Academic journal article Style

Formal Subversion in Wilfred Owen's "Hospital Barge." (Issues in English and American Literatures)

Academic journal article Style

Formal Subversion in Wilfred Owen's "Hospital Barge." (Issues in English and American Literatures)

Article excerpt

Wilfred Owen is best known for depicting war's carnage, and this reputation is largely based on the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est." Certainly, this is a memorabl poem, remarkable for its graphic description of the agonies of a first World Wa gas victim and widely anthologized no doubt for this very reason: its subject and even more its treatment of that subject seem so decidedly "unpoetic" that the poem serves a double didactic purpose, at once to condemn war and to convince readers (especially young readers of school textbooks) that not all poetry is boring or saccharine.

Such depictions are indeed an important element in Owen's work, but shockingly graphic description is not Owen's only method of condemning war in general and World War I in particular; nor is that carnage alone the target of his critical eye. He was also concerned with what he saw as poetry's failure to render war's actualities truthfully. In the draft Preface written for a projected collection of his war poetry, Owen states, "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful" (2:535).(1) Obviously he is setting himself th task of telling the truth about war; it is also clear that he makes a distinction between "true Poets" and so-called poets who are not "truthful." That these latter are targets for criticism is apparent in the brutal attack he makes on them in "Dulce et Decorum Est" and other poems, but he also employs more subtle methods (though subtlety is something for which Owen is seldom praised) that can be seen in his little-known sonnet "Hospital Barge."

The more familiar poem, though, lends itself as groundwork for discussing "Hospital Barge." "Dulce et Decorum Est" was originally conceived as an attack on Jessie Pope, a writer of children's books who, during the war, took up the cudgel and beat out three volumes worth of jingoistic verse (Bebbington 83). In early drafts, the poem is dedicated to her by name though the later copies drop the inscription (CPF 2:294, 296). The poem deals with a gas attack upon a file of soldiers moving through flare-lit twilight back to rear echelon rest areas. The first stanza describes their state of utter exhaustion; the second, their realization that the shells they have heard falling are gas shells and their frenzy to get into their gas masks. One soldier is not fast enough. In the end of this stanza and in the third, the poem's speaker describes helplessly watching--and repeatedly watching in his dreams--the soldier "guttering, choking, drowning" like "a man in fire or lime" (16, 12). This grim detailing continues in the fourth and final stanza, but here the speaker addresses the reader directly as "you," this "you" originally conceived as Jessie Pope but no perhaps broadened to include anyone who mouths cliches and slogans based on ignorance or deliberate falsification. The "you's" lack of real knowledge is implied by the twice repeated "if" of the last stanza, and the "you" is accused of deliberate falsification in the poem's penultimate line. We are told that "If" we could be there, especially in an experience-induced nightmare, if we could

watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. (1:40, 19-28)

The moral is pointed here by ironically juxtaposing the grisly actualities of a death in combat with the Latin tag line from the Odes of Horace (3.2.3; CPF 1:140n), a tag line that Owen translated in a letter as "[i]t is sweet and meet to die for one's country" (Letters 499-500). This juxtaposition refutes the "ol Lie." The poem, then, upbraids Jessie Pope and her poetry but further points, with its reference to Horace, to a tradition of lies about war being produced i poetry: the statement that this is an "old Lie" still being told ties the past to the present and so broadens the target of the poem to include the entire tradition of poetic lies about war. …

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