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Disabled by Wilfred Owen, Stretcher Case by Siegfried Sassoon and The Hero, also by Siegfried Sassoon

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The three poems that I have chosen are ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen, ‘Stretcher Case’ by Siegfried Sassoon and ‘The Hero’, also by Siegfried Sassoon. They have a common link in that they are all focusing on one man and his war experience, although this is approached in different ways. In ‘Disabled’ Wilfred Owen uses one man to show how war was glorified and how this made men go to war without knowing what was going to happen. This is shown particularly in the fourth stanza when it says ‘he thought of jewelled hilts… smart salutes… eave… (and) Esprit de corps (soldierly spirit)’.

The poem then goes on to explain that the man now lives in an institute after losing his limbs in the war and that he is now ignored instead of admired and has become but a shadow of his former self. Here focusing on one man makes the reader feel more emotionally involved as they know his whole story and so feel like they knew him. The poet talks about the death and suffering of millions using this one man who has been through so much and is not even honoured for it.

This poem, like the other two I have chosen, is written in the third person. This is quite an unusual form for poetry in general but seems quite common in wartime poetry. I think this is partly because the poet did not want to write as a dying person because they had not experienced it and also because the third person form allows the poet to make observations about the subject’s surroundings and other people as well as their thoughts and feelings. ‘Disabled’ also talks about before, during and after the war and so much of it is written in the past tense.

Unlike many other poems of this period, Wilfred Owen does not have a particular rhyming pattern that he persists with throughout the poem. Instead he uses rhymes and para-rhymes in a seemingly random way, often rhyming words in different stanzas. The man in this poem seems ashamed of how he is because he is ‘waiting for dark’. Wilfred Owen seems to be blaming the whole concept of war as a whole and the higher powers instead of the man.

The language used in the poem is quite simple with only a few language techniques used. For example, there are a few similes such as ‘saddening like a hymn’ but they are mostly towards the beginning of the poem as is the alliteration with ‘play and pleasure’ and ‘sewn short’. I think this is because the language techniques are useful at the beginning in helping the reader establish what is happening but nearer the end they feel more involved with the subject and so the techniques become unimportant. Wilfred Owen ends the poem with a question.

This leaves the reader thinking about the poem and also allows them to answer the question themselves. This poem was probably quite shocking when it was first published as it showed the true consequences of war; the poem could well have been based on a real person that Wilfred Owen met during his time in Craiglockhart War Hospital. ‘Stretcher Case’ is about a man on a train back home. He is obviously very seriously injured as he keeps slipping in and out of consciousness and the poem talks about how he slowly realises his surroundings.

It was written in the middle of the war in August 1916 in a hospital in Oxford. Although this poem is written in third person, it focuses only on the man involved and what he is thinking. I think the third person form could have been chosen because it was written to someone; there is a dedication at the top of the poem ‘To Edward Marsh’, this could be whom the poem is about (perhaps someone he met at the hospital). Unlike ‘Disabled’, ‘Stretcher Case’ has a very short time scale, focusing on one part of the man’s war experience.

Like many others by Siegfried Sassoon, the poem has a very strict rhyming pattern and rhythm – the lines rhyme in pairs and all lines have 10 syllables. This continuous pattern helps to give the effect of a train bumping along, taking the man home. Although the poem is about the man’s journey home, the first stanza about him waking and his thoughts is quite sad. It is nice and bright outside but inside he is sad and this makes the poem more sombre. I think the subject is sad because he is injured and feels like he has let down his country and also because he is remembering the horrors of the war which he has just left.

We can tell that the war was horrible for him not only because of the line ‘tumult (confusion), terror, hurtling glare’ but also because the man imagines what death would be like in quite a realistic and straightforward way (‘he mused’). To me this implies that he has thought about dying before and what it would be like to die and so he does not think of death as a horrible experience. The poem consists of a 16 line stanza describing the man waking and his thoughts, followed by a single line where he regains part of his memory and then a six line stanza saying what he sees.

