Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Wilfred Owen - Spring Offensive

Halted against the shade of a last hill,

They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept.

But many there stood still 

To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones' pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky's mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field--
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word

At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste--
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,--
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together

Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place

Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell's upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world's verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.

But what say such as from existence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames--
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder--
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

Key words
      Offensive – a military operation which aggressively attacks in order to gain territory or achieve a specific aim.
      Apocalyptic – relating to the end of the world, particularly in a religious sense

What is the poem about?
This is the only poem we’re studying which looks directly at the fighting in the war. The first three stanzas show us the soldiers relaxing before the battle and appreciating the nature around them, before the fighting begins in stanza 4. The men who are left then return to where they came from.

The title itself is quite ironic as spring is a time of new life and growth, and war is obviously a time of death and destruction.

      The majority of lines are composed of 10 syllables – but not all of them. This breaks the rhythm up, as does the sometimes irregular rhyme scheme – what is the effect of this? – it makes everything sound as though it is a bit disjointed and falling apart – reflecting the destruction and damage of the battle
      The poem is divided into 6 stanzas.
      Each stanza details a different stage of the “offensive”.

Because the poem is very long, I’ve broken it down into stanzas for you.

Stanza 1: Setting the scene
There is a sense of relaxation in this stanza, as the men reach the end of a long march. The words “eased” and “at ease” suggest they have reached some point of safety. They seem exhausted as they “Carelessly slept”, unable to support their own weight anymore: “leaning on the nearest chest or knees”. However, “many” still remain awake and look out at the landscape and “the stark blank sky” – “blank” possible because it holds no answers? (breakdown of religion?) and “stark” because it offers no comfort or shelter? They know “their feet had come to the end of the world” – because they may be about to die in the battle to come. There is also a sense of anticipation because of this.
Nature is celebrated in this stanza: “Marvelling”. Maybe they are trying to take everything in before they die. This section of the poem uses long vowel sounds (“murmurous” “oozed”) to slow it down and create a soothing image. Nature also helps the men “Like an injected drug for their bodies’ pains” – it makes them feel better. The anticipation grows towards the end of this stanza due to the word “imminent” and the increasing use of rhyming couplets (veins/pains, grass/glass)

Stanza 2 – The pause before the attack
The subject of nature continues. The setting sounds like paradise, where the men have time to “ponder” and are “warm”. Nature itself seems unwilling to let the men go: “Where even the little brambles would not yield/But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing arms.” (personification). The men are therefore almost part of nature, rather than the ugly and artificial world of war.
It’s worth thinking about the setting of the poem: spring. This is usually a time of new life – but these men are about to die. Ironic!

Stanza 3 – Tension building
The battle begins without the fanfare you’d expect: just a “little word”. The “cold gust” of the battle starting contrasts directly with the “warm field” in the 2nd stanza – war vs nature. The repetition of “no” shows this too, as well as building tension. The simile “like a friend with whom their love is done” suggests that the men know they are going to their death and won’t see the sun again.

Stanza 4 – Attack
The action begins suddenly as the men “raced together” – showing some sense of comradeship. The caesura in line 29, after “Exposed” helps to emphasise the word, showing they didn’t stand a chance, and also makes you stop – before the long sentence to the end of the stanza when the battle properly starts. The battle makes nature suddenly seem violent: the sky “burned/With fury” and the earth “set sudden cups/In thousands for their blood”. It’s all very apocalyptic and makes it sound as though it really is the end of the world as mentioned earlier. You could also see it as nature (or God) being angry at the war, and also that the Earth is reclaiming the men who belong to it by catching their blood.

Stanza 5 – Casualties
The apocalyptic imagery continues with an emphasis on things being the “last”: “that last high place”, and with the mention of “hell”. Death is swift: “Some say God caught them even before they fell”. This battle is incredibly quick, violent and destructive.

Stanza 6 – The survivors
Not everyone dies. Some come “crawling slowly back” (which contrasts with their action earlier). They are painted quite heroically as they have faced “fiends” and “flames” like some Greek hero, and are “superhuman”.  The poem ends with a question – perhaps they don’t want to relive such horrors, perhaps they feel guilty for surviving when others didn’t.

In summary
      A detailed account of a military attack
      6 stanzas detailing 6 stages of the attack
      The only poem we are looking at which deals directly with battle

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