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Presentation of War in Literature | The Man He Killed and Dulce Er Decorum Est

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2396 words Published: 12th Jun 2017

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“The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), and “Dulce et Decorum est”, by Wilfred Owen explore the theme of war, they both take similar views on life during and after the treacherous times that war created, and its lasting effects. However, the poets choose to display these feelings through their poetry in different ways. In Hardy’s poem, the poet adopts the person of a war veteran in the Boer war. The poem is about his actions in this war and their lasting effects. In “Dulce Decorum est”, the poet prefers to take a step back, he is not as directly involved as Hardy, yet he continues to get his message across very effectively by describing the horrors he witnessed. Though the poems were written in different wars the messages they portray are very similar as the poems do not divulge into the actual wars they were based on, but, instead on the inner dynamics of war on a whole.

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Wilfred Owen is known as being one of the most famous poets of the First World War. He wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est’ while he served as a soldier in the appalling conditions of the trenches. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ gives a distressing account of the futility of war, generated from his own personal experiences. It was composed during the summer of 1917 when Owen wrote a series of poems about the war. The preface to this collection was “My subject is War, and the pity of War”. This shows Owen’s view to war and his purpose for writing the poems was to show the disgusting horror that war created to an ill-informed and uneducated audience back at home in England. Though the war made Owen famous it ultimately led to his demise a year later.

“The Man He Killed” by Thomas Hardy was written to express Hardy’s beliefs. Hardy felt that war was inhuman, he despised the heartlessness atrocity between men. The poem is specifically addressed to the Boer War, which Hardy was passionately against. The poem may seem very simple at first but in fact it is a very skilful one, it is hampered with irony and Hardy makes interesting use of colloquialism (writing in a conversational style). Hardy titled the poem “The Man He Killed”, in the third person. However, the poem is narrated in the first person. The person in the poem, the “he” in the title and “I” in the poem, is clearly a soldier of the Boer war attempting to explain and perhaps clarify the reasons to kill another man in battle. The short lines, simple rhyme scheme, and colloquial language make the poem almost like pleasant nursery rhyme as it is so simple and easy to read, however, this is an ironic contrast to its less than pleasant subject.

In “Dulce et decorum est”, Owen is showing how the press and public at home were comforting themselves in the belief that all the young men dying in the war were dying noble, heroic deaths. Owen on the other hand, shows how the reality was quite different; the young men were dieing horrible and obscene deaths in the trenches. I believe that Owen wanted to open the eyes of the reader to what was really going on in the war to illustrate how vile and inhumane war really is. The first line sets the tone for the rest of the poem “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks”. He uses the simile “like old beggars” to show how the average soldier was not being treated nobly or with respect but like someone the lowest class (a beggar). It also shows how the young, vibrant boys who signed up had the life taken out of them by the war and were becoming “old” well before it was their time. This put the reader in the right frame of mind about the war, it casts out any false pretences they had about the war and opens their eyes to the inhumane truth war created. He uses bitter imagery like “coughing like hags” and “But limped on, blood shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue” to show how these apparent youthful and strong men had been broken by the war and become prematurely old and weakened. Owen takes pity on these tired and weary soldiers as he describes them in the most unglamorous, inglorious manner.

Similarly, in “The Man He Killed”, Hardy also banishes a common misconception about war, that killing a man was a dignified and noble thing to do. In the first stanza Hardy establishes that things could have been different in more favourable circumstances between him and his foe: “Had he and I but met” they could have had a drink together “By some old ancient inn”. However, in the second stanza, Hardy shows the true circumstances in which they did meet, which is in stark contrast to the first stanza. “Ranged as infantry” Hardy once again reemphasises the point that the men are not natural foes but have been “ranged”, which means that they have been set against each other by someone else’s decision. The phrase “as he at me” indicates they are both in similar situations. This tells the reader how your foe may have been your friend in indifferent circumstances but because someone higher has said they are your enemy means you must kill them, in essence you must banish your own moral and personal views on the person you are about to kill because someone has told you, falsely, it is your duty to kill them. Like Owen, Hardy takes pity on the soldiers, as it is not their fault, as he shows it is kill or be killed in war.

In “The Man He Killed”, Hardy also exhibits the dark side of man, especially his capacity for violence and cruelty. He does this in the last stanza where concludes with a repetition of the contrast between his treatment of the man he killed and how he might have shared hospitality with him in other circumstances, “You’d treat, if met where any bar is”, or even been ready to extend charity to him “Or help to half a crown”. Before this he says that war is “quaint and curious”, as if to say war was is bit of a harmless puzzle. This may give the impression that war is undamaging and acceptable, but as the reader now knows from the events described in the poem and the knowledge he already has of war, make it clear that Hardy applies this phrase “quaint and curious” with great irony, knowing full well that this statement is far from the truth. It forces the reader, through Hardy’s irony, to divulge deeper into the ethics behind war and the brutality and inhumanity it creates, and to consider how humans are often victims of sheer circumstance and fate, which has lead them to take another person’s life. Hardy has very cleverly through colloquial language and simple statements, made the reader think as though they have made a judgment of whether war is right or wrong on their own, when really Hardy has inconspicuously made that decision for them.

