Exposure Analysis by Wilfred Owen

This article is an analysis of the poem Exposure by Wilfred Owen.

Exposure Analysis by Wilfred Owen

About the Exposure Poem:

This poem was inspired by some personal experience that Owen had in the winter of 1917. When he and his men were forced to lay out in the snow for two days and nights in an advanced area of captured land called The Salient.

I've got a picture of what a captured piece of land like. This might look like it's an area of advanced trenches which extends into no man's land in front of the British line of trenches.

So when you study this poem you need to imagine Owen in this very advanced position very close to the German positions in freezing winter conditions.

This poem is interesting to study in terms of conflict because if it's a deliberate lack of any action. If you think about another of Owens poems that you might have studied at some point Dulce et Decorum Est. The central moment in that poem structure is the vivid graphic description of a soldier suffering the effects of chlorine gas. Whereas here in this poem, the total lack of any action creates a different kind of suffering that results in a slower more drawn-out death.

Analysis of Exposure:

So we have a look at the poem a couple of stanzas at a time:
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here? 
The poem begins by presenting the reader with two simultaneous hardships experienced by the men. The extremely cold weather and the constant strain and stress of anticipating an attack our brains ache. Owen tells us which immediately sets up that the suffering and conflict in this poem is going to be as much psychological as physical.

And he follows this with the first of several examples of personification which is where human qualities and feelings are given to non-human things like the weather, the winds are described as merciless never letting up. And this is followed by the metaphoric phrase 'that knive us' to suggest the pain of the bitter wind.

And as well as language devices the poem also employs punctuation. Such as ellipsis which is that dot that we see (knive us..., silent... and salient...) which would usually be suggestive of something dramatic. But in this poem, it's something dramatic which never really happens.

The other impact of this is that it has an extending effect on the line to make the line even more drawn out and emphasize the long drawing out of time. Another technique used by Owen in this poem is alliteration and he uses this to create sound effects throughout this poem. In particular to suggest that weather conditions experienced by the soldiers. A particular type of alliteration is called sibilants and this is where the S sound is repeated as in merciless, iced, east, winds. There so we can imagine the sound as well as what the soldiers are feeling.

The opening stanza establishes for us what Owen and his men are doing. They are on sentry duty they are watching and listening for any hint of a German attack. The unusual silence here worries enough to make sleep impossible and yet as we are told several times nothing happens.

Let's look at the beginning of stanza two:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles. 
Because we have another example of personification being used with the mad gusts tugging on the wire and here the different sound effects is created. So the alliterative g noise with tugging which suggests a sort of snagging or catching the action. And the simile which completes the line reminds us of the last twitching movements of the soldiers who might become caught in the wires of no man's land after going over the top only to be caught only to be shot by the enemy.

Now in the distance, Owen hears the rumbling of gunfire but this is described as far off and like a dull rumor of some other war suggesting a feeling of detachment. Perhaps because a war involving guns is not the battle that these soldiers are fighting at the moment.

There are a number of present tense verbs in this second verse. We've got watching, twitching, flickering which brings the experience right before our eyes this is happening in front of us before inviting us to question the pointlessness of their suffering with the question which concludes the stanza of what are we doing here.

So look at the next two stanzas:
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.
So in this part, the poet Owen continues and develops this extended metaphor of the weather conditions as the enemy they are really fighting. The image of dawn here which begins the stanza is usually associated with hope and the optimism of a new day in literature. But here it is described with poignant misery and the word poignant means a sharp feeling of sadness.

'Dawn' is personified in this verse as a miserable general getting the ranks of her miserable army together massing in the east her melancholy army before attacking. In the overall sense here as elsewhere in the poem is that nature is consciously seeking out Owen and his men and fighting them with wind and rain and snow with the only hint of a real enemy in the form of the Germans. Perhaps being suggested by the color of grey which may suggest the color of the German uniforms.

In the next stanza, Owen juxtaposes - sound effects generated by two different types of alliteration. As I was mentioning before this repeated s sound of 'sudden successive flights of bullet streaked the silence' is called sibilants. It suggests a sudden physical 'it's shooting past although we are reminded that these are still less deadly than the freezing temperature which makes even the air shudder.

The second use of alliteration in this stanza is the repetition of the F sound 'flowing, flakes, flock'. And these F's are called fricatives and they help to suggest something usually which is light and flowing like the flowing flakes of snow. But this is lethal as well as light and once again the elements are given a conscience as they flock and pause and renew. Almost at will and without care for the suffering caused to the soldiers as suggested by the winds nonchalance.

Okay let's carry on:
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying. 
You can see how the snows deliberate searching for the soldiers is further developed in this stanza. Let the fricatives link the words flakes and fingering feeling and faces. There is a general sense of retreating in this first. As Owen firstly describes the men's futile attempt to escape the weather by cringing into holes which sounds almost animalistic. Before entering a sort of delusional state where they're dozing in the sun under blossoms and blackbirds. And the question here at the end of this tells us how close to dying they are?

There is a structural link between the vision and reverie of home. In the previous stanza at the end of it here and the beginning of the next stanza where the exhaustion of the men is even experienced by their ghosts as they drag themselves home. The fires of home described as glows with crusted dark red jewels which is beautiful but you'll also notice that these fires are sunk and has obvious connotations of death.

As well as the idea that hopes, as well as life, is ending. There is also a clear sense of detachment from this image of home the doors are closed upon them as if a peaceful life is now unattainable and so they return to their dying.

Ok let's turn to the last two stanzas in the poem:
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Owen gives the ending of this poem at was an ironic sense of Christian sacrifice. He seems to suggest that the soldiers were born to die in this way in order to secure peace and happiness back home since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn now ever son smiled true on child or field or fruit. And these references here to child and field and fruit with their connotations of innocence and nature and growth are clear reminders of the home the Owen seems to suggest they were born to die in order to protect now.

I said that there was an ironic sense of Christian sacrifice here because if you look at the final line in this penultimate stanza. We can see that like so many of the soldiers who experienced World War one Owens faith in God dies as a result of this experience.

The fact that in the final stanza the Frost will fasten on this mud and us indicates that the men have died frozen to be found by the burial party who pause in partial recognition of the faces of the dead soldiers. But for them death is commonplace and so their eyes are ice lacking emotion. Another possible interpretation of that line of course that this is another detail which adds to the description of the soldiers who are frozen to death.

In the refrain line "but nothing happens" which ends four of the verses reflects the pointlessness of the men's sacrifice. It also conveys Owens attitude that nothing will happen as a result of the man's suffering and death.

But perhaps the saddest thing about this poem is that the final draft of it was dated September 1918 just a few weeks before Owen himself was killed.


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