'Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry', wrote Yeats, attempting to justify his distaste for Owen. 'Exposure' gives a worm's-eye view of the front line, based on Owen's experiences in the winter of 1917, and passive suffering is what it is all about. 'Nothing happens', as he says four times - nothing except tiny changes in the time of day, the weather and the progress of the war. The men appear trapped in a No Man's Land between life and death, and the poem's movement is circular. When it ends, they are exactly where they were in the first verse.
'What are we doing here?' the poet asks in verse 2. The real cause of their suffering is that they are lying in the open under freezing conditions, with some psychological force forbidding them to get up and walk away. The parallel is with hanging on a cross, and verse 7 examines the possibility that they are suffering for others.
Two literary influences are present. 'Our brains ache' echoes 'My heart aches', the first words of 'Ode to a Nightingale', by Owen's beloved Keats. But he was aware that his generation was living through horrors which the Romantics had not dreamed of, and that in order to describe them, poetry had to change. He also has in mind Ivor Novello's song, 'Keep the home fires burning .... though your lads are far away they dream of home'. But in his dream of home, the fires are almost dead. 'Crusted dark-red jewels' is an example of the care Owen takes with small phrases; the fires are beautiful but, like jewels, offer no warmth or comfort. The house has been deserted by its human inhabitants and verse 6 suggests that if the young men went home they would not be welcomed. 'Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed', the poem laments, with the emphasis on us. They are compelled and expected to stay where they are.
Verse 7 appears to suggest that the men are Christ-figures, dying willingly - 'not loath' - for the sake of others, but Owen is not prepared to state this categorically and the words 'we believe' must be heavily stressed. 'Love of God seems dying'; the simple Christianity which he had once believed seems inappropriate. The last verse suggests that one more night in the open will finish them off.
The final version of this poem belongs to September 1918, a few weeks before Owen was killed, and it is mature and brilliant work. There are some daring half-rhymes - 'knive us/nervous', 'nonchalance/happens' - which come off, as does the short, simple, hanging line at the end of each verse.
Copyright: Merryn Williams, 1993 and 1999
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Exposure - Language, tone and structure
Language in Exposure
The dominant elements
Owen’s choice of words in Exposure powerfully, but simply, describes the extremes to which he and his men were exposed for two days. The poem is dominated by words from the semantic field of the weather, most of which are qualified by terms with negative associations:
- ‘iced east winds’ l.1
- ‘mad gusts’ l.6
- ‘rain soaks’ l.12
- ‘clouds sag stormy’ l.12
- ‘Dawn massing in the east’ l.13
- ‘ranks of grey’ (cloud) l.14
- ‘air .. black with snow’ l.17
- ‘flowing flakes’ (snow) l.18
- ‘the wind’s nonchalance’ l.19
- ‘Pale flakes ‘ (snow) l.21
- ‘snow-dazed’ l.22
- ‘frost’ l.36
- ‘ice’ l.39
Alliteration and personification
Owen heightens our awareness of the conditions under which the men suffer by his use of alliteration, further emphasised by his personification of the elements.
The east winds are merciless and icy. The sibilant ‘s’s combined with hard consonants ‘d’ and ‘t’ create a cutting, bitter edge to the elements which ‘knife’ the men, leaving us in no doubt about the pain they intentionally inflict l.1. In l.6 the gusts of wind are personified as mad, their auditory quality conveyed by the short ‘g’ sound of ‘tugging on the wire’, suggesting the catching action. The wind is also human in its indifference, its ‘nonchalance’ in the face of suffering l.19.
In much fiction, the coming of dawn is a motif for the arrival of hope. Here however, ‘Dawn’ only brings another day of ‘poignant misery’ l.11. It is personified as a weary female war commander, ‘massing her melancholy army’ l.13, the alliteration creating a sense of oppression. The ‘army’ of clouds is like German army uniforms and German tanks: ‘grey’, ‘stormy’ and lined up in ‘rank upon shivering rank’, ready to attack.
Owen demonstrates how even the snow-flakes appear to make conscious decisions about where they will settle / whom they will attack - they ‘flock, pause and renew’ l.18 their advance. The flakes have fingers which feel for the faces of the men l.21. Collectively, the wintry elements are as much an enemy on the attack as are the Germans.
As with the opening of the poem, in lines 12-14 Owen again combines sibilance with hard consonants to create a desolate atmosphere, with ‘lasts’, ‘soaks’, ‘clouds sag stormy’, ‘massing’, ‘east’, ‘attacks’, ‘ranks’ and ‘shivering’. This continues in the next stanza as:
Sudden successive flights of bulletsstreak the silence. l.16
and the air ‘shudders’ with ‘snow’ l.17. Both are ‘deadly’.
Owen juxtaposes the sibilance of the bullets with the light yet lethal ‘f’ sound of the flakes of snow in stanzas four and five. Though gentle, the penetrating cold of the snow sends the men into dazed reveries that also torment them – ‘Shutters and doors all closed: on us’ l.29 – where Owen re-employs the ‘harsh sibilance’ technique.
Owen frequently uses assonance to emphasise the mood of the narrative. In l.11-12, the long ‘oh’ of ‘grow’, ‘only know’ and ‘soaks’ draws out the painful process of the day’s awakening. The same long sounds in l.26 ‘Slowly’, ‘ghosts’, ‘home’ and ‘glozed’ convey the extended effort required by snow-numbed spirits to engage with a world beyond their current environment, such slow reactions being typical of the onset of hypothermia. The effort wasn’t worth it – everything was ‘closed’ l.29.
