Two Poets: One Crusade War — the word is a fascinating study in connotation. On the one hand, it recalls bright images of chivalry, honor, glory, patriotism, and unfailing devotion to duty. On the other hand, it recalls black images of tyranny, destruction, mutilation, senseless loss of innocent life, and broken dreams. Just as easily as heroes win undying fame during wartime, others suffer wounds from which they never recover. ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,’ by Randall Jarrell, and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ by Wilfred Owen, pull aside the glittering facade of warfare and reveal the dark truth.
In their approaches to a similar theme, Jarrell and Owen show marked diversity from each other in their tone, their use of figurative language, their rhyme scheme, and even their overall meaning. Considering the gruesome, emotional issue he is addressing, the speaker portrayed by Jarrell seems shockingly matter-of-fact. Despite the vividness of the language he uses, he does not appear to convey excitement. He does not catch the reader up and set his heart throbbing.
He is open almost to a charge of callousness. In many ways, the poem is easy to overlook-and in fact I did the first several times I read it. All of this serves to accentuate the immense, crushing impact of the final line: ‘When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose’ (5).
This line is completely disorienting; immediately the reader has to stop and collect his wits. In this new light, the poem takes on a ghastly appearance. The last line seems to reverberate like the voice of some supernatural being in a horror story.
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Now the poem demands a prompt, thorough rereading to understand nuances not apparent before. Thus, ironically, the superficially blas’e voice becomes one of Jarrell’s most effective tools: in essence it winnows out the apathetic reader and, by disarming the perceptive reader for the detonation of the last line, fairly guarantees that the poem will be assimilated. The tone assumed by Owen, by contrast, is anything but matter-of-fact. He starts his poem out with emotionally charged words: ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, /Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge’ (1-2).
His burning desire from the start is to enlist — and maintain — the reader’s compassion for the wretched soldiers he portrays, and he does not relent. From the despair and misery of the first stanza he moves to excitement in the second stanza: ‘Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling… .’ (9).
And in the third stanza he resorts to unmitigated loathsomeness: phrases such as ‘the wagon we flung him in’ (18), ‘white eyes writhing in his face’ (19), and ‘… froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud… .’ (22-23) fairly make the skin crawl.
There is no temptation with this poem to set it down lightly and ignore it; it must be read in its entirety. Only the most insensitive and unimaginative reader can fail to be impressed with such pathos. More importantly, the vivid descriptions succeed in establishing a form of empathy between the reader and the soldiers: the reader cannot help but visualize, and thereby in some measure experience, the horror depicted. This is an advantage Jarrell does not have; obviously, a living reader cannot empathize with a dead man blown to pieces by an artillery shell. What is surprising about the language of ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is how powerful it is, because the detached tone of the speaker belies its impact. The most notable feature of the poem is metaphor, which is the only form of figurative language employed.
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‘From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State/And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze,’ the speaker says (1-2).
‘From my mother’s sleep’ — this phrase is redolent with so many possible layers of meaning. The connotation of the word ‘mother’ is beautiful, bringing to mind images of unconditional warmth, love, affection, and security. In this context the connotation of security is the most apparent. The speaker is robbed from his ‘mother’s sleep.’ Sleep brings to mind images of not only helplessness but also complete peace, innocence, and security. Perhaps even more importantly, a ‘mother’s sleep’ evokes the image of a baby protected in the warmth and security of a womb.
A ‘mother’s sleep’ is thus a deeply touching and poignant symbol, emphasizing the rude awakening and loss of innocence that results from the wrenching away of a young man from his loved ones and forcing him into the brutality of warfare. Indeed, the entire poem is one extended metaphor. From the image of a pre born child in line 1, the poem moves to the trauma of what at first seems to be birth in lines 2 through 4; but the figure is destroyed in line 5: the phrase ‘washed… out… with a hose’ powerfully evokes the gut-wrenching image of an abortion.
The soldier has had his life so senselessly wasted. In the exigencies of warfare, his life has lost all value; his remains are simply hosed out to make room for another soldier. The figurative, descriptive language of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est,’ like its tone, is not at all disguised. Owen’s liberal use of simile, colorful adjectives, and vivid present participles is the major characteristic of the poem.
