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Warfare as Seen in the Poems The Sentry and Dulce Et Decorum Est

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Wilfred Owen was one of the leading English poets of World War 1, whom’s work was immensely influenced by Siegfried Sassoon and the events that he witnesses whilst fighting as a soldier. ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ are both shocking and realistic war poems that were used to expose the horrors of war from the soldiers on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare, they challenged and stood in stark contrast to the public perception of war, conveyed by propagandist poets such as Rupert Brooke.

Dulce et decorum Est and the sentry both reveal the true environment and conditions that the soldiers were living and fighting in. In particular The Sentry contains many The use of ‘Slush’ and ‘Sludge’ link to the feelings of

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How does Owen use language to convey the horror of War in ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’? ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ both convey the harsh reality of war that Owen personally experienced and as a result contributed to his admittance to Craiglockhart War Hospital. The two poems focus on an individual event that Owen was involved in. The Sentry took Owen just under a year to even begin writing after the experience, this gives us an insight as to the true effect that such a shocking and horrific event had on him. There are many similarities between the two poems and Owen presents the dramatic image of war by use of language techniques.

A however, ‘Dulce…’ focuses on the pain of the gased soldier whilst Owen widens the perspective in ‘The Sentry. There are many similarities between both poems, such as the way Owen presents a dramatic image of war by use of language techniques, however there are also many differences. Owen uses language to show the reality of war. The simile “like old beggars under sacks” illustrates the dirty, weak image of the soldiers which contrasts the strong, heroic image which was portrayed of them at the time. This image was the belief of Jessie Pope who encouraged men to fight for their country. In contrast, Owen uses personification in ‘The Sentry’ to convey the appalling living conditions on the frontline as the steps were “choked” by mud. This is effective as it shows how much slush and mud was in the trenches.

Both poems use nightmare underwater imagery, in ‘Dulce…’ Owen describes a soldier as he starts “drowning” under a “green sea” when he is overcome by gas. This creates a disturbing psychological image for the reader and conveys how toxic the gas was. Similarly, in ‘The Sentry’ the soldier’s body is described as “sploshing in the flood”, this representation conveys the harsh environment the soldiers had to live in. Repetition is also used in both poems. In ‘The Sentry’, the repetition of “I’m blind” helps give a sense of the increasing distress of the soldier as he realises he has lost his sight. In comparison, repetition of “Gas!” in ‘Dulce…’ is effective as it creates a sense of urgency and the panic of the soldiers as…

In October 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!”

While the earliest surviving draft is dated 8th October 1917, a few months later, at Scarborough or Ripon, he revised it.

The title is ironic. The intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.

It comprises four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure.

Stanza 1 sets the scene. The soldiers are limping back from the Front, an appalling picture expressed through simile and metaphor. Such is the men’s wretched condition that they can be compared to old beggars, hags (ugly old women). Yet they were young! Barely awake from lack of sleep, their once smart uniforms resembling sacks, they cannot walk straight as their blood-caked feet try to negotiate the mud. “Blood-shod” seems a dehumanising image- we think of horses shod not men. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. “Distant rest” – what kind of rest? For some the permanent kind? “Coughing” finds an echo later in the poem, while gas shells dropping softly suggests a menace stealthy and devilish. Note how in line 8 the rhythm slackens as a particularly dramatic moment approaches.

In Stanza 2, the action focuses on one man who couldn’t get his gas helmet on in time. Following the officer’s command in line 9, “ecstasy” (of fumbling) seems a strange word until we realise that medically it means a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied solely with one idea. Lines 12-14 consist of a powerful underwater metaphor, with succumbing to poison gas being compared to drowning. “Floundering” is what they’re already doing (in the mud) but here it takes on more gruesome implications as Owen introduces himself into the action through witnessing his comrade dying in agony.

Stanza 3. The aftermath. From straight description Owen looks back from a new perspective in the light of a recurring nightmare. Those haunting flares in stanza 1 foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, dying, “plunges at me” before “my helpless sight”, an image Owen will not forget.

Another aspect again marks Stanza 4. Owen attacks those people at home who uphold the war’s continuance unaware of its realities. If only they might experience Owen’s own “smothering dreams” which replicate in small measure the victim’s sufferings. Those sufferings Owen goes on to describe in sickening detail.

The “you” whom he addresses in line 17 can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, the “my friend” identified as Jessie Pope, children’s fiction writer and versifier whose patriotic poems epitomised the glorification of war that Owen so despised. Imagine, he says, the urgency, the panic that causes a dying man to be “flung” into a wagon, the “writhing” that denotes an especially virulent kind of pain. Hell seems close at hand with the curious simile “like a devil’s sick of sin”. Sick in what sense? Physically? Satiated? Then that “jolt”. No gentle stretcher-bearing here but agony intensified. Owen’s imagery is enough to sear the heart and mind.

