Good morning/afternoon everyone. I am sure that many of you will agree with me, after studying and discussing in class war poetry, that war is destructive; it destroys properties and lives. It is also the meaning if not dehumanizing as Owen in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has pointed out. The violence and destructiveness of war reduces men in the battlefield into something less than human; they are stripped of their dignity. Ultimately as Owen points out in his poem, war is senseless or futile. Whatever the reason for going to war, it’s not justification enough for the senseless slaughter of young lives.
Owen, as you know, has great ability in challenging the responders senses, to experience the horror of war. He allows us to see, to hear, to feel, to smell, even to taste the ugliness of war. Thus we see a group of soldiers trudging the muddy tracks blindly to safety. They are ‘drunk with fatigue’ and Owen captures their dehumanization by a series of similes. They are ‘bent double, like old beggars, coughing like hags’ and ‘deaf’ to the sound and fury of guns and gas shells dropping around them.
I still can visualize and hear their panic reaction to the chlorine gas and those who are not quick enough to put on their mask, literally drown in what Owen calls the ‘green sea’ and our auditory sense is challenged by the guttering, the choking and the convulsed sobs. You will agree with me for sure, that the image that Owen conjures up of the victim of the chlorine gas is no less than grotesquely horrible. We see the ‘white eyes writhing’ in his agony and the convulsions that are followed by the blood that comes gargling out of the victim’s ‘froth corrupted lungs. Again a simile is used ‘bitter as the cud of vile,’ effectively giving us the ‘awful taste’ of the situation. I know of one other poet who also condemns war and who can effectively communicate the horror of war and the senselessness of it, simply by challenging our senses. Kenneth Slessor, like Wilfred Owen, has a strong indictment of war, if Owen’s tone in his poem is angry because, for him, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ which since the time of Horace was used by authorities to entice men to fight for their country – it is a big ie. From the images that he conjures in this poem, there is nothing glorious about dying in such an indignified, brutal and senseless way. In contrast, Kenneth Slessor’s tone in his ‘Beach Burial’ is elegiac; he laments the destructiveness, the dehumanizing effect and the futility of war like Owen, although his anger is tempered and what we get is a tone of frustration, he communicates just as powerfully an antiwar message.
His ‘Beach Burial’ presents a dramatic situation in which a group of dead sailors floats towards the beach at El Alamein in the Middle East. The dehumanization motif comes almost strikingly because the sailors is at the mercy of the sea, no longer in control of their lives, but subject to the ebb and the flow of the sea. The fact that they are ‘unknown seamen,’ a mixture of allied and axis soldiers probably highlights the senselessness of war.
A man who takes pity on the dead ‘snatched them from the water’ and bury them in burrows along the beach. Clearly, the image portrayed here is one of dehumanization and responders feel great pity for them in realizing that these sailors ultimate protection is to be found within the earth as animals find comfort in the safety of their burrows. Slessor’s irony is obvious in the way he describes the situation; ‘Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire, Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows And tread the sand upon their nakedness’ Our auditory sense is challenged by the words ‘sob’ and ‘clubbing’ in this line so that we can hear the destruction of war. When Slessor uses the word ‘pluck’ to describe the man’s action of removing the bodies from the water to be buried, I am reminded of the soldier smothered in gas in Owen’s poem being ‘flung’ behind a wagon. Both poets certainly capture the unceremonious brutality of war.
The futility of war is further highlighted by the man’s bewilderment, not knowing what name to write on the crudely made tidewood crosses that he used for each grave. ‘Unknown seaman’ is the only thing he can think to write. And, at this point the voice of the poet is clearly mournful, as suggested by the repetition of the word ‘such’ and the tone; ‘Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity, The words choke as they begin’ Certainly there is no glory in either their death or their burial for their memorial, only stresses their anonymity.
The ultimate senselessness of it all is captured in the last stanza; ‘Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall, Whether as enemies they fought, Or fought with us, or neither, the sand joins them together, Enlisted on the other front’ In life these sailor soldiers where able to live together without enmity, but now in death they are peacefully united; they have come from so many lands and end up in the same landfall somewhere on the beach of El Alamein.
I believe we should take the message of both Owen and Slessor seriously that war destroys, that it robs us of our human dignity, and that it is ultimately senseless. Both poets have experienced the horror of war, Owen as a lieutenant in the British army in WWI and Slessor as an Australian Official War Correspondent in the Middle East during WWII. If belligerent or war-like world leaders of today study these poems, I am sure the world will be a better place to live in.
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