Trudging through ravaged landscapes with rooted out trees, blood and mud everywhere, trenches infested with rats, half filled with water and with corpses – these were the circumstances in which some 8,700,000 lives had been lost during the First World War. However, this reality was long kept from the knowledge of the civilians at home, who continued to write about the noble pursuit of heroic ideals in old patriotic slogans (Anthology 2012: 2017). Those poets who were involved on the front soon realized the full horror of war, which is reflected in their poetic techniques, diction, and imaginations. Campbell (1999: 204) refers to their poetry as trench lyric, which not only calls attention to the poems’ most common setting, but also the accompanying images of filth, barbed wire, shell fire, and so forth. The genre portrays these distressing conditions in an unromantic light, thus differentiating it from the patriotic lyrics of the early war. It is realistic in that it employs the traditional styles and diction of English poetry, however uses these conventional poetic forms to portray the gruesome details of the situations of the trench (Campbell 1999: 205).
One of those poets was Wilfred Owen, whose later work has become canonized as a representative of trench lyric. He is the poet who wrote with most pathos, who started out as a follower of Keats and Shelley but toughened and tightened his language under the pressure of traumatic frontline experiences and who came to see it as his poetic task to warn of the horrors of war (Buelens & Claes 2013: 115). In this essay, I will discuss how Owen’s use of a variety or pervasive poetical techniques reinforces the bleak atmosphere of his poems, and how his poetry evolved from being infused by a Romantic sense of self-sacrifice to having an ironic and desolate air. This alteration in Owen’s poetry was probably the result of him being introduced to Siegfried Sassoon in 1917, whose fiercely realistic poetry had just been published. In order to answer this question, I will analyze four poems by Wilfred Owen, of which two were written in the years before he met Sassoon and two after. I will then compare those to one poem by Siegfried Sassoon and discuss the changes in narrative tone, poetic techniques and diction in Owen’s poetry.
2. Spirited by Romance and marked by passiveness
Wilfred Owen was brought up in a family devoted to minding its own business and with a Victorian insistence on respect for authority. As a result protest, social discontent, or a refusal to accept what was offered was a foreign tongue Wilfred Owen did not speak (Kerr 1991: 193). The poems “1914” and “A New Heaven”, exhibit this conviction. Both were written during the early stages of war, and as opposed to Owen’s later work seem to be naïve poems of duty and heroic self-sacrifice in the classical tradition. This glorification, strongly present in especially “1914”, is the product of emotional habits he learned from...