Exposure – Wilfred Owen
The final version of Exposure was written in September 1918, just a few weeks before Owen died. The theme here too is unnecessary death and suffering in war but the accent here is death by cold rather than by fighting. There is inactivity in the front but the cold with weapons like snow and freezing rain is as potent as bullets and gas bombs.
The bleakness of the landscape chills the readers even decades after the First World War. The soldiers were ill clad and trench warfare meant wallowing in freezing water for days on end. Adding to the misery was disease, hunger, poor sanitation and physical discomfort. Exposure is not Owen’s best acclaimed poem but it is definitely one of his bleakest. The inactivity was draining. Owen makes us realize that as many lives were lost to disease as to bullets. These figures may not appear in accounts of the war as they are not heroic but Owen wants us to realize that death is death. It’s final.
This poem is about a lull in fighting, the cold is bitter and the troops wait nervously for something to happen. Now the deadly enemy is not the man on the other side but the cold wind with a knife’s edge. The men huddle in the trenches as disease and weather hunt the weak ones. The wind is like a demented soul, the wire fences strain and shudder. Far away they can hear the guns booming but here all is quiet. The rumors however tell of action waiting in the wings. Most of the men out there don’t understand what this war is all about. Suddenly there is a flurry of bullets but they whiz past without causing harm.
Many die of the cold and their ghosts wend their way homewards. But they are greeted by shuttered houses, now home to rats and mice. The soldiers seem to lose faith in God’s love. Did God intend that they should die? By the time the grey dawn breaks, many would have died. The burial party will arrive with shovels and some will half recognize a face with eyes that have iced over. Even when all this has happened, everything is quiet on the front.
There is an unnerving silence in the front even as the cold East Wind howls, freezing the soldiers who wait in anticipation in the trenches. The lull in fighting keeps them on edge as they are confused about what to expect next.
The wind whips everything around blowing like one demented. From far away, they can hear the boom of the artillery and the flash from the guns. The inaction here makes the soldier wonder why they are in this hell, fighting this war.
Soon its dawn but here there is no fresh hope. The east is laden with leaden clouds that fast turn to icy rain. But on the front, all is still quiet.
Suddenly there is a flurry of bullets. But as of now, the buffeting wind driving the black snow is a more deadly enemy.
The snowflakes stealthily land on the faces of the soldiers as they huddle in the trenches. Crouched there, almost delirious, they think of an idyllic rural scene, where in the grassy ditches flowers bloom in profusion and the land is awash with warm sunlight. Among the brambles, blackbirds nest. The poet wonders whether these hallucinations indicate that they are dying.
Taking the theme of dying further, the poet imagines their ghosts going home expecting a warm welcome. But the homes are shuttered and drawn and mice have taken over. They are forced to return to the front where their companions are now dying.
The soldiers in varying stages of death are led to wonder whether God is forsaking them. People have always believed that God’s love is eternal and kind suns will forever shine on man, woman and child but now that no longer seems true.
By night many more would have died frozen hard by the cold. The burial party which will arrive carrying shovels may recognize some of the dead and pause awhile. Even then, all is quiet on the front.
The bleakness in this poem is unrelieved by any brightness or even a glimmer of hope. Young men die to no purpose as nations fight wars that make no sense. Even when there is a lull in fighting, there is death stalking among the trenches.