor “green sea…drowning” depicts the chlorine as inescapable and inevitable, just like the connotations of the ocean.
Moreover, Owen uses linguistic techniques to further portray suffering in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. A lexical set referring to night is used, consisting of words such as “dreams”, “dim” or “asleep”, which relates war to the connotations of continuity and negativity brought by night. The transferred epithet “clumsy helmets” disorients the sentence, similar to the boys’ current situation- in a state of pure panic and disorder. The anaphoric use of “green”, which symbolises disgust and anguish, illustrates the overwhelming magnitude of the gas invasion. Owen uses zoomorphism to describe the boys as “beggars” and “hags”, juxtaposing with their ideal, ‘hero-like’ portrayals; it also tells us that dehumanisation of youth is ultimately an effect of war. The troops are “Drunk with fatigue”, describing that the boys are so tired that the resulting symptoms are similar to that of being drunk. The boys being “deaf even to the hoots” further describes the exhaustion as being able to alter the organs.
Owen uses structural techniques to further portray suffering in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. The use of iambic pentameter in “If you too could pace behind the wagon…” and throughout stanza four ironically describes a recount of a dying compatriot while using a regular meter, implying that the public view suffering as something proper and orderly. The poem is a double sonnet, however, it has been distorted massively in both its rhythm and syllable count, which further conveys the army’s lack of order. The double sonnet doubles as irony as the poem differs largely from the romantic connotations of sonnets. Stanza one is slow and contains a plethora of stretched vowels and caesurae, shown in “asleep. Many … fatigue; deaf” which illustrates the disrupted and slow pace caused by exhaustion; however stanza two contains enjambment such as in “fumbling/Fitting”, suddenly allowing the poem to accelerate to simulate the changes of activity in war. However the pace change is delayed with stanza two still containing stretched vowels such as “ecstacy” and “yelling”, exposing the army’s slow adaptability.
Owen uses linguistic techniques to further portray suffering in ‘Exposure’. Owen uses a double entendre title, with the word “Exposure” not only describing the boys’ vulnerability to both the unforgiving weather and the enemy, but also dictating the inability of the government to defend and protect their own military. The ironic “ice” juxtaposes the passion implied by its antonym “fire”, suggesting a moral defeat within the soldiers. The motif of night is implemented similar to in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’- “The poignant miser[ies]” of war are not only expressed as endless and continuous, but are also ironically compared to connotations of “dawn” such as bringing new hopes. The word “flickering”, descriptive of a dying candlelight implicitly describes the fading enthusiasm of the boys. In fact, the magnitude of pessimism is conveyed through the phrase “turn back”, which strongly dictates the acceptance that the army faces towards the inevitability of defeat.
Moreover, Owen uses stylistic techniques to portray the theme of suffering in ‘Exposure’. Fricative alliteration such as in “flowing flakes…flocked” sounds dissonant and illustrates a negative image- in contrast, these words are denotatively defined generally pleasant and have positive connotations. Likewise, the use of sibilant consonance in “merciless iced east that knive us” ironically illustrates a soothing image through the soft //s// sounds, opposing the harsh nature experienced during war, further conveying that many naive people perceive war to be more positive than it actually is. Personification of weather, suggested in “winds that knive” and “mad gusts” describes it as an additional enemy with personality and ambitions. There is an abundance of ellipses, as in “knive us…/…salient…”, which not only serve as a break,suggesting the long breaks in between clashes, but also as enjambment that tells us that war is endless. Continuous tense such as “tugging” further emphasizes the everlastingness of suffering.
In addition, Owen uses structural techniques to portray the theme of suffering in ‘Exposure’. An enveloped, repetitive “A-B-B-A” rhyme scheme similarly implies the tediousness of war. Furthermore, the use of slant rhyme such as in “war … wire” implies insufficiency of order and clarity within the soldiers, juxtaposing with the ideal view of the army. The repeated rhetorical question “What are we doing here?” exposes the unprepared army’s cluelessness and further symbolises chaos and confusion. Similar to ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, Owen reports that the hardest suffering is caused by the irrationality of war, proved through smart use of rhythm. For example, series of stretched vowels demonstrated in “down … nonchalant”, connotative of rest and fatigue are frequently and irregularly disrupted by opposing clipped vowels “Sudden … flights of bullets” connotative of action and tension.
The essay set out to show that Owen illustrates the theme of suffering in war for many reasons — to portray a negative emotional image that conflicts with the idealistic public view of war in Dulce et Decorum Est, and to show the true negative psychological and physical changes that ultimately lead to acceptance and complete loss of hope in Exposure, all in a range of implicit and explicit poetic devices. Both poems show the effects of unrealistic desires and lack of practicality, therefore actively urging the reader to make the wisest decisions, as the wrong ones can corrupt lives for good.
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