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The Rear Guard and Strange Meeting

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The first poem ‘the Rear Guard’ describes a soldier’s journey when trying to escape from the horror of the trenches. En route he stumbles across what is described by Sassoon as a ‘sleeper’- a solider who is believed to be asleep. After a silent response and dormant reactions to the soldier’s kick, he discovers that the ‘sleeper’ is actually a dead victim of war. Eventually the ‘rear-guard’ is able to leave the tunnel ‘unloading hell behind him’. In ‘Strange Meeting’, it is supposedly Owen who is the narrator telling the reader of his experience.

The narrator believes he has died and has been sent to hell, where he meets a ghost (hence the title) and is told how it is terrible to die young in war. The poems share many similarities as well as the obvious subject of war. Both writers portray the horror of war and it is true to say that both poems are strongly anti-war. Examples of this include ‘Now men will go content with what we spoiled’ (from Strange Meeting) and ‘unloading hell’ (‘The Rear-Guard”).

The choice of language of the two poems also shares similarities. Both writers use hard-hitting vocabulary, describing war unsparingly, more so in ‘The Rear-Guard’- ‘Savage he kicked an unanswering heap’ although there is evidence of this in ‘Strange Meeting’- ‘you jabbed and killed’. Both poems use metaphorical language and both use ‘tunnels’ to assist this writing technique. In ‘The Rear-Guard’ Sassoon uses a tunnel metaphor to convey the way in which war traps and makes escape difficult – ‘Groping along the tunnel’.

He may also be using the tunnel as a metaphor to represent the phrase of ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, as portrayed in this poem as the Rear- Guard is able to escape from the tunnel- ‘he climbed through darkness to the twilight air’. It is not so easy to identify the connotations that are related to the poet’s use of a tunnel metaphor in ‘Strange Meeting’. As in ‘The Rear-Guard’, Strange Meeting’ is also entirely set in a tunnel. However the tunnel seems to represent something very different to that in ‘The Rear-Guard’.

It is almost as though Owen is describing the tunnel as a place of safety compared to the front line “out of battle I escaped Down some profound dull tunnel”. ” This however could be Owen’s irony recognising that in the tunnel you are still vulnerable to the fate of death. The Poem’s do differ in their structure. Whilst ‘The Rear Guard’ is set in four distinct stanza’s, ‘Strange meeting’ is a long, flowing single stanza, almost as prose. The ‘Rear-Guard’ is cyclical, it begins and ends with the same phrase ‘step by step’.

This may be used to represent the vicious circles of war and that it is always left unresolved. ‘The Rear Guard’s’ rhyming stlye follows no particular pattern throughout the four stanzas, for example the first stanza has a rhyme scheme of A,B,B,C,D,C,D. This intended rhyme scheme shows that Sassoon has thought carefully about which words he wishes to be emphasised by rhyme. For example, looking at the first rhyming couplet, ‘patching glare’ is paired with ‘unwholesome air’, both of which are dismal images.

The rhyme scheme in ‘Strange Meeting’ is much more subtle and on first glance it would appear that there wasn’t any, which helps to further enforce the serious tone of the poem. In this poem there are many pairs of lines where the ending words include pararyhme or consonantal assonance. This is evident in the third and fourth lines- ‘Through the granites which titanic wars had groined. Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned’ ‘The Rear-Guard’ includes many literacy devices to help portray the horror of war. He creates imagery in his connotations of coffins and death with the phrase ‘fifty-feet below’.

He describes the rear-guard as exerting primitive behaviour, almost as though war turns us into animals-‘Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,’ and again later when Sassoon describes the soldier’s as ‘muttering creatures underground’. Sassoon uses a listing technique-‘Tins, boxes, bottles’ to give the items a throw away quality as though everything in war is worthless. ‘A mirror smashed’ may be intended to symbolise the unfortunate circumstances that war creates, and has links with the myth that if you smash a mirror, you will have seven years of bad luck.

The conversation in the poem helps give the poem a sense of realism, and lets the reader to view the poetry in an objective way, as the poet is not it would seem directly enforcing his views on the matter- ‘I’m looking for headquarters. ‘ To contrast with the language used in the conversation, Sassoon uses rich and descriptive adjectives to produce dramatic and disturbing imagery when we discover that the ‘sleeper’ is actually a rotting body- ‘Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet whore Agony dying ten days before’

Sassoon ends the poem with the solider leaving the tunnel, but he reminds us that even after war, the images and memories scar, they cannot be shaken off but are with that person forever- ‘With sweat of horror in his hair’. In ‘Strange Meeting’ the effect of the poem being written in 1st person let’s us, the reader almost share the experience first hand- ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’ When he comes across the ghost, Owen describes that war has lasting effects, even when it is over, using a face as a metaphor – ‘With a thousand pains that visions face was grained;

Yet no blood… And no guns thumped’ Conversation is also included in this poem, in fact the majority of the poem is written between speech marks. This also brings the reader closer to the poem’s meaning as it is as though the ghost is speaking directly to you. The content of the ghost’s passage is extremely important and it could be thought that the messages he preaches are that of those that Owen wishes to express. The ghost is perhaps intended to represent Owen’s own feelings of war -‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’.

Sassoon describes life as being left ‘undone’ meaning that life has been cut short. Sassoon ends the poem on a dramatic note when it is discovered that the ghost is actually someone he killed-‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Sassoon is almost satirical in this recognising the absurdity of killing others just for war’s sake, when really the two ‘enemies’ have nothing against each other.

The ending phrase-‘let us sleep now’ has two effects on the poem. The fact that the end punctuation is ‘… is almost as though they are fading away, and that there will soon be know trace of their existence, exaggerates the pointlessness of war and how it creates too many unknown heroes. It also possibly represents peace, and that we are all human beings and we should ‘sleep’ rather than fight. Both poets use language and structural devices to help them to portray war in a pessimistic way. Personally, I find ‘Strange Meeting’ the most effective poem in portraying war in Owens’s intended way.

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