The Side of Real War in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Exposure’

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Using a plethora of poetic techniques, Wilfred Owen portrays suffering in his poems ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Exposure’. Both poems agree that war should be displayed truthfully and negatively but have different rationales and purposes. ‘Exposure’ expresses war as a disorganised, chaotic injustice, with the British army fighting on two fronts- against the 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.

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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 the armies, including grenade and rifle fire, 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 troops, but also expresses that they have to endure and suffer countless rounds of attacks. 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 warriors in oblivion due to their fatigue-stricken bodies. 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, consisting of but not limited to: “dreams”, “dim” and “asleep” relates war to 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 overwhelming magnitude that the gas invasion has brought is illustrated as the anaphora of “green”; which the word itself also connotatively implying disgust and anguish. Zoomorphism in “beggars” and “hags” juxtaposes the volunteers with the ideal ‘hero-like’ portrayal of young men; likewise conveying that the dehumanisation of youth is ultimately caused due to war. The troops are “Drunk with fatigue”, and “deaf even to the hoots”, with the synesthesia conveying that the tiredness faced by the troops have forced them to lose control of their senses- in other words, characterising the exhaustion as negatively change-inducing.

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 recounts the persona witnessing a compatriot’s death while using a regular meter, implying that brainwashed people view suffering as something proper and orderly. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a double sonnet however it is distorted massively- both its rhythm and syllable count are heavily altered, which further conveys the army’s lack of order. The double sonnet doubles as irony as the poem’s content differs largely from the romantic connotations portrayed by sonnets. Stanza one is slow and contains a plethora of stretched vowels and caesurae, shown in “asleep. Many … fatigue; deaf” which illustrates the disrupted tempo caused by exhaustion; in contrary, stanza two contains enjambment such as “fumbling/Fitting”, suddenly aiding the rhythm’s acceleration to simulate the fluctuations caused by war. The pace change is delayed, though, with stanza two still containing stretched vowels such as “ecstasy” and “yelling”, exposing the army’s slow adaptability.

Owen uses linguistic techniques to further portray suffering in ‘Exposure’. The double entendre title “Exposure” explicitly exhibits the vulnerability of the troops to both the Germans and the terrible weather, but also dictates 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 boys. The motif of night is implemented similar to in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’- “The poignant miser[ies]” as a result of battle are not only expressed as endless and continuous, but are also ironically compared to connotations of “dawn”, for example, bringing new hopes. The word “flickering”, descriptive of a dying candlelight, implicitly conveys the gradually 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 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 reality faced and experienced- this alludes that many view war positively, in stark contrast to the truth being told by Owen. 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, firther supported by the use of continuous tense such as “tugging”.

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. In addition, the use of slant rhyme such as in “war … wire” implies insufficiency of order and clarity within the men, juxtaposing with the ideal view of the perfect 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 sheer unpredictability of warfare is the main factor to why so many young men suffer, which he validates smartly through the 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 exhibits the theme of suffering in war for many reasons — to provide a truthful, first-hand experience in order to show that the public view of war is wrong in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, and to show that the roots of acceptance and loss of hope come from psychologically damaging factors in ‘Exposure’, all in a range of cleverly implemented poetic terms. Both poems show the effects of unrealistic desires and lack of practicality within the youthful population, therefore actively urging the reader to make the wisest decisions, as the wrong ones can corrupt lives for good. 

24 May 2022

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