I had enjoyed the poetry of Wilfred Owen since I first discovered him in high school, and regarded him as one of the most important of the Great War poets. However, recently, I bought a CD of readings of World War I poetry, and among the works read was Owen’s poem, “Exposure.” I was stunned. I had somehow missed this poem, and when I first listened to it, could hardly take in what I was hearing. I played it over and over, finding more in the lines each time. The first thing that struck me, besides the power and intensity of the language, was the fact that the rhyme scheme seemed to consist entirely of slant rhymes; that is, words that nearly rhymed but were not true rhymes. Beyond that, the verse had a ragged, half-eaten rhythm which bespoke a meter both uneven and breathless. The imagery was haunting, as in much of Owen’s work, the metaphors darkly original, the use of onomatopoeia stark and rattling, and the tone, again as in his best work, not infectious so much as infected.
I looked up “Exposure” in my volume of Owen’s work, and read it for myself to determine whether what I was hearing on the recording was, in fact, on the page. It was. I regard “Exposure” as one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century – perhaps the greatest –and my estimation of Owen has risen with it. I now place him among the greatest recent poets of the English language, alongside Eliot, Auden, and G.M. Hopkins, and I cannot help but feel that, had he lived (he was killed one week before the armistice), he would have surpassed them.
I would like to attempt an exposure of “Exposure” here in order to try to explain why I think the poem is such a signal accomplishment; powerful, moving, original, beautiful in its own somber way, and as tightly crafted as the Enfield rifles which the Tommies carried in the trenches.
The setting of the poem is the trenches of the Western Front in 1917. Owen is an officer in a regiment which holds a trench in a salient. Surrounded on three sides by the enemy, these salients were among the most dangerous places in the front line. It is winter, dawn, snowing. Owen writes:
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 gray,
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.
To-night, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shriveling 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.
Before I undertake a detailed analysis of the poem, I should make a few general comments. A brief scansion of the verses reveals the jagged meter of the lines. The first three verses are characteristic: in verse one we find the number of syllables as 14, 13,13,14 and the refrain of 5; in verse two, 12, 13, 14, 12 and 6; in verse three, 12, 13, 13, 12 and 5, and so on through the poem. This is, of course, a deliberate choice on Owen’s part. The salient represents a jagged edge to the forward line, irregular, uneven, ugly in a formal sense. What is more, it is night, freezing, the men can see nothing through the thick dark and snow. There may be movement, there may not; there is wailing wind tugging at barbed wire, twitching, brambled, there is tense silence and rumors – nothing is certain. And for this reason, nothing about the metrics of the poem is certain. All is obscure, jagged, uneven. Just as the salient should never have occurred, is demanding dangerously to be smoothed and made regular and even, so, too, the meter of the lines is irregular, uncertain, and studded with the truncated refrain like the snouts of rifles pointing into the icy darkness.
My initial impression on hearing the poem was correct: there are no straight rhymes in the poem; all are near-rhymes. The rhyme scheme itself is regular, but odd: a/b/b/a/c; d/e/e/d/f, and so on throughout. Thus the two outer lines of each quatrain nearly rhyme, as do the two inner ones, while the fifth line depends, naked and exposed. “Exposure” contains some of the most original, daring and jarring slant rhymes I have ever read. Consider, for example: knive us/nervous; silence/nonchalance; snow/renew; faces/fusses; their/theirs (a truly daring rhyme); fruit/afraid; crisp/grasp. These near-rhymes, – we might almost call them anti-rhymes – strike like bullets, or glare out like the flares that confuse the men, failing, like the salient itself, to offer the protection and predictability of a straightened front line. Again, Owen makes the deliberate choice to rough up, or even to make ugly, his verse so as to bring it closer to the reality he describes. Nothing about this poem is comfortable, predictable, secure. Everything is exposed.
This raises an interesting point about the poem. Owen originally planned to title it “Nothing Happens,” but changed it at last to “Exposure.” The title has several implications; first among them, the exposure of the men to the elements and to imminent danger, but beyond that, the exposure of the insanity, futility and precariousness of their position. A third level of meaning of the title will become clear as we read of the men’s exhausted musings, indeed, hallucinations, about home: they know that even if they survive, they can never return. They are exposed mentally, morally, spiritually. Their condition, the violence of their role, has carried them beyond safety, comfort, even love. Yet for this unconscionable task they “were born,” Owen says; and with it, “love of God seems dying.” These men are exposed utterly and ultimately – their souls are stripped naked to the fingering of the black snow.
