Exposure – Wilfred Owen

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.

Analysis

Wilfred Owen is famous for many reasons, but most notably for his diatribe aimed at those foolish types back in Britain who (like Jessie Pope) were saying things like “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country” in the Great War of 1914-1918. Owen was an officer in the trenches and a poet of note and is famous for many poems, but my ultimate war poem, which is called Dulce Et Decorum Est, an analysis of which should be on this site, is his best.

But he is also famous for showing us just what the men were exposed to in the trenches in WW1 and this poem, aptly called ‘Exposure,’ does just that. Title theorists will say that this is about a man who is exposed to something that is not very nice, assuming you just read the title and nothing else. This is what we expect from the title (unlike Tissue in the same power/conflict grouping) and we certainly get what we expect, but in the usual, graphic, realistic style of Owen. 

He does not pull his punches this fellow and never did. Dulce Et Decorum Est details things like a soldier’s “froth corrupted lungs” as he spits up his internal organs after a Mustard Gas attack – for that, see the final ever episode of Peaky Blinders – and this poem is no different to that one. In fact, it is, perhaps, more graphic than that when you unpack every line, which is how I tend to teach poems such as this. 

For this analysis, or my interpretation, for that is what all these are, just my take on it, we see the initial idea of how a man’s brain can actually “ache” in the first line and how the setting sets the tone for the rest when he mentions the “merciless iced east winds that knive us” as they sit, stand, or lay in their trenches. These are men that are dug in well and not going far very fast. Indeed, the English and German forces, for a large part of the war, hardly moved a foot over such long periods of time and when ground was won, it was soon lost again. But like with Heaney’s Storm On The Island, this is a wind that can feel as if you are being “knived” or cut in two. It is severe. Imagine being in a trench 365 days a year, exposed to the elements, the snow, the hunger, the desperation and then think how you would deal with it, if indeed, you actually would, for a lot of young folk today would desert, be captured and executed for desertion and be branded a coward where they lived, such is the nature of humanity in the present day. 

Then we see how in their exposed state, they are “wearied” and how they “keep awake because the night is silent.” Is a part of you thinking that this sounds odd at all? Surely, silence through the night would enable you to rest and sleep and wake up refreshed? But not in a trench in northern France or Belgium in 1916, just before Owen was shot and killed. (he died 2 weeks before the end of the war) Imagine, if you can, seeing the “low drooping flares” that “confuse our memory of the salient” and you realise that silence is an enemy because that is when they fear that the enemy are up to no good, especially at night. Try watching We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson and see what I mean. 

So they are “worried by silence,” as they should be, as “sentries whisper” and everyone around them seems “curious” and “nervous, but nothing happens.” The positioning of that last line of the verse makes this a graphologically deviant poem, especially as it is repeated, in that we expect lines to begin in a certain place, but it is done so for effect, for drama and to get the point across to those in charge, who will read this, that this life we are living as soldiers is pointless because nothing ever happens. Back then, both forces were at a point of stalemate on the front lines and so it was a case that nothing ever happened for most of the time. 

So you have imagined being there on the front line. Now try to imagine watching and listening for what comes next. The poet says they “hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,” as the wind rustles through the barbed wire and the safety wires in what was called “No Man’s Land,” the place in between the two opposing lines. He describes it as being “like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.” Just close your eyes for a moment and try to visualize that in your mind and see what he was exposed to in that place of horror and then you will see why he chose the title of the poem in the first place. 

Then you hear the “the flickering gunnery rumbles” from somewhere where the heavy artillery is based, ready to pound the enemy, or you, in your trench and you, as the soldier stuck there, begin to ask a simple, single question, when you ask “what are we doing here?” It is a question worth asking too, for as I type this, there are Ukrainian soldiers in similar trenches, fighting an enemy of advancing Russian soldiers who are intent on killing their way of life, their country and their independence from Russia. How might they be feeling at this moment in time, when the weather is not that brilliant either here in the UK or in eastern Europe? 

