“What matters in literature in the end is surely the idiosyncratic, the individual, the flavour or the colour of a particular human suffering.” – Harold Bloom
The theme of suffering is one that is recurring across all forms of literature and as an inevitable aspect of life, it resonates with all readers; old and young alike. The misery of a parent, the tribulation of a worker and the predicament of a child all lay an unyielding basis for these poems that embody the notion of suffering through several different forms of contrast and imagery. The theme is put across through the effective use of language and is further reflected by the befitting forms and structures of these texts. Such portrayals of suffering dramaticise texts and add realism where it is most needed. The poems revolve around the lives of war victims and follow their stories of grievance and misery.
The most prominent theme in Mother in a Refugee Camp by Chinua Achebe is that of a mother’s boundless suffering. Throughout the poem, the mother prepares for her child’s untimely death, carrying out his ‘final rites’. Their close bond is shown through the poet’s selection of Biblical imagery; “No Madonna and Child could touch her tenderness for a son”. The metaphor conveys to the reader that even the eternal idea of an inseparable Mary and Jesus isn’t on par with the relationship shared by the mother and her baby. This inevitably evokes devotion and creates sympathy for the mother. Achebe creates the painful image of a mother grieving for her child and uses the vulnerability of the situation to display suffering in the poem. Perhaps the use of the last line as an allusion to Ernest Hemingway’s “the tiniest graves are the heaviest”, is the most powerful and hard-hitting presentation of suffering in the text.
The Biblical image in line one is immediately juxtaposed when the poet talks about how the “air was heavy with odours of diarrhoea”. There is a stark contrast created between a delicate maternal bond and the harsh conditions depicted in the refugee camp. The poet is able to make the reader sense purity and taint in the same stanza. This solidifies the enormity of the anguish felt by the mother. The sharp contrast also emphasises their third-worldly suffering through a direct description of the disarrayed, unsightly campsite. When Achebe compares this mother to the “other mothers there (that) had long ceased to care”, we are made aware of this mother’s reluctance to give up hope. Here we are introduced to the idea that the poem presents suffering alongside a glimmer of hope.
The poem exhibits an absence of any evident rhyme scheme and the use of enjambment is exhaustive; almost as though it were written in free speech. It can be argued that this was done to preserve the natural flow with which the poem can be recited or it may connote that the child is seen to be free of all worldly sufferings upon his death. The poem is essentially split up into three sections to show shifts in time; future, present and past. “She soon would have to forget”; “She held a ghost smile”; “In their former life this was”, the narrative voice fast forwards to overcoming the child’s death, talks about the mother’s present suffering and then flashbacks to their undisrupted lives before the civil war.
Although the extremities of the misery mentioned in Mother in a Refugee Camp are incomparable, parental pain is equally explored in Nettles, by Vernon Scannell. In both poems, the readers are guided through the idea that although parents will try and do everything in their control to protect their children, there comes a time when they have to let go. The texts explore the parents’ journeys whilst they understand that suffering is inevitable. In Nettles, this subject is emphasised by the growing back of the plants to show that pain never really goes away. This is encapsulated in the line “But in two weeks the busy sun and rain had called up tall recruits behind the shed: My son would often feel sharp wounds again.”
In War Photographer, Carol Ann Duffy constantly mocks the readers’ pleasant and luxurious lifestyles to gain sympathy and magnify the agonies of war victims. She does this by juxtaposing living situations in “Rural England” with the concerning circumstances in “Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh”. Duffy later exemplifies children to reiterate the idea of unjust suffering. “to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet of running children in a nightmarish heat.” A powerful image of children running across a plain and safe field is created. This is developed in contrast to what may have been a reference to the ‘Napalm Girl’ image. Taken in 1972, the image was of great relevance to widely recognised propaganda at the time. The immense vulnerability of the young girl in the photograph is crucial to portraying the misfortune of war victims; especially inculpable children who take the brunt of the widespread agony.
The suffering presented in this poem relates closely with the vivid, troublesome imagery used. A reference to the numerous casualties is made when the poet writes, “All flesh is grass”. The inhumane activities carried out in the war is made evident by how fallen soldiers cover the land like grass covers acres of fields. The metaphor reiterates the massive extent to which wars take innocent lives and ruin millions of homes. With the pride that accompanies martyrdom comes the indescribable feeling of suffering and loss. “Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.” This reference to a newspaper discusses society’s hollow sensitivity towards war victims. An image is established of emotionless faces taking in the brutal truths of war-torn countries. Their suffering is belittled by millions of people who haven’t experienced their prolonged anguish.
