GCSE Poetry Revision - World War I

 

 

Opening Lines Poetry Anthology

 

Section H: 1914-18 War (ii)

 

This revision guide is intended to support the work you have been doing in class on the following poems:

 

Recruiting

Joining the Colours

The Target

The Send-Off

Spring Offensive

The Bohemians

Lamentations

The Deserter

The Hero

Falling Leaves

In Flanders' Fields

The Seed-Merchant's Son

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Spring in War-Time

Perhaps

Reported Missing

 

Historical Context - The 1914-1918 War

 

The 1914 -1918 War was also known as the Great War, and is infamous for the millions of young men millions of young men who died, using old-fashioned battle tactics against the first modern weapons, such as machine guns. Young men volunteered to go and fight believing they were on a heroic mission. 

 

The horror they faced when they got to the trenches is the subject of much of their poetry. The soldiers felt betrayed by those who had persuaded them to go and fight, and were desperate to show the reality of war.

 

The poems you are studying fall into three main groups which will help you revise them by exploring the links between poems. You will have to write about at least TWO of the poems in your exam answer.

 

"Recruiting" E.A. Mackintosh

"Recruiting" shows that the reality of war is different to the propaganda recruitment, the poem contains bitter criticism of the politicians who sent the soldiers off to war and the journalists who write about it. The poem comments on the recruitment drive in Britain; taking issue in particular with posters encouraging young men to sign up to the army. Mackintosh focuses on the discrepancy between the image of war as presented by the advertising campaign of the "fat civilians" and the reality of war as experienced by the young "lads" called up to fight. 

 

STRUCTURE

Constructed of 11 verses, each made up of 4 lines (quatrains) with a regular rhyme scheme abcb defe ghih ...The structure of the poem is rhythmic this reflects the way they were cajoled into going to war without giving it proper consideration.

 The poem is an obvious attack written from a soldier's perspective who has had experienced the reality of war and realised the falsity of their advertising campaigns.

 

THINKING POINTS

1. How does the poet use the following techniques to get the point across

  • The four line verse (quatrain)
  • Colloquial language
  • Rhyme
  • Alliteration

 

2. The poem uses accessible, straightforward language. What does this suggest about the purpose and audience it was written for

 

"Joining the Colours" Katherine Tynan Hinkson

 

The poem tells of a regiment of soldiers leaving Dublin to fight in France; written from a female perspective the poem juxtaposes (directly contrasts) images of the innocent naivety of the young soldiers with images of death. The poet speaks of the sad realization that the love felt for these men by the women left at home "cannot save" the soldiers from their uncertain futures and likely deaths.

  

THINKING POINTS

1. Compare this poem to "The Send-Off" which is also about men going off to die.

Look at:

  • Settings
  • Verse forms
  • Standpoint of both poets
  • Each poet's feelings
  • Patterns of imagery
  • Your own response to the poems
  • Use of contrast

"The Target" Ivor Gurney

 

"The Target" is told from the perspective of a soldier who agonises over a man he has killed. The soldier says that his mother lives in fear of his death, the speaker suggests that it might be better for his mother if he died so that she might at least find some peace in not having to worry about him anymore. The soldier then goes on to contemplate the situation of the soldier that he shot, and remembers that the man he shot is another mother's son. The soldier feels that God gives no guidance and does not seem to care. The speaker wonders who "felt the bullet worst" - he questions whether it is better to be the soldier shot than the soldier who did the shooting and has to live with the guilt of taking another's life. The poem ends in disillusionment calling the war a "bloody mess indeed".

