Something that really jumped out at me in last week’s readings was the divergent sense of unity and isolation presented in the war poems. I hadn’t previously taken the narrator/author’s perspective into consideration in this way, but last week it became really clear that in the background of these war landscapes, each writer has a very definitive sense of company —or lack there of.
What I mean by this statement is: when addressing the subject and experience of war, some writers make clear that throughout the toils and unspeakable horrors of war, no one is suffering alone. And although comradery doesn’t lessen the harsh realities of war, it alleviates the burden, and there seems to be a great deal of consolation in this solidarity.
“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen opens with this stanza:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”
To Owen, there is a sense of fraternity and unity between the men fighting. They share a cause, they share the same deteriorating physical and mental state, they share the same reality. As he tells his story, he avoids isolating himself, and instead opts for writing using “we,” “our” and “all.” The man who is killed at the end is even referred to as “My friend.” All of these diction choices suggest that while war is in every way horrific, the men fighting are in it together and never without a common connection.
As readers of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” we don’t picture a lone soldier making his way through a warzone. Instead, we see an entire army of wounded men trudging through a battlefield.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Yeats and Auden. Both poets feel extreme isolation positioned at the forefront of a war. W.B. Yeats’ “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” reads:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Yeats’ poem is utterly solitary, alone and isolated. The airman narrating the story never felt called to fight for and protect his home. He’s presented as unaffected and ambivalent by his situation, as he doesn’t care about the country he’s protecting and doesn’t hate the country he’s fighting. The countrymen he’s meant to guard are poor and will likely die anyway. There is no conviction in his role; he signed up because he didn’t mind dying. To match this position, Yeats only writes using first-person singular narration. There is certainly no use of “our,” “we,” “us” or “all.” The poem is entirely about “I” and “me.”
Zooming out from World War II and other international conflicts, I think it’s important to consider what these differences mean in relation to social justice. For example, we may think of gang activity as a parallel to war. There are similarities in terms of borders and territory, violence, membership/inclusion, sense of purpose and initiation. Another war parallel is fighting against stereotypes, experiencing domestic abuse, or breaking out of poverty.
But what does it mean for someone to feel fraternity and unity within a gang, versus feeling alone and not sure why they’re partaking? What does it mean for an abused woman to feel alone versus one of many? How else does social justice relate to isolation? Which perspective is better? Which makes the most sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below, and I look forwarding to considering this theme in upcoming readings!