In the war poem ‘Exposure’, Wilfred Owen’s choice of words helps to describe the extremes to which he and his men were exposed to during the war, and how the First World War affected soldiers both mentally and physically.
Through his use of alliteration and personification, Owen helps put emphasis on the conditions in which the men suffered under and how the elements played a role in many soldiers’ demise. The first line of the first stanza starts with ‘Our brains ache’, an oblique reference to Owen’s literary hero, John Keats. The line reflects Keats’s poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’1 (‘Our hearts ache…’) and helps convey the physical, mental pain the soldiers are experiencing on the frontline. Owen use of sibilance helps to generate a cutting and bitter edge to ‘the merciless iced east winds’ which ‘knive’ the men, adding a predacious instinct to the elements. The line ‘Low, drooping flares confuse our memory…’ helps convey how disordered and tired the soldiers are, as they have no chance to rest due to the constant fighting.
In the second stanza, Owen personifies the bursts of wind as ‘mad gusts’, suggesting they are violent and unforgiving. The ‘flickering gunnery rumbles, far off’ shows that the soldiers are always getting a constant reminder that they are in a war, and how there is no way to escape it and find peace. The second stanza ends with Owen asking the question, ‘What are we doing here?’ This helps emphasise how the soldiers did not want to fight in this war yet they were the ones sent in and used as the cannon fodder in the war. This contrasts with the old saying and title of Wilfred Owen’s satirical poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. The full Latin saying translates to ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’, which is the opposite to how the second stanza ends in ‘Exposure’. Owen speaks for all soldiers when he refers to the saying as ‘The old Lie’, conveying how these young men were just thrown into a devastating and bloody war under a false philosophy.
Typically, the coming of dawn symbolises the arrival of hope however in the third stanza of ‘Exposure’, ‘dawn’ only brings another day of hell, another day of ‘poignant misery’. ‘massing her melancholy army’ describes the dawn as being sentient, whilst its ‘army’ of clouds is like the uniforms and tanks of the German army: ‘grey’, ‘stormy’ and lined up in ‘rank upon shivering rank’, ready to attack the soldiers cowering in the trenches. ‘Clouds sag stormy’ perfectly conveys the mood of the poem as the cloud is sagging due to being tired, just like how the soldiers are described by Owen.
In the fifth stanza, the line ‘Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces’ suggests that the snow-flakes can make conscious choices on whom they will attack as they ‘flock, pause and renew’ (fourth stanza). The flakes have fingers which reach out for the faces of the many soldiers; the snow and cold link with the idea of pain and suffering. The word ‘pale’ connotes this further, as it symbolises the loss of life. From this, we can infer how the wintry elements are as much an enemy on the attack as are the Germans, as the elements are unforgiving and do not care about who they harm. The significant role of the elements is seen in another Wilfred Owen poem called ‘Futility’, which expresses Owen’s belief in the worthlessness of God and the war. The ‘sun’ in the poem is a metaphor for the Son of God, as the poem is about a soldier who has died who is trying to be revived by the sun. ‘Futility’ was categorised by Owen under the title ‘Grief’, as it deals with the intense sorrow felt after a person’s death.
The line ‘We cringe in holes’ reminds the audience how the soldiers were just ordinary men, some only teenagers, who were terrified and scared after being thrown on the frontline; the soldiers are frightened like animals, shrinking in their trenches. The fifth stanza also includes a dreamlike scenario where the soldiers scared in the trenches look ‘back on forgotten dreams’, possibly of peaceful times with no fear and not in the harsh cold, as they are ‘snow-dazed’ in the trench. The soldiers ‘drowse, sun-dozed, littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses’. The blossoms in the dream juxtapose with the dirty and bleak conditions of war life like how ‘sun-dozed’ juxtaposes with ‘snow-dazed’, as Owen has used snowing imagery consistently in the poem. ‘Blossoms’ paints a pastoral scene for the reader as it suggests the soldiers’ dreams are of a heavenly place, where they are no longer fighting and seeing people they know die.
Owen uses half rhymes in ‘Exposure’ such as ‘silent/salient’, and ‘crisp/grasp’. This is similar to another Wilfred Owen poem ‘Strange Meeting’, which also uses half rhymes like ‘escaped/scooped’ and ‘moon/mourn’. Owen does this deliberately to give a dreamlike quality to the poem as the soldiers are severely tired due to all the fighting. This helps empahsise the increasing fatigue amongst the soldiers on the frontline, a key theme of many war poems by Owen.
The despair these soldiers fighting in World War One are experiencing reaches its peak in the final two stanzas, as they have no choice but to ‘lie out here’ on the battlefield. The soldiers die alone in the cold, far away from home where the ‘kind fires burn’. Their bodies are found by other members of the army who then wait for something to happen, ‘but nothing happens’. This conveys how there is no way out of this cold, dark, miserable life in the war other than dying; only through dying will these troubled soldiers find peace. The soldiers die and are not given proper burials, which is something the poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ touches on. ‘No mockeries for them now; no prayers nor bells’ emphasises how any religious ritual for these soldiers dying in the mud and stench of the battlefield, would undermine their death. The title of this Owens poem is ironic as anthems are hymns for celebrations but there is nothing to praise in war, especially as the soldiers ‘die as cattle’.
The poem has a structure of eight stanzas with five lines, with the last lines of each stanza being much shorter than the others: ‘But nothing happens’ (first, third, fourth and the final stanza), ‘What are we doing here?’, ‘Is it that we are dying?’, ‘We turn back to our dying’, and ‘For love of God seems dying’. Owen incorporates these short lines to break the rhythmic structure of the poem, as the first four lines consist of an enclosed (ABBA) rhythmic structure2. The effect of this rhythmic structure is to covey how tedious the trench life was for soldiers in the war. ‘But nothing happens’, ‘Is it that we are dying?’, and ‘What are we doing here?’ are all rhetorical questions to emphasise the senselessness of the soldiers being in this pointless war.
‘Exposure’ does what the title suggests and exposes the reader to the harsh and dire conditions of what it was like to be a soldier in World War One, and how war not only effects people physically but also mentally. Owen delves into a soldier’s psyche and how the increasing fatigue can but people in a hallucinatory state, leaving them left empty for their want to leave this hell of earth. Therefore, I think ‘Exposure’ ranks highly in terms of significance in the Wilfred Owen: The War Poems, as it truly shows how the war affected so many people in many ways.
1 John Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, (1819)