 

 

 "The Send-off" Wilfred Owen

 

Wilfred Owen's poem, "The Send-Off" was written at Ripon where there was a huge army camp. The troops in the poem have just come from a sending-off ceremony of cheering crowds, bells, drums, and flowers given by strangers; the troops are now being packed into trains for an unknown destination. From the beginning of the poem the atmosphere is sinister, the lanes are "darkening" and claustrophobic, the crowds have gone and the troops are watched only by the "dull" and uninspiring faces of a porter and lowly tramp. The flowers pinned on the chests of the soldiers in celebration become for the speaker of the poem the funeral flowers garlanding the soldiers for the slaughter that awaits them in war. The departure of the soldiers for war is secret, it is "like wrongs hushed up", the cheering celebration of the hours before becomes a smoke screen for the harsh solemnity of war. 

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. Owen's choice of words adds to the effect of the imagery.What is the effect of the oxymoron "grimly gay"
  • 2. Why does he use a rhetorical question in stanza 7
  • 3. Owen uses quite an unusual structure in the poem.Three-line stanzas are followed by two-line stanzas and the rhymes connect the stanzas.He also uses a combination of long and short lines.Look closely at the structure. What kind of mood and feeling does it give to the poem

 

"Spring Offensive" Wilfred Owen

 

In a letter dated 25th April 1917, Wilfred Owen recalls a day in which, "we were rushed up into line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our  "A" company led the attack and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets". Owen's poem "Spring Offensive" is an account of the action, its prologue and aftermath and the men involved in it. The poem is composed of six stanzas; each describes a different phase of the attack - the scene, the pause before the attack, the tension, the attack, the casualties, and the survivors.

 

IMAGERY AND LANGUAGE

 

Image

Type of image

Effect

"Like an injected drug"

simile

Emphasises the dramatic healing effect of the sun.

"sky burned / With fury"

personification

Suggests the intensity of the bombardment - as if they were being attacked by a vengeful god.

"like sorrowing arms"

simile

Perhaps relating to Christ's crown of thorns, the brambles create an image of sacrifice

"like trees unstirred"

simile

Emphasises how silently the men breathe, creates a sense of man in communion with nature

"like a cold gust"

simile

The May breeze becomes a cold gust, emphasizes the manner in which the men stiffen and brace themselves in preparation for battle.

"earth set sudden cups /In thousands for their blood"

metaphor

The cups are metaphors for the craters left by shells, filling with the blood as the men die. A graphic image of the blood shed and lives lost.

"surf of bullets"

metaphor

Creates an image of bullets being fired in waves.

"hell's upsurge"

Personification

Suggests that the war has created hell on earth.

 

STRUCTURE

The poem's structure reflects the different stages of the offensive - 1-sets the scene, 2-pause before the attack, 3 -tension, 4-attack, 5-casulaties, 6-survivors. 

The majority of the lines are composed of 10 syllables, the rhythm of the poem is broken by irregularities in the number of syllables in some of the lines and by the irregular rhymes. Owen uses rhyming couplets to create and emphasise tension.

 

 

THINKING POINTS

Trace what actually happens to the soldiers by rearranging the following sentences into the right order.

a.      As they attack they are exposed on an open stretch of ground.

b.      The soldiers who survive cannot speak of those who died.

c.      The soldiers have a chance to rest

d.      The enemy opens fire

e.      A "Little word" sends them into battle

f.        But many soldiers just stare at the place they will attack

g.     Many of the soldiers are shot or blown up.

 

 

"The Bohemians" Ivor Gurney

 

A bohemian is someone who is unconventional, rebellious and does not conform.

 

The poem discusses the different people who join up to the army satirizing the punishments the soldiers received for not wearing the correct uniform. The individuality of the soldiers is erased. The soldiers who "burnished brasses, earned promotions" - the soldiers who conformed to the army rules were promoted. However as the poem progresses the speaker suggests that the soldiers no longer need to worry about conforming or not conforming as they eventually "died off one by one": "In Artois or Picardy they lie - free of useless fashions"-ultimately conforming proved "useless".