By contrast, Owen links positive words by an expansive long ‘I’ sound in ‘kind fires’ l.31, ‘smile’ and ‘child’ l.32, for which the men ‘lie’ in their defence l.34.
Like so many of the later poems, Owen’s tone in this poem is one of helplessness and despair. Suffering appears to be pointless.
Owen presents us with a picture of communal endurance and courage. He is one with his men: ‘our brains ache’ l.1, ‘we keep awake’ l.2, ‘we cringe in holes’ l.22. He also shares in his comrades’ dream of home and spirit of self-sacrifice: ‘not loath, we lie out here’ l.34.
Yet he also questions what on earth they are achieving: ‘What are we doing here?’ l.10, ‘Is it that we are dying?’ l.25. Nothing is being achieved by the men’s sacrifice, ‘Nothing happens.’ l.5,15,20,40.
Investigating language and tone in Exposure
- Owen describes the weather as the enemy in Exposure. Make a list of the words and phrases Owen uses about the weather in Exposure which are linked directly to war.
- How does Owen use the contrast between cold and warmth to create the pity of war in this poem?
Structure and versification in Exposure
Each of Owen’s eight stanzas ends with a short half line. In the first, third, fourth and final verses Owen creates the burden: ‘But nothing happens’. Each of the short, last lines in the remaining stanzas has a story of its own to tell. When written or read out these lines read:
- ‘What are we doing here?’
- ‘Is it that we are dying?’
- ‘We turn back to our dying.’
- ‘For love of God is dying.’
The first question is answered by the second, which prompts the action of the third. The penultimate verse ends poignantly and perhaps ambiguously. Here on the field of battle the men make Christ-like sacrifices for those they love. Yet Owen suggests the love of Godfor them, and their faithin God, seems to have died.
Owen’s use of pararhyme is clearly developed in Exposure. The sounds create discord and challenge our expectation, yet Owen uses a regular pattern of ab ba, which creates the sense of stasis. Nothing changes in the rhyming pattern, nothing happens on the front.
The action is all in the rhymes:
- ‘knife us’ / ‘nervous’ l.1,4: The attack of the wind may mask the attack of the human enemy, causing fear
- ‘silent’ / ‘salient’ l.2,3: The sleepless anxiety caused by the utter quiet of the night makes the men forget the important features of the battle field
- Wire/war l.2/l.3 Owen pulls together the minutiae of conflict - the barbed ‘wire’ l.6 with the collective noun ‘war’ l.9 which consolidates the whole horror
- Brambles/rumbles l.7/l.8 Owen takes his image from nature but succeeds in showing us the barbs on the wire. Again a small detail is set against the distant booming of artillery fire
- Dawn is seen to ‘grow’ and also become ‘grey’ l.11,14 and in an almost comic rhyme her ‘clouds sag stormy’ l.12 which constitute her melancholy ‘army’ l.13.
- ‘Silence’ l.16 half rhymes with good effect with ‘nonchalance’ l.19 and emphasises the carelessness of nature
- Snow feels the ‘faces’ l.21 and from this Owen makes the transition to dreams of warmth and an English late Spring as ‘snow dazed’ men become ‘sun dozed’ where the blackbird ‘fusses’ l. 24
- The fires of home are ‘glozed’ l.26, a mixture of the words ‘glazed’ and ‘glowed’ but only lead onto doors that ‘close’. These fires ‘burn’ but not for the men who were ’born’ to die.
Finally the collective pronoun ‘us’ become the eyes of ‘ice’ l.36,39. Notice a half pun within this line: the ‘eyes are ice’ which almost sounds as if each was interchangeable - a symbol of the nihilism of death where everything becomes nothing. The onomatopoeic ‘crisp’ and ‘grasp’ of lines 37 and 38 tell of the final actions of the weather and of the burial party.
Within each stanza, four lengthy lines set the scene and tell what story there is to tell. Often they are hexameters but Owen frequently adds extra syllables or whole metrical feet, and does not use a consistent metre, perhaps representing how snow-dazed minds struggle to stay orderly.
One short line punctuates the narrative with the reality: ‘but nothing happens’ l.5. This serves as a contrast to the huge events which are to do with ‘dying’: the death of men, of hope, of belief and of the love of God.
Investigating structure and versification in Exposure
- The burden of Exposure is carried by the short half line at the end of each stanza. How does the pathos of each hanging line contribute to the pity of war expressed through the poem?
- How does Owen’s use of pararhyme in Exposure contribute to the poem’s power?
A group of words which are connected via their meaning.
Alliteration is a device frequently used in poetry or rhetoric (speech-making) whereby words starting with the same consonant are used in close proximity- e.g. 'fast in fires', 'stars, start'.
A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.
Making a hissing sound
Represented or imagined as a person.
Motifs are words, phrases or images recurring through a narrative, which have symbolic meaning.
A device similar to alliteration but where the vowel sound in a word is repeated and thus emphasised ' e.g. 'burnt and purged'.
A recurring line in a poem.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Belief and trust in someone or something.
A partial or imperfect rhyme which does not rhyme fully but uses similar rather than identical vowels
A word which suggests the sound it is describing: e.g. 'crackle', 'whisper', 'cuckoo'.
A line of poetry containing six feet or stresses (beats).
The term for units made up of stressed and unstressed syllables
The particular measurement in a line of poetry, determined by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (in some languages, the pattern of long and short syllables). It is the measured basis of rhythm.