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Essay: Two War Poems

Emerson's "Concord Hymn" Contrasted to Owens' "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, "Concord Hymn," is a patriotic American piece honoring an event that took place in the Revolutionary War. Wilfred Owens' poem, "Dulce Et Decorum Est," like Emerson's poem, has war as its subject. However, that's where the similarity ends. The treatment of war in the two poems is thematically opposite.

Owens' poem, far from presenting war in a patriotic sense, stands out in stark ironic contrast, both to Emerson's poem, and to its own title, which hints at the cliched brand of patriotism that the poem itself disparages. This difference in treatment is apparent not only in the central themes of the two works, but in the contrasting language that each poet uses to present his theme--as well as other supporting devices.

Emerson's poem focuses on diction and imagery that serve to glorify war. He writes of the bridge that "arched" the flood; of a "flag unfurled"; of "[s]pirit" that makes "heroes dare." He commemorates a specific historical event--the shot heard round the world--that holds patriotic connotations for a specific country, America. This is the language of pride: in the general vocabulary, things "arch" proudly; flags are "unfurled" in glory. The description of "a shot heard round the world" is calculated to inspire young warriors.

Owens' poem, on the other hand, uses language that points out the harsh realities of war. He speaks of men "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags..." His war images are of blood, of limp, maimed, tired marchers. Far from being drunk with glory and patriotic fervor, his soldiers are "[d]runk with fatigue; deaf even to..." exploding shells.

Not only does the language of the two poems support opposite themes, but the setting does as well. Emerson's poem takes place in a specific location, Concord, decades after the war, long after "embattled farmers [once] stood." The enemy has "long since" been dead. The poem pays tribute to an event to be remembered when the sons of the sons of the soldiers are gone. Owens' poem has no specific event or location attached--it is universal (though a modern war is implied by the paraphernalia). Owens' soldiers, far from pondering the events of war and wondering how history might remember those events, only have time to react to an immediate danger: "Gas! GAS! Quick boys!"

Interestingly, both poems make use of certain descriptive elements that could be considered typical of traditional romantic poetry--imagery that uses color and softer tones to set a mood. In Emerson's poem a conqueror "silent sleeps." A dark stream "seaward creeps." The poet invokes images of a "green bank," a "soft stream." For a war existing only in memory, this language is feasible to support the main theme. Owens' poem, however, invokes the same descriptive art, but in a context where images of beauty normally would be wildly inappropriate. Here, it serves to emphasize the true horror of war. Owens' "misty panes," "green light," and "green sea," in another poem might call up visions of mermaids and ocean caves. Here, they describe an ugly, functional gas mask, a sea of killing gas. The dichotomy of using words of beauty to evoke images of horror mirrors the device of irony that the poet uses in the title and last line of his poem. The last stanza contains the harshest language of all: "eyes writhing," "blood [...] gargling," "obscene as cancer." This, of course, leads up to his final ironic thesis, to point out "The old Lie:" (that it is sweet and meet* to die for one's country).

Although both poems successfully present their respective themes, Owens' poem triumphs artistically. Emerson does imply reasons that might support honor in war. Embattled farmers, perhaps, have good reason to fight (for their land). Their war deeds, in a historical context, may deserve to be commemorated. However, though Emerson has it that "memory may their deed redeem," Owens makes it difficult to believe that memory might redeem the actual deeds of war. He does not want the reader to feel that any "Lie" of patriotic glory can ever redeem the horrors of war.

*Note: The phrase "sweet and meet" is an editor's translation of "dulce et decorum."







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Literature

Art by D.K. Pritchett

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