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Exposure: Power and Conflict Analysis

Wilfred Owen fought in World War I and wrote poems from the trenches. He was killed in action one week before the end of the war. After his death, his poems were published. He is now considered to be one of Britain’s greatest war poets.

Exposure was written in 1917-18, shortly before Owen was killed. It describes life in the trenches of France. These trenches were extremely cold and damp, and some men died from exposure to the freezing weather.

Poem

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 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.

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.

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.

Wilfred Owen (1917-18)

Poem summary

In biting winds, soldiers in the trenches stay awake at night in case of an enemy attack. Exhausted and cold, they question the purpose of being in this war. There is gunfire from the enemy, but it isn’t considered as dangerous as the freezing conditions. They imagine being back home in their warm houses, then remind themselves that they are fighting for the safety of those at home. They return to contemplating their situation in the icy trenches.

Owen shows how soldiers battle against nature and mental torment as much as the physical threat of the enemy. He is angry about the war and the unnecessary pain that it causes to people.

Language

  • Vivid imagery immerses readers in the soldiers’ harsh environment. Descriptions such as the “merciless iced east winds” evoke sensations of biting cold, almost as if one can feel the chill pierce through them. Terms like “mad gusts” and “the air that shudders black with snow” not only emphasise the brutality of the conditions but also invoke feelings of desolation and looming danger. Through this imagery, Owen vividly transports the reader into the treacherous and isolating world of the trenches.
  • Repetition is used with the refrain, “But nothing happens.” This makes their suffering seem even more pointless. They are stuck in trenches, suffering, and nothing in the war situation changes.
  • Rhetorical questions show the soldiers’ anger at their situation. They ask, “What are we doing here?” and “Is that why we are dying?” This shows them questioning the point of the war.

Structure

  • Across the eight stanzas, there is no real change for the soldiers. The first stanza informs the reader about the freezing conditions and the lack of action. This is also stated in the final stanza. This repetitiveness serves to intensify the reader’s understanding of the soldiers’ experience. The echoing sentiment from the first stanza to the last highlights the redundancy. It’s as though time stands still, and the reader feels the weight of the soldiers’ prolonged suffering and the futility of their situation.
  • There is a slight increase in pace at the beginning of stanza 4: “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence”. However, the narrator quickly concludes that the bullets are “less deathly” than the cold, and the pace slows again.
  • In the sixth stanza, the soldiers imagine being back home. There are images of warmth (“fires, glozed/ With crusted dark-red jewels”) and happiness (“the innocent mice rejoice”). This contrasts with the bleak language used to describe the trenches.

Form

  • The poem is written in the first-person plural (“Our brains ache”). This shows the shared suffering that the soldiers experience, and also their loss of individuality.
  • Owen uses long sentences with enjambment, where sentences flow beyond their traditional confines and spill over into the next line. This stylistic choice lends a feeling of continuation and hopelessness to the poem. The lack of clear pauses mirrors the soldiers’ ongoing torment, suggesting there’s no end to their suffering. The uninterrupted flow evokes a sense of the never-ending hardships they face, amplifying their feelings of entrapment and exhaustion.
  • The poem follows an ABBAC rhyme scheme, but many of the rhymes are half-rhymes. This creates an unsettling effect to reflect the soldiers’ feelings of despair.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The power of natureNature is shown to be a bigger enemy to the soldiers than the men they are fighting. It is stated that bullets are “Less deathly than the air that shudders black with snow”. The fact that the snow is “black” gives a sense of darkness and evil because of the pain it is causing the soldiers.

The weather is personified as a violent force. The winds are “merciless” and “knive” the men, showing their relentless physical suffering. The dawn is described as bringing a “melancholy army” that attacks the men. This imagery emphasises that the soldiers are battling the conditions as much as their enemy.
The effects of warOwen presents this war as causing pointless, unnecessary suffering. The soldiers ask, “What are we doing here?” This shows they have lost the belief that they are fighting for any good reason.

As well as the pain they suffer from the weather, Owen alludes to the death and injuries many of them face. The “twitching agonies of men” presents a disturbing image of soldiers who have been injured. At the end, we see a “burying-party” finding dead bodies and noting that “All their eyes are ice”.
The experience of soldiersOwen shows the reader the bleak reality of spending many weeks and months in trenches. The soldiers’ spirits have been completely sapped. Their “brains ache”; they are “wearied”; they “only know war lasts” and “rain soaks”. They are exhausted from their suffering, as well as the boredom and monotony of nothing changing.

Key quotes to learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“the merciless iced east winds that knive us”This demonstrates how the men see the weather as an enemy who can cause them pain like the army they are fighting.
“But nothing happens”Despite all the suffering and endurance the soldiers go through, nothing changes in the war situation. This makes their pain seem even more pointless.
“All their eyes are ice”This shows the eyes of the dead bodies frozen in the snow. It could also refer to the living, who have lost any sense of emotion because of the relentless cold.

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