Robert Graves And Wilfred Owen
.. m, that the reader and poet are somehow to blame for the madness of the ‘mental cases’, in the same way that the mad men feel guilt about the men killed. Owen uses imagery in the poem in such away that the reader is actually haunted by the images of the mad men, and we are also left with a strong sense of guilt at their sacrifice for our life and sanity. The images continue to horrify throughout the rest of the stanza. One of the most shocking images is that of the mad men walking on the corpses of dead men “Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander” an image which is disturbing not only because of the image it creates, but also the idea that these suffering men reached the position they are in because of the deaths of thousands of others, “Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter”.
This is a terribly shocking image mainly because Owen has chosen to give one of the few references to emotion in the poem to a decapitated corpse on which the mad men walk. The choice to put “loving laughter” next to “blood from lungs” is such a stark contrast that the horror of what Owen is describing cannot sink in on the first time of reading, it is further emphasized by the use of alliteration which stresses the link between the words; It is an image too terrible to comprehend so it serves its purpose, the reader is disgusted and revolted by what is described. The second stanza ends with a very powerful image “Carnage incomparable, and human squander/Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.” This is a continuation of images earlier in the stanza, however the men are no longer walking on the bodies of dead men, they are being drawn under by them, unable to escape from the thousands of bodies of men whose dying was unnecessary. This image emphasizes Owen’s belief that not only did war result in millions of wasteful deaths, but the men who survived are also lost because the memories of the horror and “carnage” they experienced means these men can never return to sanity. The closing verse of the poem concludes that these memories are understandably too horrid for the ‘mental cases’ to face, however life and the living only serve to remind them of the dead: “Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black” .
Here Owen links the images of two natural things, sunlight and night with blood, also a natural element. However when placed together and within the context of the previous stanza, the natural become unnatural and disturbing. The reader is able to identify with the suffering man because we too are repulsed by the idea of dawn breaking “open like the wound that bleeds afresh”. This is an image which suggests the inability for the wounds to heal, and even the dawn, an image associated with re-birth is just a re-opening of wounds, a stark contrast with the wounds “silvered clean” in Graves’ poem. The close of the stanza refers back to the beginning of the poem, as the mad men are described again as being like dead men: “Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses”. The last lines describe the images of the ‘mental cases’ trying to touch the living and sane, the poet and the reader, who knock them back with horror, even though Owen claims it is us “who dealt the war and madness” Graves’ imagery, unlike Owen is subtle, not as shocking and direct, but considered carefully it is as effective and complex.
The poem opens with a powerful image “Entrance and exit wounds silvered clean” this relies on the clever juxtaposition of the words “exit wounds” with “silvered clean”. The reader is taken by surprise as they are unusual words to find together, the poet, the reader realizes, is describing the new skin of a scar left by an old wound. The first stanza is full of images of the healed or forgotten scars of the world war, and the poet explains why: Their war was fought these twenty years ago And now assumes the nature-look of time, As when the morning traveller turns and views His wild night-stumblings carved into a hill. This image subtly argues how the distance of time does not always clarify, objectify and make accurate past events, in fact time blurs the details and obscures the negative memories. This directly contrasts with Owen’s view.
Owen maintains in his poem, that the mad men can and will never be able to forget the events they experienced in the war. Their scars will not become “silvered clean”, but remain unbearably painful. Graves’ poem begins to examine the war that the men experienced throughout the second verse. The stanza examines the build up and anticipation of battle, using a tone that is a mixture of fear and anticipation. Graves uses pathetic fallacy, the weather reflects the feelings of pressure and suppression that the soldiers experience “the common sky/That sagged ominously upon the earth”. This also gives the impression that the soldiers do have to face not only the full might of the German army, but the strength of the elements too: “Down pressed the sky”. Graves then goes on to contrast the natural elements to the unnatural death of the young men: “Natural infirmities were out of mode, For Death was young again: Patron alone Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.