Thus everything about this poem, from the meter of its lines, to the anti-rhymes which cap them, to the layers of meaning of its title, speaks of exposure. The poem is itself the experience which Owen describes. It is not art imitating life: it is art breathing the putrid stench of despair and imminent death.
The opening words, “Our brains ache,” are, of course, a morbid reference to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense). I think it may not be too much to point out that Owen puts a comma after the first three syllables, though strictly speaking a comma ought not to be there. But it is there in Keats, and so Owen breaks the line as and where Keats did. The reference is additionally apposite in that Keats describes a drowsy numbness, brought about by melancholy, while Owen’s men also feel a drowsy numbness, though brought about by the much more pressing experience of exhaustion and fear. Like Owen’s Tommies, Keats, too, feels “The weariness, the fever, and the fret /Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.” The invocation of the romantic poet’s lethargy thus feels completely, though ironically, apt.
The remainder of the line contains our first sound effect: “in the merciless iced east winds that knive us…” The alternation of sibilance with hard consonants invokes the sound of the winds, which become the enemy's bayonets. There is a nice internal slant rhyme in “iced east”, and the use of “knive” is telling. Most poets would have written “knife” (and at least one editor of the poem uses "knife"), but Owen chooses the more unexpected form, which produces the desired effect. We are “knifed” suddenly by this choice of word, which is much more dramatic than it would otherwise have been.
I should point out here that my favorite poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, often creates similar effects in his work. I think, in particular, of a wonderful example of using an unexpected word form which occurs in his beautiful poem, “God’s Grandeur.” Speaking of man’s strident assault on Nature, he says: “And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Again, any other poet would have written “freshest,” which would be the correct form; but Hopkins, like Owen, uses a deliberate distortion to shock the reader, heighten his consciousness, and create a dramatic effect. It is as if we are sentries nodding off, and suddenly jolted back to awareness by an unnatural sound.
Again, the first line of “Exposure” is an odd length, fourteen syllables; not ten or twelve, or fifteen or even sixteen, which would feel more finished. Immediately we feel that something is not right, something is unnatural, though because it is in the meter, we do not at first know consciously what it is. We are uncertain, we feel a tension, which puts us at once into the mental condition of the men. Thus, in the very first line, we have an ironic, apt, and soulful reference to romantic poetry, a howling onomatopoeia which puts us immediately into the scene, a deliberate use of an unexpected word form to produce a visceral effect, and an irregular metric scheme which creates the tension that infuses the entire poem. This is brilliant dramatic poesy.
Owen goes on to state that it is the silence of the night that keeps the men awake. This is ironic since silence would normally induce sleep. But just as with the rhythm scheme, tension is everywhere, and silence is entirely unnatural here. We have a wonderful near rhyme in silent/salient, followed by another sound effect: “Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous”. This low sibilance suggests the whispers themselves, curious and nervous. And then comes the refrain: “But nothing happens.”
It would be hard to imagine a more powerful denial of the tension inherent in the poem. The men are freezing, exhausted, confused, worried and nervous, expecting an attack at any moment… but nothing happens. This is the persistent irony of the poem, introduced here as a motif that will recur, though not exclusively (in Owen’s words, it will “flock, pause and renew”). For just as with everything else in “Exposure,” the refrain is subject to uncertainty, and to annihilation at a moment’s notice.
Our attention is next called to the wind and the barbed wire. Gusts tug at the wire “Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.” We have already heard this wind; now we are reminded that men, some still alive, may hang upon it as the soldiers look out across the salient. Owen refers to the barbs as brambles, an adumbration of his references to home and its fields and vegetation which will come later. To the north is the rumble of guns, “Like a dull rumor of some other war.” The reference here is to the New Testament (Matthew, 24:6): “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” With this, Owen places the men’s experience of exposure within a biblical context; one which presages the Second Coming and the end of the world.
At this apocalyptic moment, Owen asks the question, in place of the refrain: “What are we doing here?” To me, this is one of the most powerful moments in the poem. So simple a question, so apparently mundane; yet it is THE question – the one every soldier is asking himself but none dares to ask aloud. The question in the minds of everyone involved in the war – the ultimate existential question posed by the war: What are we doing here? The line is devastating in its frankness and simplicity, and represents an act of poetic courage on Owen’s part. Siegfried Sassoon tried something similar in his touching poem, “The Redeemer,” when he remarks that the boys in the trenches have “learned that nights are very long.” It is a homespun phrase, an ordinary sort of observation, but it falls flat like a dud shell. It lacks utterly the power of Owen’s question – What are we doing here? – which throws everything into a sudden stark relief of quandary and bewilderment as it cuts straight to the heart of the matter.
