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an essay by Alarra
The Pity of War


Wilfred Owen wrote to tell the truth: the honest, vivid, horrific truth about modern warfare. Owen wrote about the war that was unfolding around him. Owen wrote about the pity of war; however, the pity was not his pity - he did not write to console himself or to express his own emotions. Instead, he wrote of an universal pity, one that he felt the world should have felt about war. To Owen, war was a reversal of the order of creation, a violation of nature. And as he and his fellow men were part of nature - indeed, a feature of nature - every war was a violation of all mankind, the dehumanisation of man. As Owen saw it, the pity of war is the dehumanisation of man by war, the annihilation of human potentiality in war, and the futility of war. This is evident in his poems, especially in Dulce et Decorum Est, Futility, Spring Offensive and Strange Meeting.

Everyone on earth is born physically and mentally immature, but human. They grown up to learn and absorb human things: instincts, emotions, knowledge and morals. These humans grow up in cities, in the countryside; away from nature, or surrounded by it. They learn, in different languages, many different things, but one thing everyone comes to realise is that they are all part of nature - flowers, trees, sky, land - and them. In the beginning of Spring Offensive, Owen paints a scene here the people seem more like animals then fighting men. "They fed, and lying easy, were at ease / And, finding comfortable chests and knees, / Carelessly slept." The imagery is of young animals, who, having played their games, become tired and fall asleep caressed by the warmth of nature. Owen is trying to convey a picture of young men who have played the game of youth, and in this last sleep regress to childhood as a final farewell to innocence. They have just climbed up one side of a hill, where nature has surrounded them all in beauty - in fact, Mother Nature is also saying goodbye to them, but finds it hard to let go, seen by the little brambles that "would not yield / But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands." Beyond that last hill is a different world, and the men know that what they face next will not be calm and peaceful as the scene before them now. So they say one last farewell, by lifting their eyes to the sun, the sun that provides warmth and encourages growth and life, and smiling - before they turn away to race over the hill.

The next lines in Spring Offensive are a vivid account of what warfare is like. The soldiers spurn safety and the peace and love of nature to destroy it all instead. They negate nature, remove themselves from the nuture of nature, alientate themselves from what gave them life in the first place; and thus, they reject all characteristics of humanity, to kill, maim and destroy. This is the dehumanisation of man, in the violation of nature. To Owen, this is part of the pity of war - that mankind could turn its back on all its values to become base creatures. It is only with their deaths that these men are forgiven, and are reunited with their creator, whose creation they tried to destroy. "...plunged and fell away past this world's verge, / Some say God caught them even before they fell." But for those who commit such a crime yet survive, they are "The few who rushed in the body to enter hell, / And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames"; those who never regain the humanity they lost, for they have been to hell and back, and are no longer as human as others.

There is a belief that every living creature on this earth has a purpose. Certainly, it seems that this idea most applies to humans, for they have been given an intelligence far beyond all other beasts that walk this earth, and are under their control. And so, for every man there is the possibility of great things yet to come, great things that have yet to be done; this can be considered the human potentiality. For man to fulfil this potential, and live out his purpose in life, he must first be living. When war occurs, many lives are taken; many of these lives belong to young men and women who are cut down in the prime of life. Strange Meeting is a pithy warning of the pity that comes from denying young lives full of passion the right to fulfill its human potentiality. It is told from a soldier's point of view, as he descends into hell by a pathway so often trod before, and worn by all men who have died from war. In Hell he meets a stranger, yet this stranger recognises him and to him eloquently speaks. The stranger recognises in the soldier the same restless passion that was in himself. Before he died, the stranger was full of life, and looked around him for the same signs of life - "Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also; I went hunting wild / After the wildest beauty in the world". But he was killed by the soldier in front of him, and never again could he search for that sense of life, nor fell it. The stranger expresses his bitterness: "I would have poured my spirit without stint / But not through wounds; not on the cess of war", for he knew life was to be lived, enjoyed and experienced; but by fighting he had lost the chance to do so. War had annihilated his human potentiality.

Owen attempts to temper the encouragement people gave to children to go and destroy the potential in them by going to war. In Dulce et Decorum Est, he writes a graphic description of the suffering and anguish of soldiers in battle. He draws vivid visual images in readers' minds with his words, giving a sense of sharing in the men's exhaustion and horror. His message is clear - war is not fun and games with glory awarded to the victors at the end, it is vile by causing man to kill its own kind. He warns readers not to make light of such a topic in his last words of the poem: "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". There is no honour and glory in dying for your country at all; rather, it destroys the great human potentiality, which Owen emphasises with his use of the word children. Children are often regarded as the future, and as such, to encourage war is to participate in the destruction of nature, and the future. In making sure the next generation is not so ready in believing the lies of glory in war, Owen is trying to prevent the annihilation of human potentiality.

In Futility, the speaker of the poem orders his friend to be laid out in the sun, in a last attempt to restore life to the dead body. As the sun shines to no avail, the speaker questions the reasoning of this earth. The sun, a symbol of life-giving, now fails to awaken his friend, as it has done so many times in this man's life. The speaker bitterly asks why the sun bothers to break the darkness of night at all, when it cannot bring life to a body that is still warm, a body which once contained a life brought into this world with much love and attention. "Was it for this the clay grew tall?", the speaker questions the fate of his friend, whose life has been wasted through war. The poem airs the speaker's unspoken thoughts: what a futile war is this that claims the lives of those who should have days in front of them, not behind.

Owen also touches on the pity of the futility of war in Strange Meeting, as the stranger talks about the "...undone years, / The hopelessness" that he now mourns, referring to the years past, the experiences he has had; all thrown away in the course of war. War is futile, for although much has been spoiled in the quest for victory, there will always be those dissatisfied with the result, and thus once again blood will be spilt, for nothing. This bitter cycle shows how meaningless war is.

Owen wrote poems on other topics, but it is his writings on war that the poetry is the clearest. Through conveying the pity of war, the poetry weaves itself amongst the words of truth. While the incidents are ugly, and the words paint horrific images, there is poetry in its expression, and truth in its meaning.




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