Wilfred Owen Counter-argument To Patriotic Ideology
It is the view of Marxist criticism that literary texts either support or subvert the existing economic and social systems. Wilfred Owen uses his war poetry to subvert and criticise the air of patriotic ideology ingrained in culture during the First World War, where patriotic propaganda was vital in the indoctrination and recruitment of young soldiers, who naively joined the front line intending to serve their country for valour and glory. Owen’s poetry exposes the damage that romanticised imagery of war can have by detailing the realities and consequences of war.
However, a common belief of Marxist critics is that ‘literature is the product of a writer’s own class’ and that ‘literary texts themselves are a product of a particular ideology. It could therefore be said that with Owen’s own class being higher than those particularly oppressed by the damaging patriotic ideology, with Owen having served as an officer in the war, he cannot provide a voice for the lower-class soldiers or present a fair counter-argument to the patriotic ideology, as he himself may be considered as part of the establishment. However, throughout his poetry, Owen describes the suffering of the lower-class infantry, as if understanding of their pain.
Owen’s poem Dulce Et Decorum Est (Pro Patri Mori) is believed to be a sarcastic address to the poet Jessie Pope, who, in contrast to Owen, was a supporter of the war and used her poetry to encourage young men to enlist in the army. Her poems, such as Who’s for the Game and The Call, painted the image of war as an essential rite of passage, labelling those that stayed behind as cowards. The poem, which translates to It is sweet and honourable (to die for one’s country) uses its title to mock the patriotic ideology of the period. In the first stanza, Owen describes a horrific gas attack on the front lines with a gruesome account of a man choking to death; a far more authentic image of war than that of the propaganda fed to the general public. Immediately, the traditional image of the brave and heroic soldier held by society is dismantled as the soldiers on the front line are described as ‘old beggars’ and ‘hags’, who, deprived of all their dignity, youth and masculinity, are reduced to old women. This image is reflected in the general pace, which is slow and lumbering, as the soldiers ‘trudge’ through the mud. The constant rhythm of iambic pentameter also suggests a repetitive and relentless survival, in which the soldiers have accepted their fate of ‘distant rest’. Owen uses these descriptions early on, to denounce the patriotic ideology and to communicate that the soldiers are without hope or relief. Finally, the use of the metaphor blood-shod, suggests that the soldier’s feet are damaged, constantly surrounded by blood and terror, as well as having implications of the soldiers being like horses, who are treated as units by the capitalist ideology, which ‘thrives on exploiting its labourers’. The soldiers were resilient, and ‘limped on’, but only because they were forced to do so.
The second stanza presents a jolt to reality as the pace of the poem quickens and the language becomes frenzied and panicked as they go from ‘drunk with fatigue’ to an ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ at a moment’s notice, highlighting the uncertainty of their existence. The word ‘ecstasy’ acts as an oxymoron with ‘fumbling’ and almost ironically contrasts with its actual definition, as there is no happiness to be found in the trenches, only futility, as despite their training, in this situation, all the soldiers can do is ‘fumble’. This contrasts with the patriotic image of the experienced and nationalistic soldier, who the public expected to win the war by Christmas of 1914. The scene is dramatically heightened with the use of the first person in the impactful final line ‘I saw him drowning’, which clarifies to the reader that the narrator (Owen) was there in the trenches viewing these events, adding legitimacy to his words, despite his supposed role in the patriotic war machine. The counter-argument that Owen cannot provide an objective representation of the lower-class soldiers and their struggles is challenged by this line, as it suggests that despite Owen’s opportunity to physically separate himself from the soldiers and the dangers of the front line as an officer, he chooses to serve alongside his inferiors, suggesting that he possesses enough empathy to relate to the soldiers and to provide an impactful argument against the patriotic ideology, and Marxist criticism in general which confines him to the upper class without considering his empathy towards those who are victimised by society.
In the next two-line stanza, which marks the second half of the poem where Owen shares his thoughts and the consequences of the events, he capitalises further on the visual imagery of the man choking to death by detailing his nightmares of the experience with the man ‘guttering, choking, drowning’, with the asyndetic listing showing the endlessness of the pain the soldiers suffered. Through this counter-argument to Jessie Pope and the government, Owen demonstrates that it is not sweet and honourable to die for one’s country but in fact degrading and depressing. Throughout the poem, Owen is also careful not to identify the soldier, only referred to as ‘him’ in the phrase ‘I saw him drowning’ and later ‘we flung him in’. The objective pronoun ‘him’ may be used to highlight the lack of uniqueness, with there being countless others that died in similarly gruesome ways in the trenches. This lack of individuality among the lower-class is a key Marxist viewpoint; that units in the capitalist machine are unable to stand out from the masses and will never be able to rise above their position.