The next line contains one of Owen’s most moving and disturbing turns of phrase: “The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow…” Dawn should represent a reawakening, a hope for day, an end to night. But here it is a poignant misery bringing with it only another day of suffering, exposure, uncertainty and death. He describes dawn as “massing in the east her melancholy army” which “Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray.” Of course, the Germans lay to the east, their uniforms field gray, and so the image and the reality are one. As I have said, this is a characteristic of the poem: metaphor and meaning are so close as to become the same thing. Reality lies exposed, as close to the surface of imagery as it is possible for a poet to render it. This is one of the hallmarks of the greatest art – that expression and language are wedded into a single dramatic experience. Such is the nature of the late Beethoven string quartets, for example, in which the language of the quartets was created to mirror the spiritual insight which Beethoven was attempting to express. We see it, too, in the last sculptures of Michelangelo, in Turner’s paintings, and in the late plays of Samuel Beckett, which strip imagery down to the very shape of the ideas the artist wishes to dramatize.
The fourth verse begins with a sound effect typical of Owen’s poetry: “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.” We think of his wonderful poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” and the line “Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle,” which imitates the clatter of the firing. In “Exposure” the shots do not stutter; instead, they hiss and whistle, rather like the wind. Lethal as the firing is, the bullets are, as Owen says, “Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow.” It is the elements that pose the most immediate threat. The men may hunker down in their trench against the bullets, but they are not safe from the cold and storm, the “sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,” an onomatopoeia which creates a brilliant evocation of the swishing snowfall. “We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,” he observes, “But nothing happens.”
Owen continues his musing on the snow in the next verse, suggesting that the flakes have fingers which “come feeling for our faces.” The storm is deliberate, malicious, a lethal presence with fingers that seek them out more stealithy than the Germans’ bullets. Against this threat, the men “cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams,” Owen says, and with this he introduces the next major gesture of the poem: home. Dazed by the cold and snow, the men stare “Deep into grassier ditches,” where they lie in the sun and are covered with trickling petals “where the blackbird fusses.” Suddenly the scene is shifted – violently, we may say. We are wrenched from the snow-blown trenches to the petal-blessed field, and the freezing black air is replaced with the fussing of blackbirds. This is the single, central breathtaking movement of the poem: this macabre, miraculous shift from the trenches to home; from the present to the past, and it comes upon us nonchalantly like the flakes’ fingers feeling for our faces.
On the heels of this startling shift, the refrain also changes: “Is it that we are dying?” Owen asks. The answer is, yes, of course they are dying, from the storm if not from the bullets. But Owen’s query has a deeper purpose. The men must be dying if they are gazing into the fields of home. Indeed, the only way they can return is as dead men, as we shall soon see. Yes, they are dying, not just dreaming, and their dying takes them inexorably, ineffectually back home. They know the truth of this: that they must die in order to go home.
Owen makes this explicit in the next verse: “Slowly our ghosts drag home,” he says, admitting that, in fact, they are dying. There they find sunk fires “glozed With crusted dark-red jewels.” The use of “glozed” which conflates glow and glazed is beautiful. It has been suggested that Owen coined this word, but I find it in my linguistic bible, Chambers Dictionary, as coming from Greek, Latin and old French, and being related to the word “gloss.” One of its meanings is “to deceive with words,” and this would fit in an eerie way with the tone of the poem. For the poem is, in a sense, meant to palliate the reader and even the soldiers; to distract them in its verses from the truth which they face across the wire: that death is coming with the dawn, and to escape it, they must return home as ghosts. It is their only hope for survival, which is, in fact, a non-survival. They, too, have been glozed, turned to dying blood red embers, glazed by the snowstorm, glossed over by those who have left them for dead. This is an example in Owen (which we also find throughout Hopkins) of choosing or creating a word ripe with what is called deep structure, or hidden meaning. “Glozed,” as Owen uses it here, is such a word, simmering with intent; cratered with implication and force.
The home fires, tellingly, have sunk, for the men were not there to tend them, and now only coals the color of blood remain to welcome them. Like the men, the hearth, too, is dying. The house, abandoned, swarms with jingling crickets and rejoicing mice; “the house is theirs,” Owen says. But worst of all, the shutters and doors are closed, “all closed; on us the doors are closed.” They have been given up for dead by those at home; all that they were and had and hoped to return to is gone. Unable, thus, to go home, Owen concludes, “We turn back to our dying.” It is all the men have and are and can hope for now in the fingering dark and fear of the salient.
