Two Poems on War

Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Howard Leathers’ “Images”, though belonging to two different centuries share among them a theme that, though oft reiterated throughout the history of human civilization, has not lost its relevance even in today’s world. Both Owen and Leathers are horror struck at the abject inhumanity and the appalling brutality of war, and their poems are, first and foremost, eloquent protest against the same. Thus, though the two poets differ considerably in their style and poetic ethos, the similarity in the theme of the two poems invite a comparative study as far as the treatment and presentation of the theme is concerned. This paper aims at reading the two poems side by side with the intent of examining critically and in detail the stylistic and thematic similarities as well as the differences in the two poets handling of the same issue.

In an oft quoted statement, Owen once wrote, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” (Quoted in Stallworthy 266) The subject of his “Dulce et Decorum Est” is just what the poet claims, “the pity of war”. Owen presents a minutely detailed and shockingly realistic description of a group of soldiers retreating from the battlefront to seek a few days’ shelter and rest in the camps. The poet’s pity for this group of young men robbed of their humanity by war is not merely self-pity though Owen is a first-hand witness of the scene and can be identified with the speaker of the poem. In his presentation of the gloomy and dismal scene, the poet’s deep sympathy and pity for these ‘doomed youths’ is strongly felt throughout. The soldiers march asleep through a nightmarish landscape lit by the ‘haunting flares’ of rockets sent up to locate targets for bombing around the frontline. They limp back towards some distant and illusive promise of rest.

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“Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue;”

writes Owen, and the full intensity of the poet’s sympathy for this unfortunate men wells up in the reader’s heart.

A similar overwhelming sympathy for the war-afflicted men and women can be clearly felt in Leathers’ poem. The images that Leathers calls forth to describe the reality of war are designed to arouse the readers’ pity and sympathy. The little girl perhaps orphaned for no fault of her own searching for food among the debris of war; men rendered sightless or with their hands amputated; these scenes serve as silent reminders of the pointless brutality that is war. However, the pity and sympathy in Leathers is not as powerfully realized as in Owen’s poem because perhaps of a certain objectivity in his presentation. Owen is more subjective and thereby more intense and arouses the readers’ sympathy with a greater ease.

Leathers calls his poem “Images” and true to the title adopts an imagistic means of representation. His images of war are objectively wrought, sharp and chiseled with no attempt at explaining their significance. It imitates the cinematic technique of ‘montage’ which consists of a series of images which does not have any necessary connection with, but seen as a whole reveals a dominating theme. Similarly the images that are piled up one after another in Leathers’ poem can be interpreted differently if considered separately but as a whole they emerge as the spectacle of war. Thus, ‘the sad eyed girl’, the blood stained jacket, ‘the green tinged light’, the ‘rescued soldier’s father’s glee’, all fit in perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle and reveal a war torn land.

Owen too in his poem heavily depends upon imagery to bring alive for his readers the true spectacle of war. However, especially in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Owen achieves that perfect balance between subjectivity and objectivity which makes his vision special. The terrifying imagery is not too subjective to make us recoil in horror or wallow in self pity, neither is it too objective, as it is in the case of Leathers, to turn us into sympathetic but distant observers. The image of a man “yelling out and stumbling,/ And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” moves us to horror as much as it had moved the poet. An image like “the white eyes writhing in his face, / His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin” is much more immediate in its appeal, more intense and moving than the rather detached descriptions of “the sightless eyes, the handless stumps”.

The immediacy of appeal of Owen’s poem is to some extent due to the first person narrative mode the poet uses. As mentioned before the poet appears not only as the first hand witness of the experience narrated, but also a soldier among the soldiers that are limping back towards the camp in search of rest. In the very first stanza he uses the first person pronoun twice thereby establishing himself as the speaker:

“…we cursed through sludge /

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs /

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.”

In the second stanza this subjective nature of the experience intensifies as the poet watches one of his companions die under the effect of poisonous gas:

“…I saw him drowning. /

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight /

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”

The final stanza brings the experience even closer as the poet addresses the reader directly and drags him into that horrific war scene.

