In the war poem ‘Exposure’, WilfredOwen’s choice of words helps to describe the extremes to which he and his menwere exposed to during the war, and how the First World War affected soldiersboth mentally and physically.Through his use of alliteration andpersonification, Owen helps put emphasis on the conditions in which the mensuffered under and how the elements played a role in many soldiers’ demise. Thefirst line of the first stanza starts with ‘Our brains ache’, an obliquereference to Owen’s literary hero, John Keats. The line reflects Keats’s poem’Ode to a Nightingale’ (‘Our heartsache…’) and helps convey the physical, mental pain the soldiers areexperiencing on the frontline. Owen use of sibilance helps to generate acutting and bitter edge to ‘the merciless iced east winds’ which ‘knive’ themen, adding a predacious instinct to the elements. The line ‘Low, droopingflares confuse our memory…’ helps convey how disordered and tired the soldiersare, as they have no chance to rest due to the constant fighting. In the second stanza, Owenpersonifies the bursts of wind as ‘mad gusts’, suggesting they are violent andunforgiving.
The ‘flickering gunnery rumbles, far off’ shows that the soldiersare always getting a constant reminder that they are in a war, and how there isno way to escape it and find peace. The second stanza ends with Owen asking thequestion, ‘What are we doing here?’ This helps emphasise how the soldiers didnot want to fight in this war yet they were the ones sent in and used as thecannon fodder in the war. This contrasts with the old saying and title ofWilfred Owen’s satirical poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
The full Latin sayingtranslates to ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’, which isthe opposite to how the second stanza ends in ‘Exposure’. Owen speaks for allsoldiers when he refers to the saying as ‘The old Lie’, conveying how theseyoung men were just thrown into a devastating and bloody war under a falsephilosophy. Typically, the coming of dawnsymbolises the arrival of hope however in the third stanza of ‘Exposure’,’dawn’ only brings another day of hell, another day of ‘poignant misery’.’massing her melancholy army’ describes the dawn as being sentient, whilst its’army’ of clouds is like the uniforms and tanks of the German army: ‘grey’,’stormy’ and lined up in ‘rank upon shivering rank’, ready to attack thesoldiers cowering in the trenches.
‘Clouds sag stormy’ perfectly conveys themood of the poem as the cloud is sagging due to being tired, just like how thesoldiers are described by Owen.In the fifth stanza, the line ‘Paleflakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces’ suggests that thesnow-flakes can make conscious choices on whom they will attack as they ‘flock,pause and renew’ (fourth stanza). The flakes have fingers which reach out forthe faces of the many soldiers; the snow and cold link with the idea of painand suffering. The word ‘pale’ connotes this further, as it symbolises the lossof life. From this, we can infer how the wintry elements are as much an enemyon the attack as are the Germans, as the elements are unforgiving and do notcare about who they harm.
The significant role of the elements is seen inanother Wilfred Owen poem called ‘Futility’, which expresses Owen’s belief inthe worthlessness of God and the war. The ‘sun’ in the poem is a metaphor forthe Son of God, as the poem is about a soldier who has died who is trying to berevived by the sun. ‘Futility’ was categorised by Owen under the title ‘Grief’,as it deals with the intense sorrow felt after a person’s death.
The line ‘We cringe in holes’ remindsthe audience how the soldiers were just ordinary men, some only teenagers, whowere terrified and scared after being thrown on the frontline; the soldiers arefrightened like animals, shrinking in their trenches. The fifth stanza alsoincludes a dreamlike scenario where the soldiers scared in the trenches look’back on forgotten dreams’, possibly of peaceful times with no fear and not inthe harsh cold, as they are ‘snow-dazed’ in the trench. The soldiers ‘drowse,sun-dozed, littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses’. Theblossoms in the dream juxtapose with the dirty and bleak conditions of war lifelike how ‘sun-dozed’ juxtaposes with ‘snow-dazed’, as Owen has used snowingimagery consistently in the poem.
‘Blossoms’ paints a pastoral scene for thereader as it suggests the soldiers’ dreams are of a heavenly place, where theyare no longer fighting and seeing people they know die.Owen uses half rhymes in ‘Exposure’such as ‘silent/salient’, and ‘crisp/grasp’. This is similar to another WilfredOwen poem ‘Strange Meeting’, which also uses half rhymes like ‘escaped/scooped’and ‘moon/mourn’. Owen does this deliberately to give a dreamlike quality tothe poem as the soldiers are severely tired due to all the fighting. This helpsemphasise the increasing fatigue amongst the soldiers on the frontline, a keytheme of many war poems by Owen.
The despair these soldiers fightingin World War One are experiencing reaches its peak in the final two stanzas, asthey have no choice but to ‘lie out here’ on the battlefield. The soldiers diealone in the cold, far away from home where the ‘kind fires burn’. Their bodiesare found by other members of the army who then wait for something to happen,’but nothing happens’.
This conveys how there is no way out of this cold, dark,miserable life in the war other than dying; only through dying will thesetroubled soldiers find peace. The soldiers die and are not given properburials, which is something the poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ touches on. ‘Nomockeries for them now; no prayers nor bells’ emphasises how any religiousritual for these soldiers dying in the mud and stench of the battlefield, wouldundermine their death.
The title of this Owens poem is ironic as anthems arehymns for celebrations but there is nothing to praise in war, especially as thesoldiers ‘die as cattle’.The poem has a structure of eightstanzas with five lines, with the last lines of each stanza being much shorterthan the others: ‘But nothing happens’ (first, third, fourth and the finalstanza), ‘What are we doing here?’, ‘Is it that we are dying?’, ‘We turn backto our dying’, and ‘For love of God seems dying’. Owen incorporates these shortlines to break the rhythmic structure of the poem, as the first four linesconsist of an enclosed (ABBA) rhythmic structure. The effect of this rhythmicstructure is to covey how tedious the trench life was for soldiers in the war.’But nothing happens’, ‘Is it that we are dying?’, and ‘What are we doinghere?’ are all rhetorical questions to emphasize the senselessness of thesoldiers being in this pointless war.’Exposure’ does what the titlesuggests and exposes the reader to the harsh and dire conditions of what it waslike to be a soldier in World War One, and how war not only effects peoplephysically but also mentally.
Owen delves into a soldier’s psyche and how theincreasing fatigue can but people in a hallucinatory state, leaving them leftempty for their want to leave this hell of earth. Therefore, I think ‘Exposure’ranks highly in terms of significance in the Wilfred Owen: The War Poems, as ittruly shows how the war affected so many people in many ways.