In the first stanza he draws a moving picture of young men made old before their time through exhaustion and despair. They are ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks’ (1), ‘coughing like hags’ (2), ‘lame… blind… [and] deaf’ (5-6).
Apathetic to the point where they have lost their concern for their comrades-at-arms, they are now abandoning their tired and wounded — in stark contrast to the fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty usually displayed by soldiers.
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They seem to have all but lost their will to live. The mood abruptly changes to desperate excitement in the second stanza, as a chlorine gas shell drops into their midst. The speaker describes in unforgettable, medically accurate terms the agony one of his fellow soldiers undergoes as he literally drowns in his own body fluids: ‘found ” ring like a man in fire or lime… .’ (12), ‘drowning’ (14), ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ (16).
This man presents the pathetic spectacle of a human being so exhausted he is no longer able to defend himself. The horror of the situation is magnified by the present participles: the speaker relives this scene, etched forever in his memory, continually in his dreams.
Like so many of the elements in his poem, Jarrell’s use of rhyme seems, if not capricious, coincidental or accidental. It is easy to overlook the fact that lines 2 and 5 rhyme; because of the poem’s lack of closed form, they do not appear connected. One could easily conclude that it was not the author’s express intent to rhyme them. However, since the poem is so short (only 5 lines), carrying so much emotional impact in such a compact package, this is unlikely. In this case, there is an interesting connection between the words ‘froze’ (2) and ‘hose’ (5), one of antithesis and incongruity. The speaker says that as he ‘hunched in [the] belly’ of the plane six miles above the earth, his ‘wet fur froze’ (2).
He had endure not only the choking sensation of ratified air, but also biting, perhaps agonizing, cold. Considering the uncomfortable posture he had to assume, the helplessness of exposure in a ball turret, and the terror of aerial combat, it becomes apparent that this young man was placed in an almost unbearable situation. He ‘froze’ for his country, yet how did it repay him? He was washed out — literally thawed out — with a steam hose. The dishonor of having one’s remains in ragged pieces on the ground is almost indescribable.
Lines 2 and 5 contribute to the revulsion experienced by the reader. Owen’s rhyme scheme is obviously intentional, and it serves a valuable purpose. As regular and uncomplicated as the soldiers’ marching in the first stanza, the couplets trip on — ababa bab — without interruption from beginning to end, in keeping with the martial air of the poem. The rhyme scheme fairly pulls the reader through the three, comparatively lengthy stanzas without once letting up, until safely deposited at the conclusion. It is a masterful piece of declamatory oratory put to paper.
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The differences in form between the two poems point to their differences in meaning. Both address the wastefulness and senselessness of warfare, as well as the deceitfulness and arrogance of a State or society that pipes the siren song of patriotism, but they approach the topic from different angles and with different purposes. Jarrell is, to say the least, terse; his poem is over almost before it begins. The final line drives the central point home with all of the devastating bluntness and power of a sledgehammer. Its main intent is clearly to shock, leaving the reader to draw an appropriate conclusion. Raw emotion obviates any need for logical argument.
Owen uses emotion, certainly, but as a tool to support a carefully crafted argument. Whereas Jarrell’s poem seems to progress linearly, abruptly terminated by an explosion that leaves the reader shaken, Owen’s poem gives the impression of a neat bell curve: it moves upward toward a climax, peaks, then sets the reader down gently but firmly with an unshakable conviction: Sweet and fitting? Impossible. The reader feels compelled to reject such a sentiment with disdain. It is obvious that the young man’s death was heinous and inglorious — completely pointless.
Despite their radically different forms, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ accomplish essentially the same goal: instilling in their audiences a thorough repugnance for the effects of war on the individual; specifically, the soldier trying to serve his country. Together they complement each other in cutting through the fluorescent haze of propaganda that surrounds wartime campaigns. They illustrate the freedom the medium of poetry gives to human expression. They portray the power of the poet’s pen.