In the opening of the next verse, Owen ruptures the spell of the poem with a stentorian declamation. “Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn,” he asks. It is a jarring interruption, wholly out of tune with the rest of the poem, and one feels that this verse could be dropped without great loss. I can imagine that Owen may have considered dropping it, but chose to retain it, and I must ask myself why. The answer lies, I think, in the sudden shifts and jagged uncertainties of the piece. I cannot help but feel that Owen deliberately wanted to step outside the atmosphere of the trenches for a moment, for what can only be called an intellectual rumination. This is more likely when we realize that this is the penultimate verse, setting up in an almost formal, one may even say, literary way, the final lines of the poem.
“Since we believe not otherwise…” It is a difficult assertion to understand. To what does it refer? To the fact that they are dying? To the fact that their homes are closed to them? To the fact that they are ghosts and home has become an echoing dream? Yes, to all of that, I think; but to something else as well. What do they now believe? That question, like “What are we doing here?” imposes itself on the poem. The men do not believe otherwise than that there is nothing left to believe in. They have no belief left at all, having died, become ghosts, dragged themselves home and found their homes abandoned. The Great War which started in England at least as a crusade, has been stripped of belief, leaving the men to wonder what they are doing here? Again that existential query echoes through the poem: What are we doing here? now that there is nothing to believe in.
I think we must approach this verse, which, as I suggest, is at odds with the tone of the rest of the poem, as a sudden intrusion planned as deliberately as everything else in the piece. For just a moment, for a few lines, Owen emerges as Owen, the gentleman officer, the public school graduate, the scholar of antiquities and of literature, to reflect on what all this confusion, misery and fear may mean. And indeed he does so. Home fires can no longer burn, he has said, and he goes on: “Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.” This reminds us of his poem, “Futility,” in which he laments that the sun upon the fields of home which always had wakened the dead soldier boy can do so no longer. “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all?” he famously concludes.
The sun, like the fire, is burnt out, its reviving warmth exhausted, as the men are exhausted. There is nothing more to hope for from it, and so, no hope of rebirth remains. “For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid,” he continues. The year is dead, the earth will never be reborn; and the men fear the fact. The love which ought to have animated their homes and kept them alive in its memory, is dead – and with that love, they died. They have nothing left to believe in nor anything left to live for, and so “Therefore, not loath, we lie out here,” Owen declares; “therefore were born.”
This is the ultimate admission of doom: These men were born for death – for this meaningless, fruitless death among the wired brambles and black snow and before the grey armies of the deadly dawn. Yet they acknowledge the fact; they embrace it, “For love of God seems dying.” This statement is double-edged: It means both that their love of God is dying, and that God’s love of them is dying. They no longer can bring themselves to believe that God loves them; neither can they anymore love God. If one is born for death, then why be born at all? Owen is saying here that he and his men are creatures of death, and can look forward to nothing but extinction, like the fire, like the sun, like the spring.
With this, the final verse returns us brutally to the trenches, invoking once again the bitter, killing cold. “To-night this frost will fasten on this mud and us,” he writes, making no distinction now between the men and the mud, since they are nothing but the cold clay of that star which the sun once so fatuously awoke. Then, finally, he turns our attention to the burying parties, “picks and shovels in shaking grasp,” who brave their way into No- Man’s Land in search of comrades, and pause over half-known faces. “All their eyes are ice,” he notes, in recognition of the fact that the dead have themselves become mere elements of the winter. It is a chilling, horrifyingly sudden image of death – not their bodies, not their limbs, but their eyes, open, staring at the storm, and like it silent, frozen. And again he adds: “But nothing happens.”
The refrain, introduced, abandoned like the home fires, brought back to brief life and then forgotten again, returns at last with hollow force. Like a theme and variations in Bach or Beethoven, it is repeated at the end, having thickened and deepened with the revelations which it prompted and which preceded it. It is no longer the idle, ironic observation of the first verse; it is now a general condemnation of the race, for which spring is dead, love is dead, God is dead. It is for this, Owen declares, that “we were born.”
We are reminded of Hopkins’ sonnet, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Maid,” the conclusion of which is the poet revealing to the little girl, Margaret, who weeps at the fading of summer, that death “is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.” In “Exposure,” the revelation is broader: in the salient trench of this black dawn, it is humanity Wilfred Owen mourns for.