On the other hand, in Leathers’ poem no specific speaker is discernible. The images are presented one after another by a disembodied and thereby objective voice. The reader watches the scenes in relative detachment but do not participate in the experience or share it along with the poet:

The TV box, the rolled up rug. /

The info chief, unseeing, smug. /

The Humvee pillow, sandy bed. /

The stolen chair upon the head.

However, Leathers does invite the readers’ active participation in interpreting the images that he stacks up without commentary. It might be proposed that in the process of interpreting the images and connecting them up with each other the reader actively experiences the poet’s vision. However, the sense of immediacy and the intensity of feeling that characterizes Owen’s work are not present in Leathers’ poem. Owen through his superior art moves us into both thought and feeling, while Leathers’ appeal remains confined primarily to the intellect.

Despite these differences in approach as well as style, one can also discern certain echoes of Owen in Leathers’ poem. The similarities between the two poems mainly consist of certain images of war visualized in a like manner, certain phrases that appear in both the poems though their tone of delivery is quite different. For instance, both the poets refer to a rather unnatural “green tinged light” that characterizes the scene. In Leathers it probably refers to the chemical fires caused by bombing whereas in Owen it is perhaps the color of the poisonous gas. But the unnaturalness of the light adds a new surreal dimension to the spectacle of war. Images of blood appears in both the poems: in Leathers it stains the soldier’s jacket while in Owen “blood / Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs” as a soldier dies writhing in pain under the effect of the poisonous gas. Leathers simply refers to “muddy shoes” while Owen paints a more detailed picture in “Many had lost their boots / But limped on, blood – shod”. However, it must be admitted that though there are certain similarities in the visualization of war between the two poets, as far as richness of detail and clarity of vision is concerned Owen is the finer artist by far.

The same is true for the diction of the two poems. Owen uses a richer vocabulary while Leathers sticks to a more colloquial and straightforward language in keeping with the objectivity of his vision. The complexity and flamboyance of a line like “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning” has no place in Leathers’ poem. His “Images” are more directly etched with the aid of a simpler vocabulary: “The palace garden picnic scene./ The weary warrior, brave marine.” “Dulce et Decorum Est” is also richer in rhetorical devices like metaphors and similes. The writhing of the soldier choking in poisonous gas is compared with a drowning man; the blood gurgling forth from the lungs is compared with ‘cud’ and by extension the dying man is compared with cattle; the soldiers suffering from extreme fatigue is compared with drunkenness. Such metaphors and similes enrich the poem by making each word infinitely suggestive. The directness of Leathers’ representation, mostly bare of all rhetorical ornamentations, is in direct contrast with Owen’s style.

However, as in Owen, in Leathers too, the concretely perceived images set off a ripple of meaning and ends up suggesting something far bigger than the immediate scene under consideration. “The TV box, the rolled up rug” immediately calls to mind the thousands of homes that are devastated in war; “the sad eyed girl” as well as “the children freed from children’s jail” recalls the millions of children that are orphaned. Similarly in Owen the soldiers limping towards their “distant rest” reminds us of that final rest, death.

Such instances can be multiplied. But to conclude it can be stated that though distinctly different in tone and style, the two war poems under consideration express the senseless brutality of war. The two poets, Owen and Leathers, in their own way attempt to arouse the readers’ pity and sympathy for the victims of war. “Dulce et Decorum Est” is surely the work of a finer artist – in its intensity and richness it is far superior to Leathers’ “Images” – but if a poem is measured by the value it chooses to uphold, Leathers’ poem stands alongside Owen’s as a thorough and comprehensive indictment of war.

Works Cited

Leathers, Howard. “Images”. Shards: Poems of the War. <http://shards-poems.blogspot.com/2003_04_01_archive.html> Access date: 3rd May, 2009.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Touch With Fire. Ed. Jack Hydes.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 110.

Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. London: Oxford University Press & Chatto Windus, 1974.