 

IMAGERY AND LANGUAGE

Image

Type of image

Effect

"Barely escaping hanging, indeed hardly able"

Alliteration

exaggeration

The poet satirizes the punishments for not wearing the correct uniform

"others burnished brasses, earned promotions"

Alliteration

Emphasises the action of polishing brass as an act that "earned promotions

"While others argued of army ways, and wrenched / What little soul they had still further from shape"

Alliteration

The use of alliteration reinforces the message of these lines - that conforming to army ways was soul destroying.

 

STRUCTURE

"The Bohemians" is written in only two sentences, the first encompassing 14 out of the 15 lines of the poem. The rhythm of the poem is broken up mid line, creating a sense of the poem as an accumulative list and producing a casual tone. 

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. Why is the conversational and casual tone of the poem deceptive
  • 2. What kind of individuality is stamped on the bohemians

'Lamentations' Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon's poem, "Lamentations", is a funeral song. The speaker of the poem describes the pain and anguish of a young soldier, who after having been told of the death of his brother, had to be removed to the guard room. The speaker hearing the pain of the grieved man entered into the guard room where the young soldier had broken down. A sergeant looks on puzzled and patiently at the man half-naked kneeling on the floor. The guard appears to lack compassion and understanding for the situation of the grieving man. 

 

The poem establishes a contrast between the reality of war as experienced by the grieving soldier and the sergeant who has experienced no personal cost for the war. It is ambiguous as to whether the poem's title refers to the pain of the young soldier or laments the lack of pity and understanding of the unfeeling guard. For the speaker of the poem, men like the sergeant have lost all "patriotic feeling since they can no longer empathise with the pain and suffering of the grieving relatives. The soldier who has lost his brother is in such despair he would not be interested in fighting for a country which has effectively killed his brother.

 

IMAGERY AND LANGUAGE

 

This poem relies on montage. It is a single scene in the guard room and one which depicts the violence of grief. This is displayed in the verbs ‘moaned', ‘shouted', 'sobbed', ‘choked', ‘howled' and ‘beat'. The use of a list is employed to show the situation rising in violence and despair. All the language is familiar and universal to the reader and this helps Sassoon to establish his perspective. The scene is also reminiscent of a childs' tantrum and this helps to display the futility of war.

 

STRUCTURE

The structure of the poem aids the impression it gives of being an eye-witness account, creating a sense of intimacy with the reader as the speaker imparts what he has seen.

The use of enjambment in the poem aids flow between lines and sentences reinforcing the idea that this is a story being recalled from memory.   

 

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. What are the similarities between "Lamentations" and Sassoon's "The Hero"

 

"The Deserter" Winifred M. Letts

In the First World War many soldiers suffered from shell shock which was not generally recognized as a condition at the time. They ran off from the guns and were shot as deserters. 

The speaker of Winifred M. Letts's poem tells of the fate of a deserter, the deserter is not named - it could be any soldier. The story of the deserter is told sympathetically, imagining the fear felt by the soldier who ran off only to be caught and shot by his own army. The speaker tells of the deserter's mother who thinks her son died a hero, serving his country in battle. The speaker suggests that it is best for the mother not to know that her son "lies in a deserter's grave.

 

IMAGERY AND LANGUAGE

Image

Type of image

Effect

"Fear had dogged by night and day"

personification

Emphasises the strong feelings of fear felt by the soldier. Suggests that Fear has its own will separate to the will of the person who experiences it.

"who can judge him, you or I"

Rhetoric

The speaker suggests that it is not the place of the others to judge the deserter's guilt

"was scared as any frightened child"

simile

Suggests the vulnerability of the soldier, provokes sympathy from the reader.

"throbbing heart and sobbing breathe"

Internal rhyme

The repetition of sound mimics the repetitious pounding of the deserter's heart. It emphasizing the physical experience of fear as something that takes over the body.

"I've seen a hare with eyes as wild"

Simile

The comparison to a hare emphasizes again the fragility of the soldier but also suggests the erratic and unpredictable manner in which the deserter ran off

"An English bullet in his heart!"

repetition

Suggests the disbelief of the speaker that such killings should occur

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRUCTURE

Beginning the poem with "There was a man" gives the poem a story like structure, the man remains nameless suggesting that this could be the fate of any man. 