In the final stanza, the brutality of war is highlighted once again as Owen returns to describing the image of the choking man with phrases such as ‘white eyes writhing in his face’ and ‘froth-corrupted lungs’. In this instance, the word ‘corrupted’ may be deliberate in Owen’s criticism of the establishment as it suggests that the government sending soldiers into war is cruel and unethical. Owen also returns to the soldiers becoming desensitised to death by using the word ‘flung’ when describing the routine disposal of corpses, suggesting that the soldiers have no time to mourn and are numb to the death of friends, linking to the Marxist idea of capitalism reducing people to units, used as a means to an end, rather than human beings. He addresses this wrongdoing with a simile to describe the face of the dead man ‘like a devil’s sick of sin’, as if accusing the higher ranks of being evil and sinful for allowing such desolation and destruction of innocence. He also addresses Pope directly, sarcastically calling her ‘friend’, explaining that if she could have seen the ‘vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues’, she would not trick ‘children’ into death. Owen closes the poem with an extension of the title to include Pro Patri Mori, calling it ‘the old lie’, ironically attacking the ideology and reinforcing the contrast between the sweet and melancholic nature of the title and the horror of the events that take place throughout. It is also significant that the final word of the poem translates to ‘death’, concluding the poem by reminding us of its main theme.
S.I.W, another of Owen’s war poems attacks the patriotic ideology that has infected the home front and public perception of soldiers. The poem uses its main character Tim, a young boy who has been sent to war by his family, to explore the naivety of public and the horrors of war that eventually contribute to his suicide. The first stanza of the poem, entitled I. THE PROLOGUE, details the background producing the action of the story. In the first line Tim is referred to as ‘the lad’, a colloquial and familiar expression, which contrasts with the alien horrors Tim will experience later in the stanza. Tim’s father expresses the most shocking attitude to the war, but also the most widespread, as he is described to ‘sooner see him dead than in disgrace’. Ideologies like these were largely to blame for the guilt soldiers associated with doubts about the war, and it is these words that trigger Tim’s decision to commit suicide, as he fails to meet his father’s impossible expectations. Throughout the stanza, elements of patriotic ideology can be seen, not only in the sentiments of Tim’s family but in the language, with the description of the Germans as ‘the Hun’ helping to belittle the enemy and paint them as a homogenous entity, rather than as individuals. The final line breaks the regular iambic pentameter which has been in place until now, bringing an end to Tim’s monotonous suffering through his suicide.
Marxism dictates that ‘the way we think and the way we experience the world around us are either wholly or largely conditioned by the way the economy is organised’. There was vastly increased output of patriotic propaganda from the government during the war, with the economy being organised and governed by the same political powers. Tim’s ingrained attitudes to the war are a direct result of this patriotic ideology and could be perceived as the primary factor in his death. Marxist views are also reflected in the line; ‘pleasure of this world’s Powers who run amok.’, as Tim is fighting the government’s war with there being no concern from the establishment about his wellbeing. This is reflected within descriptions of Tim in S.I.W, who is only ever referred to as ‘him’, ‘his’ or ‘he’, until the final line of the poem; ‘Tim died smiling’, reflecting the lack of individuality of soldiers. This is because patriotic ideology from a capitalist viewpoint views soldiers as production units in the capitalist machine, who labour intensely to the establishment’s gain. The view of Marxism is that ‘capitalism alienates them [working-class people] from themselves by seeing them in terms of production units’, which is displayed in Owen’s work in the failing to mention Tim’s name, with soldiers being viewed as expendable rather than as lives with potential.
The final, two-line stanza of the Poem IV. THE EPILOGUE presents Owen’s key counter-argument to the patriotic ideology, exposing how the political powers manipulate truth to retain propaganda effectiveness. This is demonstrated with the military’s romanticised language when describing Tim’s death to his family, such as in the final line ‘they’ (assumedly the higher-ranking officers) ‘truthfully wrote the mother ‘Tim died smiling’. The verb ‘smiling’ suggests, untruthfully, that Tim died with sacrificial pride, echoed in his features, maintaining his family’s reputation, and saving them from disappointment. In fact however, Tim’s smile bears no indication of happiness or relief, only the grimace of death.
There can be no doubt that Owen was highly critical of the patriotic ideology that infected the front lines and home front, with his graphic descriptions of war, directly contradicting the propaganda encouraging young men to enlist, as well as his mocking of patriotic poems and phrases like ‘Who’s for the game’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. Conversely, there is question as to whether this patriotic ideology may have affected Owen himself, with his being part of the establishment as a higher-class officer. There is arguably suggestion of the views he criticises in his own work, with his dispassionate tone when referring to Tim’s suicide possibly pointing to his sharing of attitudes with Tim’s father. However, in the preface to Owen’s posthumous collection he revealed that the subject matter of his war poetry was ‘war, and the pity of war’. As such, Owen clearly bitterly contested the patriotic ideology that was to the public fore during the First World War, evident to modern readers, with far less romanticised views of war, and therefore more receptive to his criticisms. As such, his poetry contents Marxist theory which suggests that writers and their works are a products of their own class, as Owen empathises with and provides a voice for those who suffer as a result of patriotic ideology.