Analysis of Poem Exposure by Wilfred Owen

Updated on September 2, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen | Source

Wilfred Owen and A Summary of Exposure

Exposure is a poem that focuses on the nature of tedium on the battlefield, specifically the mud soaked trenches of World War 1, fought between 1914 - 1918.

It highlights the effect of the weather on battle weary soldiers and in addition puts their plight into context when it momentarily touches on the dream of a return home.

The structured stanzas with four long lines and a shorter suspended fifth line, follow a cycle of night, day, night within which the soldiers struggle to keep their composure, their sanity and their objective.

  • Powerful imagery, language and special rhyme - pararhyme and half-rhyme - create a profound sense of mystery and numbness.
  • The opening line Our brains ache, is inspired by a line from John Keats' Ode To A Nightingale - My Heart aches....Keats was a favourite poet of Owen's.
  • Note the title Exposure which can mean to reveal something that really shouldn't be shown or the vulnerability of the men exposed to the elements.

Wilfred Owen was killed in action in early November 1918, just days before the end of the war, in his second spell following injury. As an officer he had responsibility for his men and was by all accounts a brave and compassionate soldier.

Here's an extract from a letter he wrote, explaining why he wanted to return to the front line again:

'to help these boys - directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.'

His war poems are considered to be some of the best ever written. Not only are they technically innovative but they reveal the harsh brutality and bitter truth about life on the front line in WW1.

Owen wanted people to understand the awful realities of the battlefield, to stir up emotion and open people's eyes to the propaganda of war.

What Are The Themes of the Poem Exposure?

The Psychological Effects of War

The Needless Suffering of Soldiers

Revealing The Truth About War

War trauma and Nature

Man against Nature

Structure of Exposure

Exposure has eight five-line stanzas, the lines between 5 and 14 syllables. The first four long lines of each stanza are relatively uniform in length. What is of interest is the shorter fifth line which hangs suspended below. Indented, that is, a distance away from the left margin, this line sticks out because Owen intended it to be of special significance. In the fifth line, the speaker asks a question, or makes an observation, summing up their plight, their fate, their situation

Exposure


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 deathly 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;

Nor 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, 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

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of Owen's Exposure

Stanza 1

  • The long first line, with that comma and necessary pause for the reader after three words, has those unusual dots at the end...signifying a further pause, pause for thought.
  • Why have dots? Why not an end stop, a full stop? Dots fade away...and introduce an element of anticipation.
  • And if the reader is to pronounce merciless iced east winds that knive us... fully there is also a slowing down as the tongue and lips negotiate the sibilance and the consonants d and t.

The first three lines all have end dots, long pauses, perhaps to accentuate the silent scene laid out for the reader as the poem gradually unfolds.

We know there is a group of tired people out in the cold wind and that some way off flares are sent out into the night sky which confuses them. Perhaps they don't really know the lay out of the salient - a military position that juts out into dangerous enemy territory - perhaps they're just too weary to know.

The sentries whisper - a sentry is a soldier on duty, a look out - it's a bit too quiet for their liking. That fifth line sums it all up for now...there's not much happening.

Stanza 2

Because the men are awake, despite the silent night, they can see the wind tugging at a wire. It reminds them of those who are in agony, caught in the brambles, in the throes of death perhaps.

This is a pretty grim image but then again the situation the soldiers find themselves in is desperate. They're in enemy territory, waiting, awake but weary, between waking and sleeping. To the north the guns are firing (artillery) but it's so far away it seems unreal, a rumour.

  • Note the line Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles, which has fifteen syllables and is quite a mouthful. Assonance and a running rhythm create a sense of intensity.

The fifth line asks a question. If the war is being fought elsewhere, what are these men doing here, away from the action?

Stanza 3

Dawn breaks and brings with it the realisation that this is not a glorious dawn, it is wet, grey and miserable.

Note the dots that end the first line, an echo of the first stanza with a long pause.

  • Enjambment, when a line runs on with no punctuation to end it, occurs between lines 3 and 4 which helps build up the grey cloud dawn assembles. That word ranks applies to the hierarchy within the army and also signifies the mass of loud and the men who are shivering through cold.

Stanza 4

That first line is a classic Owen line, full of alliteration, varied rhythm and assonance. Bullets are fired, presumably from the enemy but this is not known for certain.

  • What the speaker does make clear is that these potentially lethal objects are not as deadly as the air, the weather, which is cold and snowy. But this isn't any old snow, it's black and wandering on the nonchalant wind.
  • It seems a little odd for the narrator to emphasise the snow when bullets are flying past.

Another line stands out, inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins no doubt (the poet who loved to alliterate and alter steady iambic rhythms) :

With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,

Note the alliteration (all the f words) and internal rhyme (sidelong/flock) which add to mesmeric effect as the snow is taken along on the wind, but never it seems falls to the ground.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of Exposure

Stanza 5

A mix of snow and sun add to the dream-like quality of this stanza, stuck between the seasons of winter and spring. Note also the contrast of the imagined blossom and blackbird with winter and snow.