The single is used for dramatic effect and also to clearly separate the other two stanzas, which have quite different moods. Unlike many of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, ‘Stretcher Case’ does not criticise the higher authorities in war such as the government and the sergeants. He does make a reference to the war itself being a terrible thing but he does this in a more subtle way than in many of his poems by comparing the beauty of the English countryside that the man sees around him to the horrors that he has just left (‘from glooms and quags… o calm and brightness’).

Another unusual feature considering that it is a Siegfried Sassoon poem is that he uses quite romantic, very descriptive language, more commonly associated with poets such as Rupert Brooke. Sight is used a lot in the poem and is very important. The subject is slowly waking through the first stanza and slowly notices his surroundings. In the second stanza (after the single line), the poet describes how the man feels as he sees the familiar sights around him which have not changed.

Although the signs for ‘lung tonic, mustard, liver pills and beer’ (incidentally most of which should seem unpleasant but don’t) do not seem significant to the people who have stayed at home, to the man returning home from the war, they are more than just adverts – they are what makes England his home, a sort of ‘welcome home’ banner. I think this line of the poem was written to the people that had been left at home to make them appreciate what they had. ‘The Hero’ is mostly about a mother being told that her son has died in the war and how the other officers lie about how he died to make her feel better.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote the poem in 1917. Sassoon was well known for his dislike of officers and this poem clearly portrays this. I think it was written to let the mothers know that they were lied to and to try and stop the people in higher ranks lying. This is quite an unusual poem for the wartime because it does not portray the soldier as a hero – this makes the title ironic. The full meaning of this is not really shown until the last stanza where it is explained how ‘Jack’ died after begging to be sent home and hiding in the trenches.

The poem has a definite rhyming pattern and rhythm with 6 lines per stanza and 10 syllables per line. To me this gives the poem another ironic element, as it sounds almost cheerful and quite casual. I don’t know if this was intended or accidental. The mother of the soldier is portrayed as quite weak and frail. This is shown where it says ‘tired voice’, ‘weak eyes’ and ‘poor old dear’. This could explain why the officer lied to her – he didn’t want to shatter her image of ‘her glorious boy’.

I don’t think he liked lying because the poem says ‘while he coughed and mumbled’ implying that he did not like lying to her. This makes the poem quite a contradiction of terms in that it shows the officers as both sympathetic towards the mother and yet scornful towards her son. The ending of the poem is interesting because the poet seems to be viewing the situation from the officers’ point of view as he says ‘no one seemed to care except that lonely woman with the white hair’. This almost explains why the officers told the lie – even though he was a coward they wanted someone to care about him dying.

The three poems are all different as they approach the idea of one man out of millions in different ways. ‘The Hero’ in particular seemed very different from the other two. Most noticeably it portrays ‘Jack’ as a coward whereas ‘Disabled’ pities him and ‘Stretcher case’ does not really mention the man at war at all. Another large difference that ‘The Hero’ has from the others is that, although it is written in the same form (third person) it does not actually talk about the soldier’s thoughts and feelings, except those he expressed to the higher officers by wanting to go home.

The two poems written by Siegfried Sassoon are similar because they both have a definite rhythm and rhyme with ten syllables per line in both. Wilfred Owen’s poem seems to be more spontaneous. The three poems are also different because they focus on different times in and around the war. ‘Disabled’ talks about the time before, during and after the war whereas ‘Stretcher case’ focuses on a particular moment as he wakes on the way home and ‘The Hero’ seems to be set during the war but in England away from the fighting.

By reading these poems together, the reader can see that there were different attitudes towards the soldiers returning from the war and also that certain poets blamed the war on different people (for example, Siegfried Sassoon was particularly against the higher ranking officers). They can also see how injured people viewed returning to home; the subject of ‘Disabled’ was sad because he was seen as something for others to fear or pity instead of a hero whereas the subject of ‘Stretcher case’ was happy to see familiar sights.

The common idea of having just one person is useful to the wartime poets because they can make their poems more emotional by involving the reader. The three poems I have chosen explore this idea in very different ways and I think that they are all effective in a way but ‘Disabled’ is best at making the reader feel like they know the subject and therefore feel genuinely sad about how he is treated. I think all three poems help the reader to gain a wider understanding of the First World War and the experiences that soldiers had.

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