There is a poignancy to this poem therefore, that is shared through the power of the words used, for when he says that the “misery of dawn begins to grow,” we sense that the new dawn will not be looked at with finesse and affection, but with a sense of here we go again! Thus, we sense in this section of the poem that what must be done must be done and like with the 600 in the Tennyson poem, theirs “is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.” So as dawn gathers and comes on them, revealing them to the elements of daytime, when they have just suffered the harshness of night, what we see as readers, is the idea that war is a futile waste of human life. Owen therefore, was a pacifist in his thinking, even though he would have done his duty if and when needed. He knows that “war lasts, rain soaks and clouds” do the thing they do to us all. The sense of melancholy is palpable at this point in time, as Owen describes the horrors before him each night and day. 

He then repeats the phrase from earlier, when he says “but nothing happens,” as if to repeat it makes it true. The sense of truth and realism in this poem is something that is also palpable as well, because this maelstrom of emotion he is feeling in the trench is then suddenly interrupted as “sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.” To me, this shows that when you least expect it in the trenches, that is when the enemy will appear, this time in the form of bullets, of large caliber and very powerful weapons, aimed at killing or maiming at the very least. But these ‘rounds’ or bullets are nothing compared to the other stuff they need to live with each and every day.

They live with rounds, flares, gas attacks (that were banned) and also, a sense that this war will never end, because nothing ever does change when you leave politicians in charge. Instead, what the soldier has to deal with in this situation is a series of “nonchalance” where “nothing happens.” It is the same thing, every day and this is what they are exposed to. Likewise, the same is true of when they think back on “forgotten dreams and stare, snow-dazed, deep into grassier ditches.” Owen describes his men as being “sun-dozed” and tired, something they will need to change, or die, when he is no longer the officer with them. He then asks an all too pointed and fatalistic question when he says, “is it that we are dying?” 

He senses his own end in this poem, as if he is exposed to the last days of his life in this mud infested trough. This is further portrayed as he uses words like how he sees their own “ghosts drag [themselves] home” and how life in the trench becomes worse by the day. References to “crickets” and of how the “innocent mice rejoice” make us cringe and that is the effect he is wanting, for he is wanting to show the truth of the matter, unlike Tennyson (COTLB) who is wanting to promote the idea that it is indeed, a brave and noble thing to do for your country from the confines of his very comfortable leather backed armchair. 

And so, the men “turn back to [their] dying” and the war that rages on, dispassionately and without a care for the common soldier. Then, it comes down to belief and what you believe regarding war. Is it a waste of life? Is it a noble thing to fight for? The answer is in each of us and may be different from one to the other. But in the end, what we believe dictates if we go or not, to where there is a war. Scores of English men are signing up for the Ukraine Defense Force as I type. They shall fight in the front lines within the next two weeks. The same is true for them as it is here as well, because it is true that “God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid.” As such we shall always be prepared to act on our instincts and if that takes us to battle, then so be it. 

But in as much as there seems to be a dwindling of faith in the men, there seems also to be the idea that the “love of God seems [to be] dying” and if that is true, then we can see the relationship between one nation and another (GB v Russia) depleting as well, which is also what they are all exposed to. This is the reality of warfare. It knocks all the humanity out of you, just as much as the night frost does and did in those trenches. Just as later that night, there were shriveled hands and burying parties, where the enemy allowed you to collect the dead and wounded so they could be buried, so too is there that sense of the “shaking grasp,” the “pause over half-known faces” and all their “eyes are [like] ice,” as  the same sense of nothingness comes over them, that “nothing happens” and that in the end, it will always be the case that nothing ever changes in war. Man hates man. Wars begin and words become twisted, especially when coming out of a politician’s mouth, but in the end, the gravity of the exposed situation is heralded by the degree of shot played. Sometimes, you need to cease asking what the problem is and then offer a solution when they tell you just how bad life is, given their life situation.