The rhyme scheme of the poem is based on repetition of whole words and phrases - "turned and ran away", "to die", "wild", "death", "when the dawn was grey", "An English bullet in his heart", "strife", all of the repeated phrases serve to emphasises the speaker's sympathy for the deserter.

In the closing lines of the poem the poet rhymes "gave" with "grave" linking the image of the mother giving her son to war with an image of death.

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. Winifred Letts feels a sense of outrage and injustice at the treatment of the deserter. What are the main ways she communicates these feelings
  • 2. Why do you think the army lied to the families of deserters about the way in which they diedDo you think it was right or wrong

 

"The Hero" Siegfried Sassoon

The speaker of the poem tells of the fate of a young soldier named Jack and the moment that his mother received a letter from the colonel informing her of her son's death. The mother reacts to the eloquent words of the letter with both pride and grief; the letter was ironic as the speaker continues by revealing Jack as a coward who in reality wanted nothing more than to return home. He is referred to as "cold-footed" (nervous), a "useless swine" about whose death no one cared. The poem builds sympathy for both the mother and Jack; it also criticizes Jack's comrades and the manner in which nervous soldiers were condemned. The speaker's tone suggests the disgust he feels for way in which the soldier was treated and thought of.   Like the mother in "The Deserter", Jack's mother will never no the truth and pain (both physical and psychological) of her son's death.

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. Is Sassoon on the side of the Brother Officer or is he critcising him

 

"The Falling Leavcs" Margaret Postgate Cole

 

The actual falling leaves in this poem symbolise the falling solidiers who are dying in the battlefield. The poet uses what we call in poetry an extended metaphor. The leaves are the soldiers. The persona is riding a horse in the autumn time. She observes the leaves turning brown and falling from the trees and her mind is cast to the young men fighting and literally falling to their deaths at war.

 

The poem is written in one sentence as one long stanza consisting of twelve lines. This is because it is a single thought which has consumed her there and then.

 

Usually when leaves die in nature they are swept away by the wind, but these leaves are falling like snowflakes from the trees on a ‘still afternoon' and the speaker finds it odd. This prompts her to consider how the soldiers die ‘slain by no wind or age or pestilence'.

 

Glossary

Thence- and then, for that reason

Gallant- brave, chivalrous, stately (representative of the country)

Pestilence- fatal epidemic disease

 

"In Flanders Fields" John McCrae

 

Sickened by what he had seen during the Boer War, John McCrae nevertheless signed up in August 1914, and headed for France with his horse, Bonfire, in tow. He would have found few opportunities for riding in that hell on earth. Knee deep in mud and freezing water, men's feet rotted where they stood, waiting for the next attack of gas to insinuate its way down the trenches, or the signal to go "over the top", often into direct machine gun fire.

McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" the day after presiding at the funeral of a friend and former student. McCrae was to number among the 9,000,000 fatalities that the war would claim.

Poppy seed will lie in the ground for years if the soil is undisturbed. That churned up cemetery known as the Western Front provided the ideal medium for masses of poppies to blanket the graves. By the 1920s, Legion Branches were selling the paper flowers to: provide assistance to needy ex-servicemen and their families, to build housing for seniors, and support programmes like meals-on-wheels, drop-in centres, etc. Buy and wear a poppy. It is simple, painless way to recognize contributions and sacrifices barely imaginable to us. Like ‘The Falling Leaves', the poem relies heavily on visual imagery.