That first line is full of alliteration, a common feature of this poem, but this time the letter f is placed alongside the letter l - and the dash is a variation on the theme of end line pause for the reader.

  • For the first time in the poem there is an end stopped line midway through the third line. This purposeful pause is for a reason: the sun is out, from somewhere comes blossom and a blackbird. Surely surreal? This image deepens the dreamy atmosphere.
  • For the first time the mention of death. The effects of snow are now enhanced by the sun, the combination triggering thoughts of death from the speaker.
  • Don't forget the men are in a hole so have a different take on life at this moment in time. They could be killed in the blink of an eye yet have blossom and blackbird for entertainment as they dream of home.

Stanza 6

This is the stanza of complex syntax (the way clauses and punctuation are put together) reflecting the temporary change in psychic state of the soldiers. They dream they are now back home in front of coal fires...note that word glozed (glazed+closed) which is made up, and the glowing coals are dark-red jewels, becoming precious.

The popular song at that time by Ivor Novello 'Keep The Home Fires Burning' is part inspiration behind this stanza.

Crickets and mice have happily taken over because the house is closed up. The men cannot get in, the doors are closed, so they are forced to return to the battlefield and a sense of dying.

  • That first line has several long vowels..Slowly/ghosts/home/sunk/glozed... slowing things down.

Stanza 7

The religious stanza, rather challenging to take in at first. Basically, the speaker is saying that God has deserted them; their situation is so alien they feel that God's love is dying, despite it being nearly spring, with its awesome green energy.

Why did Owen feel the need to question the love of a Christian God?

The first world war was fought between Christian countries, each side believing they had the divine right to victory. Therefore, any fire must be kind, that is, friendly and welcoming, if victory in the war could be achieved. And any victory would be gained through love of God.

An omnipotent biblical God made everything, including humans. He sent Christ, his only begotten son, to show mankind how to live and love. Owen's men are willing to die or rather resigned to die, to allow those at home to live. They will make the supreme sacrifice, like Christ.

And like Christ, they will come to doubt the love of God - For love of God seems dying - and be forsaken.

Stanza 8

The speaker looks forward to, or rather, dreads, the coming night and the inevitable frost, which will affect both living and dead.

The dead, near familiar to those in the burying party, will be buried. Their eyes will be ice - a terrifying image - and once they are laid to an uncertain rest, stasis will set in again.

Owen is saying that nothing will happen, and repeating it like a mantra throughout - the silence, the snow, the cold, the dead, the bullets flying....the war will go on and on...has gone on for years.....the powers that be will do nothing.

The terrible irony is that Owen died a week before the end of the war was announced, in November 1918, so something did happen at last - armistice - but too late for the officer-poet.

His poetry remains as a suitable legacy, a warning for future generations of the awful consequences of war; how trauma, suffering and sacrifice need to be recognised and acted upon.

Imagery and Language in Exposure

Imagery

Exposure is full of powerful images that evoke strong feelings of helplessness, danger and tedium. The personification of the winds for example brings an added dimension to the character of that element; snow is portrayed in unusual fashion - it is naturally white but in the poem 'seen' as black.

Owen paints a grey, mostly lifeless landscape, a part of the battlefield caught between winter and spring, with looming cloud and flurries of snow contrasting with blossom and a lone blackbird.

Within this scene lie the men, pondering on their fate, wondering what will come next. A war goes on around them, yet they are in a strange surreal bubble of drowsiness and dreaminess.

Language

Wilfred Owen's mastery of the language is in evidence in this poem. His use of certain words to describe the character of the wind for instance creates a threatening atmosphere from the very beginning:

merciless iced east winds that knive us...

That cruel cutting wind makes their brains ache. To reinforce this idea of the wind as an enemy, the second stanza features:

mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among brambles.

The twitching comes from the reflex movements of wounded or dying soldiers caught up in the sharp brambles, more than likely commonly observed by Owen and his fellow men.

The poem gradually builds up a picture of helplessness caused by the weather the soldiers are exposed to. It's not so much the bullets flying around, which are Less deadly than the air but the intolerable cold and the numbing futility of the battlefield.

These are battle weary men up against real weaponry and the all too present raw nature. A number of single words reflect their sad state:

ache/Wearied/Worried/cringe/snow-dazed/sun-dozed/Shrivelling/puckering (gathered into tight wrinkles)

Owen's poem also parallels the transition of the seasons - it is winter come spring - with that of the psychological condition of the soldiers. So we come across words and phrases such as:

Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient (a military position jutting out into enemy territory)

Worried by silence...like a dull rumour...The poignant misery...We only know war lasts...But nothing happens...We cringe...back on forgotten dreams...and stare, snow-dazed...Is it that we are dying?...So we drowse...We turn back to our dying...in shaking grasp...But nothing happens.