There is a tight rhyme scheme followed throughout the poem and all the stanzas consist of 6 lines. The overall form of the poem is somewhat controlling and restraining. This is almost tantamount to the prohibitory and rigid lifestyle the photographer leads. Yet, it can be reasoned that there is instead a definite discrepancy between the form and the chaotic state of affairs. War inflicted areas are grief-stricken and void of any structure and certainty. Duffy uses a contradictory poem structure to achieve a rhetorical effect. Keeping in line with her aim to mock readers that live a lavish lifestyle, the structure of the poem emphasizes the point she makes about how little people outside of the grief, war and poverty-stricken areas care. The unfortunate disregard for their suffering is made evident and encourages the reader to find out more and contribute in any way possible.
In Manhunt, Simon Armitage consistently brings up a wife’s struggle to get her husband to open up to her. “Only then” is repeated at the beginning of four stanzas; each time about how she slowly but surely progresses towards her goal. The poem revolves around the story of a man that suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder but focuses not on the man’s but his wife’s journey. Throughout the text, we are made aware of how his gunshot wound has seriously impaired their relationship. The woman is shown to work through this tragic situation and search for answers in steps as she “climb(s) the rungs of his broken ribs”. Both Manhunt and War Photographer focus primarily on how suffering can be inflicted onto loved ones or those who care. This theme of second-hand suffering puts forward the concept of sacrifice and we are shown that suffering isn’t always just contained to an individual. But that it can spread and take with it all the agony and distress.
Written from the perspective of an unborn child, in Prayer before Birth, Louis MacNeice explores all that is wrong with the world during the critical period of the second world war. The foetus is symbolic of all the children that lived in fear of being separated from their families during the war. “provide me with… a white light in the back of my mind to guide me”. Here the child asks for a righteous conscience so he’s able to make equitable and honourable decisions. The ‘white light’ is a universal connotation for impartial guidance during times of hardship, suffering and endurance. MacNeice lays out several such conditions that the child has including those to be born into a world of fairness and justice. This can imply to the reader that they’re living in a state that can be improved, that the world is perhaps hopeful for change.
The poem has been formed like a psalm; a sacred hymn that is part of the Bible. Every verse takes into account a different part of the prayer. Historically, even non-religious people have been known to ‘pray’ in times of suffering and desperation. MacNeice uses imperatives at the beginning of each stanza; “hear me”, “provide me”, “rehearse me” almost in a ritualistic manner that creates rhythm. The first and last lines can be seen to be utterly significant. They are probably the most thought-provoking lines in the poem. “I am not yet born; O hear me.” and “Otherwise kill me.” Whereas the first line sets the scene by inferring childish fears, the last line is cogent; ending the poem with a palpable reiteration of the brutality and severity of the point of the poem.
The emotive language used connects the reader to the narrative voice in this poem. It is almost like MacNeice manages to voice the reader’s thoughts. In the poem, he talks about concerns relevant to all civilians at the time; “would make me a cog in a machine”. This line addresses the fear of losing control of their own lives as they were enslaved to war zones and trained to mindlessly obey war generals. The last line, “Otherwise kill me.” carries weight of its own. Whereas children are noted to be symbols of innocence, to hear such harsh words from an infant is a presentment of the depth of despair that existed in society at the time. The fact that the baby would rather be killed than be born into a world filled with hatred and violence plays to the readers’ emotions and can make them feel stunned and troubled.
The plight of a soldier knows no bounds. After surrendering themselves to their countries they can wait either for a victorious return or for the far more infallible, martyrdom. In Mental Cases, Wilfred Owen questions the lack of respect with which soldiers are treated. The concept of their dehumanisation is cleverly grasped when he talks about the lasting effect of war: “Always they must see these things and hear them”. This line may imply that shell shock or post-traumatic stress disorder victims will remember horrific images such as that of “human squander” for the rest of their lives. In reference to all the other poems, Owen mentions religion in his phrase, “purgatorial shadows”. Purgatory relates to the place where souls are said to be tormented and tortured so they are purified upon their arrival at heaven. The two poems, Prayer before Birth and Mental Cases address the issue around victimising those that are innocent. Pain and suffering has been inflicted on both the baby and the soldiers but through no fault of their own.
The heart-wrenching effects of war and the helplessness that comes with it has resulted in six astringent texts, all leaving the reader with an inescapable mental image of pain and affliction. The poems are a compelling manifestation of suffering and are concentrated towards victims of war. Deeply rooted into all these poems is the dire futility of warfare with storylines following devastating losses; be it of sanity, a child, lives or even humanity. The theme of suffering is effectively highlighted as an integral part of all six poems through the dynamic use of emotive language, metaphors and juxtaposition. The innocence and vulnerability of the personas are of paramount importance when it comes to reiterating the aforementioned theme. The idea of suffering creates a dominant foundation for these poems that resonate with the readers’ feelings of sympathy and compassion.