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The First World War Changed the Way People Thought about War and Patriotism

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People’s attitudes to war have changed dramatically over the last century. Before world war one, war was viewed honourable and patriotic, with people feeling that it was their duty to defend their country at any cost. Pacifism was linked with cowardice. Therefore poetry written before the world war didn’t contain the horrific physical detail of injury, but instead most poets concentrated on the heroic aspect of war. Now that people have realised the loss involved with war, poetry is generally anti war and emphasizes brutality, showing war as a last resort with little honour and glory, and showing pacifism as a respectable position.

Out of the three war poems I have considered the first is called the Destruction of Sennacherib, and was written by Lord Byron. This poem is based on the war between the Assyrians and the Israelites. Lord Byron portrays war as a great drama, with vivid colour, smell and sound. The violence is stylised rather than graphic, and killing and destruction are shown as acceptable and indeed carried out by God. Lord Byron fought in the Greek wars so he has had first hand experience of war.

In the first poem, the writing is highly structured, with regular rhythm and rhyme. I have noticed though that in poems two and three, Futility and The Fury of Aerial Bombardment, the two more modern poems that there is less structure and a lighter rhythm and rhyme, which makes these two poems seem less obviously poetic.

The second poem, Futility, written by Wilfred Owen has taken a more modern attitude and war is shown as a mass destruction, with biblical references suggesting that man has made little moral progress. The poem refers to the death of a soldier without a name, thereby symbolising the senseless death of millions of innocent people. Wilfred Owen has first hand experience of the brutality of war as he fought in World War one.

I will be comparing the destruction of Sennacherib with Futility, as one represents the old attitude to war and the other the more modern attitude.

Lord Byron has painted the Destruction of Sennacherib, near the Sea of Galilee, in bright, heroic colours. He has described the glory and exhilaration of war in his writing. The poem written in rhyming couplets contains five verses. In the first verse he compares the dissension of the Asseryians to a wolf giving the impression of strength and bravery and the Israelites as being the sheep, He talks of the Assertion colours of gleaming purple and gold, colours generally associated with royalty.

He has no unpleasant images in this verse and he talks of “stars on the sea…the blue wave…gleaming”. War comes across as picturesque and the spears which slaughtered millions shine brightly, “sheen of their spears…” There is a feeling of cheer in this poem, which strongly contrasts with the bleak feeling of Futility. There is also a mention of a star in Futility but unlike the star in Byron’s poem this star does not shine brightly, “…the clays of a cold star” The sun once woke this star but now it is unable to wake the dying soldier. Death of the soldier is the most important feature in Futility, sad and unfair, while in the Destruction of Sennacherib the death is not that of a person but of a horse. In this poem death seems graceful and peaceful, as “the angel of death spread his wings…breathed in the face of the sleeper…forever grew still” The death in this poem is sudden and proud, “breath of his pride”

In the Destruction of Aerial bombardment, the battle scene is rich in colour, “summer is green”, were the green describes the bright flags flying, the “sunset…leaves of the forest…melted the snow…spray of the rock-beating surf”

Futility has bleak images of the battlefield but shows a more positive contrast of light and growth. There is despair in futility as the soldiers last hope is the sun, his comrades have placed him in the sun, they hope this will save him, the sun that woke him every morning even while he was fighting in France. His death doesn’t seem proud, this man comes across with more affection as we learn about him, his home and the whispering of his fields unsown. Wilfred Owen lets us feel the sadness of the death, while in Byrons poem things seem too colourful for sadness.

In the final verse of the Destruction on Sennacherib Lord Byron talks of the destruction war has on the temple of Baal, the false gods have been destroyed by the Israelites. They believe God was with them, that it was He that defeated the Gentiles, “the might of the gentile, unsmote by the sword, hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord”. This is typical of old war poems and attitudes as it states that it is God who kills and that he approves of murder and destruction and it is as if God is a participant in this war.

In futility Owen questions God, why His plan allowed this to happen, “was it for this the clay grew tall?” therefore in the second verse the tone of the poem darkens, as Owen tries to make sense of everything that has happened by asking rhetorical questions, “too hard to stir?” God does not seem so glorious in this poem, instead of being praised he is criticized.

In the Destruction of Sennacherib everything seems to be on a much larger, grander scale. In this poem the death of a brave soldier is felt everywhere,” the tents were all silent…the banners alone…the lances unlifted…the trumpets unblown”, everything has stopped. In futility everything is less dramatized, the tone is less grand; the only colour in this poem is the sunbeams. Through out the poem Owens hope seems to diminish as he realises that it is useless nothing can save his friend and when reading this poem you are able to feel his despair. The tone is down beat and pitiful.

The last poem, the Fury of Aerial Bombardment, by Richard Eberhart also shows war as bleak and vicious. Eberhart talks of a list containing names of people he went to school with, who are now dead. He can no longer remember their faces. I get the impression he feels guilty about the fact that they have died and not him. He shows war as beyond human control and comprehension, with God seeming powerless and indifferent to this suffering. There is a reference in the poem to Cain, which suggests that aerial bombardment, and a war fought in this manner resembles a mass murder.

Before people knew any better they considered war a good thing, something God approved of and was an active fighter in, but as time went on and people realised the loss and destruction caused by war, people began to look on it less fondly. It was wars in the 20th century that made people reconsider their views and question the need for the unnecessary loss of millions of lives. The reason for a change in attitude could be that technology was more advanced so more people could be wiped out easily. For the first time technology could also be used so people around the world could see the horrifying images of war, taken from the front line. Pacifism is now viewed acceptably, and this is reflected in the changes in poetry.

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