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The attitudes of poets towards war are expressed in their poetry, each poet either condemning or condoning war, and justifying their attitudes in whatever way possible. In this essay, I explore the change in the portrayal of war before and during the twentieth century, and devices used by the poets to justify and pass their opinions persuasively.
The Charge of the Light Brigade vs. et Decorum Est
The two poems give descriptions of war with varying degrees of reality and also from different viewpoints. The Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" was written during the Crimean war between the British and Russians. It is about a military blunder, where many men were sent to charge straight into the gunfire. Lord Tennyson was the poet Laureate at this time but he did not witness any fighting. On the other hand "Dulce et Decorum est" was created by Wilfred Owen who was a soldier in the war. He writes it from a firsthand experience.
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Tennyson and Owen have opposite attitudes towards war. This is because of the times and positions they were in. Owen was a soldier and he spent several months in disgusting conditions in trenches near the front line, as shown by the way the soldiers were "coughing like hags"(line 2). He would have seen many deaths, having experienced the destructive war in history and he has a very unfavorable view of war. He knows the realities of warfare and his poem is aimed at the people who wrote about glory, honor and patriotism. This is seen through the use of "you"(line 17) in his poem. He wants to show the realities of conflict which is shown by the vivid language and imagery that he employs. Lord Tennyson shows a different approach to war. He was trying to underplay completely the unnecessary death of a large number of men. Tennyson was in Britain during the campaign and therefore he was not in the war. He only relied on the accounts from high ranking officers, soldiers and his imagination to compose the poem. This comes out in his view of the war as he does not consider the realities of war but only the bravery and honor.
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The two writers make use of many methods to convey their opinions, show or hide the realities and myths that are associated with the war. Firstly, they try to make their poems sound more realistic and convincing.
They use direct speech in their works. In Tennyson's poem, "Forward the Light Brigade!" (Line 5) is used, and in Owen uses "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys?" ( Line 9). This direct speech makes the poems more interesting and the two lines express action and also add a touch of realism. Wilfred Owen makes his poem realistic by using the senses to supplement his descriptions. He includes the sounds of gas shells dropping, and of "the blood" (line 21), "Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs" (line 22). He gives an impression of the awful taste of this blood; "bitter as the cud" (line 23), "Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues" (line 24).
The use of Latin in Owen's poem makes it more convincing. He writes "Dulce et decorum est." and "pro patria mori" (line 28) which means "sweet and meet it is to die for one's country". This use of Latin is very unobtrusive and it is a sharp contrast to the other words and images used in the poem. It shows the writer's education, thus portraying Owen as a more credible poet. On the other hand, Tennyson does not use the senses. Instead, he tries to make his poem realistic by showing some elements of discipline. He writes: "Their's not to make reply," (line 12), "Their's not to reason why," (line 12), " Their's but to do and die:" (line 13). This discipline brings the poem to a down to earth level making it more convincing. It also portray the soldiers as heroes and ready to die.
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Both poems have various images to make them more vivid. "Dulce et Decorum est" uses shocking images, which create a very intimidating mood. The first verse shows awful conditions in the trenches. The first simile used by Owen is "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks" (line 1). This is unexpected, as an army is well dressed and it shows that the soldiers are not well equipped as ".Many had lost their boots," (line 5), "But limped on, blood-shod..." (Line6).
Owen also uses many powerful words such as guttering, choking and drowning to shock his readers and to convey his feelings. These words are onomatopoeic as they sound like someone trying to breathe, but choking. By saying they "flung the dying man in the wagon" shows that the dying and injured are not treated kindly, and also that there are many dying people, as they have a wagon to use in carrying them. Owen compares a traditional church funeral, with the treatment of the dead soldiers on the front line, and comes out with the conclusion that soldiers who die receive no thanks, respect and acknowledgement when they are killed. The impression put across is that of the absolute criticism of war and its morals.
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On the other hand, Tennyson does not bring out the pain of the people killed, the blood and the anguish and agony both the enemy and the Light Brigade died in. Instead, he describes an efficient annihilation of the enemy which is very unrealistic to Owen. A heroic image is created as the Light Brigade "Plunged in the battery-smoke..." (line 32). This is more reminiscent of a film, than of real life conflict. Tennyson describes the soldiers as heroes; "While horse and hero fell," (line43), "They that had fought so well..." (line45). This makes me feel very sorry for the soldier that he dies after bravely fighting the enemy. Instead of making the war sound terrible, it turns the dead soldier into a martyr.
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The pace at which the poems are read is also very important. "Dulce et Decorum est" is designed to be read very slowly, apart from the middle verse, which should be read quicker. This is because the middle verse has action and adrenaline, so should be quicker. The other two verses should be slow, so the words are understood more deeply, and it becomes more meaningful and shocking. Also, the slow pace reflects the speed and the mood of the poem.
Tennyson feels that the charge of the Light Brigade was noble and brave. We can clearly see his romantic, glorious view of war epitomized here. The closing lines of "Dulce et Decorum est" are: "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.".
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Owen is criticizing the people who wrote of war in terms of nobility, glory and heroism, to con young people into the army. By using the word "desperate", He indicates that it is not glorious to die for your country, but reckless and irrational. He also comments on the fact that the writers such as Pope Jessie prey on young peoples' appetites for glory, as glory was all people knew about war before they joined the army. Owen goes further suggesting that the writers of glorious war poems have even lied to young people, and sent them to front line to die in their millions, in awful conditions and the distressing situations.
Having explored both poems, I feel that the one which brings about the biggest response from me is "Dulce et Decorum est". This is because it has a striking graphic imagery used by the writer, the way he describes the effects of the war on him, and also because of the way he directs the poem at the reader personally, using phrases such as "you" and "my friend". In my opinion, "The Charge of the Light Brigade?" does not have the impact and the realism to convey the opinions contained in it forcefully and effectively. I feel it is a more imaginative outlook on war than the graphic poem of Wilfred Owen. The Tennyson's poem has much excitement, passion and pace.