This image is particularly effective as it personifies death, a device which brings death closer: the reader feels that death is approaching the waiting soldiers. The enemy is no longer a distant storm, but an encroaching “Patron” looking for his prey. This last line is also emotive of a dying person. The commas and hyphen give the line a jerky feel, like a spasm of death. The poet then moves into the battle itself as the third stanza begins.
This verse is particularly interesting as it is full of images of “antiqueness of romance”, images reminiscent of ancient tales of fighting men, concerned only with “wine, meat, log-fires, a roof over the head”, an ancient chivalry and heroism. The men become purely physical beings, as your body is surely the primary concern on the battlefield and “Our youth became all flesh and waived the mind.”. The image conjures up pictures of young soldiers experiencing the adrenaline of danger, an emotion which leaves little time to worry about the massacre which surrounds them, only swearing when “in lack of meat, wine, fire,/In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning.” The simple words Graves uses reflects the simple necessities and animal-like instincts the soldiers experience. The fourth stanza is the climax of the poem, the battle is over and the images are no longer simple and straight forward. Graves answers his question “What, then, was war?” with “War was foundering of sublimities, Extinction of each happy art and faith”.
War has destroyed everything noble and impressive, everything that made life livable. After the physical exertion of the battle, Graves now presents the grim aftermath, where the mind begins to process the events it has just experienced. Graves presents an image of a fragile sanity which attempts to understand the war “Protesting logic or protesting love,”. The stanza ends with the image of a soldier finally breaking down under the weight of the immediate memories and his inability to reason the horrors he has witnessed: Until the unendurable moment struck- The inward scream, the duty to run mad. The last verse of Graves’ poem returns to the ideas explored in the first stanza. The poet’s voice is ironic as he uses images from childhood to describe the terrifying war he displayed the previous verses.
“And we recall the merry ways of guns-“, the images make war sound child-like and unreal, the word “recall” reminds the reader of the poem’s title “Recalling War”. It has the effect of almost silently posing the question, ‘is this how war should be recalled?’ The answer is of course evident having read the previous stanzas, and the final lines of the poem just serve to confirm the reader’s conclusions: When learnedly the future we devote To yet more boastful visions of despair This is a warning from Graves. He argues that our future will be filled with the “despair” that his generation experienced if the horror and brutalities are not remembered. Graves has used a wide variety of imagery to create a complete picture of various stages that the soldier experiences while at war, a powerful sequence of emotions that illustrate not only the damage war does and the painful memories it creates, but the damage which can be done if these memories are forgotten or blurred. This contrasts directly with Owen’s poem that seeks to describe the damage done by war when it is not forgotten. Both poets discuss the scars that war leaves, both physically and mentally.
Graves’ poem is very much a detached reflection on war, focusing on before, during and after effects of a battle in order to argue the point that war should not be forgotten. The immediate effect of war is very powerfully described, but the long term scars are claimed to be forgettable and “silvered clean”, a strong contrast with Owen’s view. Owen’s poem portrays the very personal effects war has, he describes people whom he has met. Indeed as a poet who spent some of the war in a mental institution for soldiers called Craiglockhart, it is amazing that he is as detached as he is, considering he could well have been described as a ‘mental case’ himself, as he suffered from shell shock and nightmares. Owen’s portrayal is gruesome and shocking, finally concluding by laying the responsibility for the madness at the feet of the reader and poet. This poem, not only demonstrates Owen’s view of the scars war leaves on people, it also serves as a useful insight into the way in which Owen was scarred by war.
He clearly feels guilty at his survival, and he too is haunted by the images of the dead that he describes, how else could they be so vivid? This is perhaps the most interesting aspect revealed by Owen’s poem, the scars left by war on a real human with the ability to express and communicate the damage in such a way that the reader is not only shocked, but greatly moved. The poem has its intensity because Owen was writing it while in direct contact with the ‘mental cases’ whereas Graves is more distant as well as describing the memories of war. A poem which describes an inability to remember is far less disturbing than a poem which describes not being able to forget.