Furthermore, Owen also shows how war has changed man into a killing beast. He concentrates on the use of mustard gas, a new devastating weapon used in the First World war. If inhaled without the protection of a mask, the gas quickly burns away the lining of the respiratory system. Owen shows this as he compares the soldier who has breathed in the toxic fumes with a man consumed in “fire or lime.” When you have breathed in the fumes, it is of often compared with “drowning,” as mustard gas effectively drowns people in the blood from their own lung tissues. Owen then skilfully uses a metaphor to tie into the “drowning” theme as he says “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning”. This was because Mustard gas had a green colour, he calls it a “sea” to show how it was impossible to get away from. Owen continues this aquatic theme as he views this “flound’ring” man as if through an underwater mask, “Dim through the misty panes”. This gives the impression that Owen was unable to fully access the situation through his gas mask, there is also a helplessness felt by Owen as there is nothing he can do, which adds to the surreal and nightmarish atmosphere of the poem, “in all my dreams, before my helpless sight”. This dream then becomes a harsh reality as the “guttering, choking” soldier “plunges” at the “helpless” speaker, seeking help, in an effort to escape his inevitable death, Owen uses triple emphasis to engrave this astringent image in the readers head. Owen can do nothing for the man; there is still a feeling of responsibility and guilt. This vivid imagery creates a bleak image in the reader’s mind, Owen is trying to make them question whether the suffering and torture created by war is really worth it. His despair at war and the loss of morals it results in are shown in phrase “sores on innocent tongues”, as Owen realizes that this soldier, though he is fighting in a war, is innocent and there was no reason for him to die in this way. Owen then uses alliteration to further emphasize the inhumanities man does to man by describing the soldier’s slow death, he repeats initial consonant sounds in closely related words “wagon,” “watch,” “white,” “writhing.” Owen then continues to use bitter imagery combined with similes such as, “Like a devil’s sick of sin” to describe the soldier’s dying face. This exceptionally dramatic imagery creates a lasting and distressing impression on the reader, as Owen reveals the true horrors that go on during times of war.

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In “The Man He Killed”, Hardy illustrates that the reason for killing a man because they are your foe is not good enough. This is shown in the third stanza. The colloquial style Hardy uses enables him to repeat the word “because”, when he is trying to justify the reason for killing the man, implying hesitation, and therefore doubt as he doesn’t know why he killed him. He uses repetition of “my foe” and the “of course” this also shows that there is an element of doubt as the speaker tries to convince himself of his justification for the killing. Hardy has already made it clear that the men fighting each other because of an artificial hostility created by others. He adds at the end of the stanza “That’s clear enough” which is obviously ironic, as the reason for killing is far from “clear” to the reader because of the reasons above. The last word of the stanza “although” ultimately destroys the whole entire believability of the reason he has just given. I believe the main point of this poem is to show that there is never a good enough reason to kill another man. Hardy shows this through illustrating how these men would have been friends if they had met under different circumstances yet because someone has said they were there enemy this was a good enough reason to take the other persons life, thus showing how war is a pointless and frivolous act.

On the other hand, in “Dulce et Decorum est”, Owen in not against the reasons why soldiers are killing each other but the fact that these young, innocent and possibly naive men were signing up based on the belief that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country (which is “Dulce et decorum est” the title of the poem in Latin). At the end of the last stanza, Owen sums up the poem. Owen speaks directly to reader calling the reader “my friend”, this draws the reader into the poem. He says “you would not tell with such high zest”, to say directly to the reader that if they had witnessed the horror that he had witnessed then the reader’s attitude towards the war would change. Therefore, the reader would not repeat patriotic slogans to make people sign up, “To children ardent for some desperate glory”. The title of the poem “Dulce et decorum est” is used with a certain sense of irony as the poem is all about how it is not “sweet and fitting” to die for your country. However, Owen abandons this irony and just says “The old Lie”, showing how more soldiers will die in the circumstances of the fallen soldier in this poem, if the reader continues to spread that “lie” to young men who have been blinded by this sense of patriotic duty to their country. The final line brings about the full chilling effect of the poem “Pro patria mori”: to die for one’s country. Owen shows how people are signing up to the war on lies like “Dulce et decorum est”, however, this is far from the truth as nobody deserves to suffer the fate of the fallen soldier in the poem for their country. Within “Dulce et Decorum Est” the poet utilises a variety of powerful poetic devices in order to depict death in war as a brutal and horrifying experience. It is through the use of this simile that the poet arouses the sympathy of the responder as they witness the grotesque nature of such a death.

In “Dulce et Decorum est” Owen masterfully uses a variety of potent poetic devices to depict the horrifying nature of death in a war to stimulate a response from the reader. He uses metaphors and similes to provoke sympathy for the people who were dying in the war, as the reader witnesses the grotesque death of the soldier who died in the poem. By doing this Owen portrays his message in a very bold and tasteful way. In “The Man He Killed” Hardy uses a colloquial style of writing combined with an ABAB rhyme scheme, this makes the poem very easy to read and long lasting. Hardy uses slang to get the reader involved in the poem, this allows Hardy to make a strong point in highlighting the irony behind how war can turn friend into foe simply by association and sway the reader against war. Both poems are against war and the reasons and ethics behind them. Though Hardy uses a more direct approach to get his point across, both poems successfully complete the objective that the poets had for them, which was to open the reader’s eyes to the true reality of war.


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