War Propaganda between Ambivalent Idealism and Existential Pessimism: A Study in Owen's "Futility" and Brooke's "The Soldier"
Muhanned Ajel Hadi
The First World War, or the Great War, as it is known, with all its cruelty and wickedness, brought to humanity nothing but extremely horrendous effects and dangers to humanity. It was one of the most atrocious events in the history of humanity in which millions of people were killed and injured. The writers of trench poetry take two different perceptions in their reaction towards war. Hence, the genre of trench poetry becomes a bridge between ambivalent idealism and existential pessimism. Two poets are going to be scrutinized here with their magnum opus, Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) and Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915).
Owen is the poet war, the soldier who lived during the war, depicts a negative response to war, writing about his personal experiences. The notions he manipulated in his poetry lack the patriotic sense that was colouring the works of the previous war poets, as he claimed: "my subject is war, and the pity of war, poetry is in the pity.''1
On the other hand, Brooke who is regarded as the nation's poet of war, develops a far different attitude towards war. He welcomes war as being a source of patriotism and heroism and not a source of destruction as Owen believes.2
In his "Futility", Owen clearly depicts his pessimistic view towards war by manipulating figurative language, alliteration, tonality and juxtaposition.3 The title of the poem reflects the meaning of existence and the pointlessness of war, by describing life to be futile and this is what the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, pinpointed when he stated that since alllife is futility, then "to liveis tosuffer, to survive is to find some meaning in thesuffering.''4
The poem starts with an order "move him into the sun," and "him" here is a linguistic deviation as an elegiac reference to a dead soldier whose body is lost. "The sun" is manipulated in the first stanzas as being a source of life and warmth that was awaking him up at home like a mother. So here there is a juxtaposition between the paradise of home and the hell of the battlefield. This depicts Owen's hatred and pessimistic view towards war.
At home, the sun whispers in his ears, "at home, whispering of fields half-sown,'' about the fields which are unsown and this indicates that this soldier was a farmer and the fields refer to all the past happiness that he has left behind. This is also a juxtaposition between the glory and peace of the past and the ugliness and war of the present.
"Until this morning and this snow,'' there is an irony here because "morning" is supposed to be a reference for life, while the mention of the world "snow" is a symbol of death, and so here there is also a contrast between life and death. The poet describes the sun as "kind" because it is like a mother that every morning touches the poet gently in order to awake him up and it is described as being an "old" because it is older than everything on earth.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.(Futility, Stanza, I)
The second stanza is started with the word "think" and it is an invitation to the readers to think of the question that he wants to raise. The poets wants to say that the sun that was able to awake the seeds and the clays of the cold star (i.e. earth) from its icy sleep, it was not able to awake a single man (the dead soldier).
The word "limbs'' means the arms and the legs of the dead soldier and how they are perfect because they are created by God and they are still warm because he has just died and this is a paradox. The poet, then, asks a question: is this man born to die? And so the poet becomes angry, raising another comments that it is better the sun did not awake the sleepy earth.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all? (Futility, Stanza II)
“Futility” talks about a young soldier who has recently died, and the poet feels pity at the soldier's wasted life. The poem has its elegiac tone of the youth that dies with dreams unfulfilled because of war. It also raises many questions about life, death and the fuitility of war. The poem suggests that men grow up only to die, and nothing will bring them back even the sun. The question which the poem raises at the end is why the sun that “wakes the seeds”, “the hard clays of the cold stars”, gives life to the dead vegetables, is unable to give life to the limbs and sides of the dead soldier.5
"Futility" has three levels of meaning: the first level is that it is an elegy for a dead soldier; the second level is that it is an elegy for the poet himself because Owen was a soldier and he expects that he may die at any moment so that he is lamenting himself; the third level is that it is an elegy for humanity in general and this shows the existential pessimism of life.
Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier'', on the other hand, shows the contrasting attitude towards war in Owen's "Futility". Here, the poet was also a soldier and looked to soldiers as heroes and to war as a source of nobility, heroism and patriotism.
The poets expects that he may die at any moment sooner or later. However, he believes that whenever and wherever he dies and buries, this ground will be a small England. Here, there is a touch of patriotism a sense of imperialism. The poet refers to the soldier's dead body by "richer dust". He stated that this body is shaped by England that gives him life and love. That is why, he believes that this body doesn't belong to him, rather it belongs to England, breathes English air, washed by the rivers and blessed by its sun.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. (The Soldier, I)
In the second stanza, the poet believes that war is not for nothing, but to shed evil away and bring life to his country, and that if he dies, he will do nothing but returns his body and soul to England because they are given to him by England.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day. (The Soldier, II)
The First World War caused great damages to humanity in general as it has its negative and cruel impact on people, and trench poetry forms a great part of Owen's and Brooke's poetry. Although both of them manipulate the theme of death in their works, they deal with it differently: Owen damns the atrocities and the gruesome scenes of war due to his experiences in the battlefield, while Brooke's war poems come as ambivalent idealistic propaganda for joining the military forces.
1 James Anderson Winn, The Poetry of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 18.
2 Wojciech Drąg, Jakub Krogulec and Mateusz Marecki, War and Words: Representations of Military Conflict in Literature and the Media (Cambridge: Cambridge School Publishing, 2016), 139.
3 Dan Robe, "The Representation of War in Wilfred Owen's Poetry" (2008), under http://www.poemhunter.com/attitude (Accessed, May, 4, 2017.)
4 Quoted in Keith Ansell Pearson, A Companion to Nietzsche (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 42.
5 David Wheeler, Moon on the Tides: The AQA GCSE Poetry Anthology (New York: David Wheeler Press, 2011), 222.