How is war portrayed differently in ‘Birdsong’ and in the poetry of Wilfred Owen?

The outbreak of World War One in 1914 affected not just politics and the shaping of the modern world, but also on literature. Wilfred Owen’s poetry, written ‘on the butt of his rifle’ in the trenches, gives a harrowing real-life account of life in the trenches. Meanwhile, Sebastain Faulkes novel ‘Birdsong’ is a retrospective look into the lives of soldier’s fighting in France during the First World War.

In Part One of ‘Birdsong’, Faulkes depicts life in France with the Azaire family before the war. This is particularly effective when impressing upon the reader later in the novel the effect the war had on the country itself. When recounting a boat-trip the protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, takes with the Azaire family, Faulkes describes the surrounding scenery as “The gardens were formed by the backwaters of the Somme.” This shows the contrast between an idyllic location suitable for family boat-trips, and the site of one of the most terrible battles in history. However, in the same passage, Faulkes seems to allude to the terrible events that would happen. “Their hectic abundance seemed to him close to the vegetable fertility of death,” is possibly a suggestion that this place would be a place of death. Furthermore, “the brown waters were murky, and shot through with the scurrying of rats from the banks where the earth had been dug out of trenches and held back by elaborate wooden boarding,” seems to be an a description of the army trenches on the banks of the Somme. The location in whole is described as “a stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay.” This line clearly hints at what is to come. Sebastian Faulkes’ description in this passage mirrors what is going to come in the novel.

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A key difference that must be noted in the portrayal of war by both writers is of course the different genre of writing. Sebastian Faulkes’ prose allows for detailed character description and elaborate story telling. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is introduced in depth to a large cast of characters. There is first the journey of Stephen Wraysford, from his clandestine love affair with Isabelle Azaire to his appointment as an officer in the army. Alongside this, you have the stories of Jack Firebrace, Michael Weir and Elizabeth Benson. The poetry of Wilfred Owen is usually self-descriptive, although there are other characters described in poems such as ‘Disabled.’ His work very much describes his feelings, and his thoughts, as poetry is usually very personal to the author. The work of Faulkes doesn’t carry the same feeling that results from first hand experience.

Owen was very much opposed to the war, as his words in the poem “Dulce et decorum est,” suggest.

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori”

Owen says in this poem that it is not sweet and honourable to die for your country, and this sentiment is echoed in much of his work. His descriptions of the horrors he witnesses in the war are often gruesome, and highly graphic. “The blood comes gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,” is an example of this. Wilfred is depicting a soldier suffering from the effects of being gassed, and in doing so, the reader gets a good idea of what this would look like to one watching it.

In ‘disabled,’ Owen tells the story of a young soldier, who is the victim of amputation. Before the war, he had a girlfriend, he was handsome and he was looking forward to going to fight, as the line “And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers,” shows. Owen does not attack the reader like in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, instead choosing to show the soldiers future with an air of melancholy. “Waiting for dark,” suggests that he is waiting for death, and the first line of the final stanza “Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes-” shows how the boy will spend the rest of his life. Alone and injured.

It is difficult to compare the portrayal of war in the work of both Owen and Faulkes, due to the differences between style, time and form. However, Faulkes work is very much a novel written after the war. Despite graphic descriptions of both sex and violence, it is evident throughout that he is telling a story, and it is not just one of war. On the other hand, Owen’s pieces are full of the jarring emotion that one could only obtain from seeing the horrors of war. The feelings, thoughts and imagery in the poetry of Wilfred Owen are far more real that in the novel ‘Birdsong,’ and this, I believe’ is the key distinction.


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