So again throughout the poem a sense of fateful doom and gloom gradually builds until, in the final stanza, the burying party go about their awful business.

Poetic Devices in Exposure

Alliteration

When two words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant, they are said to be alliterative. This brings sound texture and interest for the reader:

Wearied we...Watching, we...sag stormy...Sudden successive...streak the silence...flowing flakes that flock...We watch them wandering...flakes with fingering...feeling for our faces...stare, snow-dazed...suns smile...or field, or fruit...frost will fasten...shovels in shaking...

Assonance

When two words close together in a line have the same vowel sounds, which again add to the overall sound dynamic:

brains ache...iced/knive...gusts tugging...only know...watch them wandering...Pale flakes...Slowly our ghosts...crickets jingle...kind fires...smile true on child...invincible spring...

Caesura

A caesura is a pause in a line, often because of punctuation but can also be after a large amount of syllables, say nine or ten. The reader pauses for a fraction. As in:

Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,

Enjambment

When a line flows on into the next without punctuation. The sense continues into the next line. This gives parts of the poem momentum. For example:

Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army

Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,

Onomatopoeia

When a word sounds like its own meaning. For example:

crisp....grasp...rumbles...shudders...

Personification

When human traits and behaviour are applied to the elements:

merciless iced east winds

mad gusts tugging

her melancholy army

with fingering stealth...come feeling

Simile

Comparison using the like or as:

Like twitching agonies of men

like a dull rumour

Pararhyme and Half-Rhyme in Owen's Exposure

Pararhyme

Wilfred Owen used pararhyme in many of his poems. In Exposure there are several examples in each stanza.

When two or more words have different stressed vowels but the following sounds are identical they are said to pararhyme. This creates dissonance and some discord because the stressed sounds do not match but the unstressed endings do.

For example :

Stanza 1 - knive us/nervous......silent/salient

Stanza 2 - wire/war....brambles/rumbles

Stanza 3 - stormy/army

Stanza 4 - silence/nonchalance....snow/renew

Stanza 5 - faces/fusses...snow-dazed/sun-dozed

Stanza 6 - glozed/closed

Stanza 7 - burn/born.

Stanza 8 - us/ice...crisp/grasp

Half-Rhyme

Half-rhyme occurs when either the stressed vowel or following sounds differ. For example:

Stanza 3 - grow/grey

Stanza 6 - there/theirs

Stanza 7 - fruit/afraid

What Is The Metre (Meter in USA) of Owen's Exposure?

Wilfred Owen varied the metrical rhythm of his lines in Exposure. There is no set, consistent beat but a mix of iambic, trochaic and spondaic feet, which reflects the uncertainty and tension within the group.

To illustrate this lack of regular beat let's focus on two sets of paired, longer lines:

  • Our brains / ache, in / the mer / ciless / iced east / winds that / knive us...
  • Wearied / we keep / awake / because / the night / is silent...

The first line has 14 syllables which become 7 feet, which is a heptameter. Three of those feet are trochees (first syllable stressed, second unstressed) which produce a falling rhythm and voice at the end of the line, suitable for the situation.
The second line has 12 syllables, so is a hexameter, the most frequent in the poem. As the majority of the six feet are iambic, this is an iambic hexameter, with an extra unstressed beat at the end, again falling.

  • Tonight, / this frost / will fast / en on / this mud / and us,
  • Shrivell / ing man / y hands, / puckeri / ng fore / heads crisp.

These are the opening lines of the last stanza. The initial opener is an iambic hexameter and has a fairly steady iambic beat, 12 syllables.

The next line is also an iambic hexameter but is less plodding because of the two trochees which place stress on the first syllable of both shrivelling and puckering.

So it is throughout the longer lines of this poem - hexameters pair with heptameters, varied metrical patterns producing a mixed bag which means a poem that never really settles, but is on edge.

The shorter last lines in each stanza, from 5 to 7 syllables in length, are dimeter and trimeter, 2 or 3 feet, iambs and trochees vying for dominance.

Sources

www.poetryfoundation.org

100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

www.bl.uk

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

Comments

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      5 weeks ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate the visit and comments, they add extra information to the analysis.

    • profile image

      Jane Davage 

      6 weeks ago

      I enjoyed this very thorough analysis.I would like to make two points:

      "gloze" is not a made up word. It exists and means " made excuses for" or " used ingratiating language"

      I think "brambles" refers to the barbs on the barbed wire which was used extensively in WW1 around the trenches.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      8 months ago from UK

      Wilfred Owen was an incredibly talented poet, who, even to this day, gives readers a viewpoint into the horrors of the Grear War. The tragedy of the timing of his death mirrors his evocative writing.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      8 months ago from Norfolk, England

      It was interesting reading your analysis of this poem. He was such a talented poet, his poems really bring home what it like to go through conflict and war.

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