The poems I have chosen for this unit function much like the paintings; they express a variety of tensions present in the experience of war. The first two poems firmly contradict each other, viewing war from distinctly different perspectives. Like
, the final poem takes a different view, rejecting many of the sentiments present in other poems and celebrating a certain precarious beauty.
Rupurt Brooke, much like John Trumbull, developed the idea "that death might give glory, dignity, and even nobility to men who could not have claimed such honors in civilian life"
. He celebrates the idea of sacrifice for a cause or a country, and stresses the honor that supposedly accompanies such a death. This theme is quite explicitly stated in "The Dead," (1915) which glorifies the death of a soldier while largely ignoring any specific details involved in the act of dying. He imagines the soldiers as "rich dead,"
who despite unknown (or lowly) birth have gained a sort of wealth through the act of dying, giving their countrymen "rarer gifts than gold."
Brooke acknowledges their sacrifice and loss, referencing the old age they will never experience and the unborn sons they will never know. However, Brooke tells us there is much to be gained by such an in dying. Through their deaths, the soldiers in Brooke's poem affect a return of Honor, Holiness, and Nobleness, although one might wonder precisely how or why such virtues were lost in the first place. He personifies Honor as a king returning to earth, and Nobleness as striding confidently home. What Brooke's soldiers achieve through their death is nobility. With much bugle blowing and fanfare, they restore a proud heritage of courtly virtue and earn the right to partake in England's glory. Brooke makes war into a civilizing force of respectable virtue, well worth the sacrifice of an otherwise undistinguished life. One can imagine that the General Warren of Trumbull's painting, a relatively unknown doctor before his death, might well agree.
While playing up the virtues that come with a noble death, Brooke downplays or ignores the physical experience of dying. He does so by not focusing on any single soldier; he speaks only of an abstract collective: "The Dead." Despite the title of the poem and its explicit focus on death and dying, there are no bodies in Brooke's poem. The only hint of human suffering is euphemistically glossed over; blood becomes wine in a clever metaphor that both denies the reality of battle and subtly links dead soldiers to a miraculous Jesus. In almost every way, the dead in the poem become something much greater than themselves. In Brooke's poem, war is a place of abstraction, civility, and honor. As other poets have shown, the business of dying is typically much more graphic than Brooke makes it seem.
Dulce et Decorum Est.
If Brooke's poem echoes the death of General Warren, Wilfred Owen's
Dule Et Decorum Est
(1917) is a worthy companion to Napoleon's retreat. Like Scheffer's painting, the poem is a horrified lament focused on visceral, bodily suffering. It opens by describing a pitiful force similar to Napoleon's retreating army:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock–kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood–shod. All went lame; all blind
These men are struggling. There are no heroes here, only beggars and hags, slowly struggling through the mud towards a distant and unlikely respite. By describing the men as beggars, Owen uses similar imagery as Scheffer, who's soldiers desperately reach out their hands towards a hellish flame, present here in the form of the "haunting flares" that seem to pursue them in their march. Like Napoleon's army, these men stain the ground with blood from their bare feet. Like Napoleon himself, these men turn their backs on the flares of the battlefield, and retreat. They are defeated in mind, body, and spirit. They are a huddled mass of the dead and dying.
Like Shaffer, Owen focuses the majority of his poem on a single, extremely unpleasant death in order to lament a violent loss of innocence. He dwells on a single unfortunate man who fails to secure his gas mask in time. As a result, we watch him flounder through a green sea of gas, "guttering, choking, drowning"
. Owen links these very sounds to the lie of glory in battle, condemning the notion that it is "sweet and right" to die for one's country. He laments the destruction of "innocent tongues,"
corrupted by mustard gas in the field and old lies of glory at home. Owen joins Scheffer in mourning the destruction of youthful innocence in war. Together, these artists dispel hollow notions of glory. By creating vivid images of human suffering, they show us just how savage warfare can be.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
William Butler Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" (1919) largely rejects the abstractions glorified by Brooke, but also rises above the tragic gore depicted by Owen. It is a poem that hangs in the balance between a variety tensions; as such, it provides a fitting conclusion to a thematic unit focused on raising and exploring a variety of divergent questions.
Although the speaker in Yeats' poem echoes Brooke in declaring his time before the war a "waste of breath,"
he flatly rejects the kind of glory or distinction championed by Brooke and others like him: "Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / nor public man, nor cheering crowds."
The speaker here does not seek spectacle or feel compelled by duty. He does however choose to fight, assuring us that he was not forced into service by conscription or law. He explains that he feels no particular allegiance to those he protects, nor does he feel any particular hatred towards those he fights. Although this is likely explained by the fact that Yeats wrote the poem about a fellow Irishman, fighting for England at a time when Ireland was seeking independence, it remains a surprisingly frank admission. Certainly, this is no sacrificial General Warren, spilling wine on the glorious field of battle. Nor is this speaker an innocent casualty of the gore Wilfred Owen so sadly displays. He is an airman, "somewhere among the clouds above,"
far from the suffering below. He is well aware of the consequences of his choice to enlist; as the title indicates, he sees where he is headed and has long since accepted his fate.
So where does this lofty poem land? Yeats seems to reject both Trumbull and Scheffer, Brooke and Owen. James Winn tells us that the war poets he admires most help us question and "confront, in all its contradictory power, the terrible beauty of war"
. In achieving this purpose, Yeats' poem most closely mirrors Sargent's painting. Like Sargent, Yeats' accepts the inevitable cost of war. The mood is somber, and there is no question that the speaker of the poem will die. The poem also rejects the notion that this death will achieve any personal or national significance. He fights only because of the momentary joy of flying, "the lonely impulse of delight"
that draws him skyward. Like Sargent, Yeats acknowledges the ultimate cost of war and questions it's ultimate meaning, but also recognizes a vague and fleeting beauty in his experience among the clouds.