There are echoes everywhere in Owen and with “bitter as the cud”, we are back with “those who die as cattle”. (ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH). “Innocent” tongues? Indeed, though some tongues were anything but innocent in Owen’s opinion. Jessie Pope for one perhaps, his appeal to whom as “my friend” is doubtless ironic, and whose adopted creed, the sweetness and meetness of dying for one’s country he denounces as a lie which children should never be exposed to.

A poem seemingly written at white heat. Harsh, effective in the extreme, yet maybe too negative to rank among Owen’s finest achievements: those poems in which he transcends the scorn and the protest and finds the pity.

The Sentry
Owen began THE SENTRY while he was receiving hospital treatment at Craiglockhart in 1917 and he continued it the following summer. Finally, it was completed in France that September. For its origins we go back to a letter to his mother dated 16th January 1917.

In the platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I’m afraid, blinded.

A very personal poem, therefore, the eighteen month gap between the experience and its translation into words suggesting an experience of great intensity.

The verse is basically iambic but trochees at significant points disturb the rhythm and effectively accentuate the unrest and tension, while the break at line 10 suggests that Owen is looking for his readers to pause and maybe gasp.

The parallels with DULCE ET DECORUM EST are quite noticeable. As in DULCE a young soldier suffers a tragic fate in horrifying circumstances and in Owen’s presence. Remembering how the war preyed on Owen’s mind to the extent that he experienced nightmares, a symptom of the condition for which he was treated at Craiglockhart –

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me……….(DULCE)

Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids’

Watch my dreams still….

I try not to remember these things now. (THE SENTRY)

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea I saw him drowning. (DULCE)

Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime

Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,

And one who would have drowned himself for good, (THE SENTRY)

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…… (DULCE)

To beg a stretcher somewhere, and flound’ring about (THE SENTRY)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-need, coughing like hags……(DULCE)

Those other wretches……(THE SENTRY)

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face……….(DULCE)

Eyeballs, huge-bulged, like squids’, (THE SENTRY)

In both poems Owen shows us men under unendurable stress. Like the men in ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH who “die as cattle”, these are “herded from the blast”. A whine is one of the least manly of sounds but our sentry, all shreds of dignity lost, whines, “O, sir, – my eyes,- “. He sobs, needs, child-like, to be coaxed, which also points to another of war’s features – the paternal role of the junior officer.

Those such as Owen in effect became surrogate fathers to the young men under their command, and the care that Owen shows in this poem typifies those acts of succour without number that punctuate the insensible business of war. At the same time Owen conscientiously tells the entire truth. “Yet I forget him there.” Even moments of selflessness give way. Not to indifference, but simply to life as it is, to the need to, as it were, get on. And so it is here, Owen “half-listening to the sentry’s moans and jumps” as he goes about his other duties.

The poem opens almost conversationally, though with understated menace in “and he knew”. (line 1). But this is an occasion when Owen will not draw back from presenting truth in its most graphic form. Thus, THE SENTRY takes its place alongside, for example, DULCE ET DECORUM EST, THE SHOW, MENTAL CASES, and relentlessly unveils the full scale of war’s horrors.

One of his techniques is to make use of onomatopoeia (words echoing the sound of what he is describing). A succession of identical vowel sounds (u): “buffeting”, “snuffing”, “thud”, “flump”, “thumping”, “pummelled”, “crumps” which suggest hard-hitting assault and battery and ruthless punishment. We also find “mud”, “ruck” (repeated), heavy, ugly words that match the situation. Then, “shrieking air” to denote both the sound of bombs and the terror that goes with it.

And one who would have drowned himself for good.

Here is double ambiguity, as to the identity of “one” and “for good” as a final act simply, or as leading to some better existence; while for a combined visual-aural image, “And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth” is horrifying and unforgettable.

How powerfully Owen conveys the conditions they live – and – die under. “Waterfalls of slime” (4) is almost an oxymoron, for our notion of a waterfall is surely of a pure, clear cascade. We see “the steps too thick with clay to climb” (6) and that awful olfactory image, “What murk of air remained stank old, and sour.” (7).

Atmosphere is heightened by examples of what Ruskin called Pathetic Fallacy, the practice of attributing human emotions to inanimate objects – a form of personification. In line 2, “Shell on frantic shell” and the whizz-bangs that “found our door at last” (11) both add a layer of malevolence to the enemy action.

Lastly, “lit” in line 3, though meaning “alighted” not “showed light”, seems an interesting choice of word in view of the poem’s “light” motif – the candles, the sentry’s cries of “I’m blind”, the flame held against his lids. That last line “I see your lights! – But ours had long gone out” makes a terrifying conclusion, not only underlining the personal tragedy but on a wider front reminding us of the famous words of Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war:

The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

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