 

"The Seed-Merchant's Son" Agnes Grozier Herbertson

 

The poet chose to make the subject of her poem the son of someone who grows and sells seeds. Herbertson probably chose this occupation because seeds signify new life and the possibility of growth and renewal. The poem gives many facts about the young soldier who died, this emphasizes the youthfulness of the boy - his "bright, bright eyes" and "cheeks all red"; he is "fair and healthy and long of limb". The seed merchant is described as being old to have such a young son. The poet sympathises with the man and the fact that his family line will now end with him and unlike the seeds will not be renewed. The speaker questions what we can say to a man in his situation. The answer to her question comes from her observations of the seed-merchant himself as she observes him looking at the seeds in his hand and the realization that life will go on. The seed-merchant manages to keep his faith in God as he thanks God - he thought that life was over but realizes it is not when he looks at the seed.  

 

THINKING POINTS

  • 1. How does the structure of the poem reflect the themes of youth and age
  • 2. Why do you think the poet chose a two line stanza in rhyming couplets

 

"The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" Wilfred Owen

 

Wilfred Owen chooses to base his poem on the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. In the bible when Abraham has demonstrated his obedience, God sends a ram for Abraham to sacrifice rather than his son. The bible story is meant to emphasise the mercy of God. Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish people and also is important in Islam. The story parallels God's later sacrifice of his own son Jesus Christ, to redeem the sins of the world.

 

Owen reworks the traditional parable setting his story in the trenches of World War One rather than in the Holy Land. Owen's poem is a sinister reworking of the parable in which Abraham becomes representative of the British government and instead of sacrificing the Ram of Pride chooses to slay his son and "half the seed of Europe". The failure of the Angel to persuade Abraham to slay the Ram suggests that the war could have been prevented had proper negotiations taken place. The speaker of the poem feels that the government have gone against the teachings of God. 

 

 

THINKING POINTS

 

1. Why do you think Owen chose this particular parable of Abraham and Isaac to parody in his poem

 

"Spring in War-Time" Edith Nesbitt

 

The female speaker of the poem addresses a lost lover, she laments the passing of the seasons and the fact that she shall no longer walks down "lover's lane" with her beau.   Spring, which holds connotations of new life, only serves to remind the speaker of the poem of what she has lost and will not experience. She remembers the previous spring when she and her lover were, like the birds, ready to build a nest (home). The comparison of the lovers to the nesting birds emphasizes the lost opportunities of the women left behind. "Lover's lane" named so because it was often frequented by lovers is evocative of the marital tradition of showering newlyweds in confetti as the blossoming flowers scatter their petals on the road.   

 

THINKING POINTS

 

1.      Nesbit has chosen a ballad form for the poem. Why is this appropriate

 

"Perhaps"- Vera Brittain

 

Written in five quatrains the speaker reflects on the beauty of nature around her which she can no longer appreciate. The speaker uses nature to demonstrate the passing of time and her feelings of grief for her lost lover. 

 

The speaker questions whether she will ever be able to appreciate the beauty of nature again after experiencing such loss. The poem is both personal and universal in its address, the capitalization of "Yon" is both the speaker's named lover and the name of any loved one lost in the war.

 

The ending is poignant and optimistic at the same time and reflects the British fashion of resilience common during the period. Time is a healer and life does go on. Nature aids the process of grief as it a constant phenomenon and continues to live on and provide familiar structure for those coping with loss.

 

Five quatrains are used with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij. This reflects the monotony of the seasons and the steady rhythm of change.

 

The poem would have been appreciated by many young women at the time since such a vast number of men died during the war, and as a consequence the birth rate dropped significantly and many women lived their lives as spinsters or widows.

 

‘Reported Missing' by Anna Gordon Keown

 

This is a Shakespearian sonnet since it has the structure of abba cddc effe gg. Sonnets were traditionally about love. It is ambiguous as to whether the speaker in this poem is the soldier's mother or lover. It is moving because the speaker is in denial and will soon have to accept the death of the missing soldier. 

 

The poem can be divided into two sections - the first 12 lines express anger at the manner in which others so readily assume that the soldier is dead, the final rhyming lines express her certainty that he will he is not dead and will come again. 

 

The final lines are poignant as the reader realizes that one day the speaker will have to accept that the soldier is not returning to her. 

 

Good Luck!

 

 


 

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