Pronouns in "Dulce et Decorum Est"

I have always been struck by Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est." The way it sounds when it's read, the biting tone, and the description of content always grab my attention. When reading for class today though, I was really intrigued by the use of pronouns. Specifically, the use of pronouns in the last stanza. Throughout the rest of the poem we know that "we" means the soldiers with the speaker and that "he" is the soldier that did not get his gas mask on in time. However, the ending stanza switches, and the speaker is talking to "you": 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace 

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— 

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.

And, for the first time, I wondered who "you" is. Is the speaker directing this towards the reader, meaning that he is hoping that no reader will perpetuate this lie? Or is there a more specific you that he is talking to? It seems it could be both, especially thinking about the teachers within All Quiet on the Western Front that pressure the students into thinking war is the best option for them, or even thinking about the White Feather campaigns. Either way, the biting, accusatory way the poem is written makes both possible and effective.  

Comparing WWI Poetry

I must first admit my preference for the more traditional war poetry we have read for class. There is something so beautiful about the lyricism of Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier," both melancholic and reflective, and the gritty reality of the trenches conveyed in Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." In part, Owen creates this striking atmosphere through his choice of jarring words like "smothering," "gargling," and "obscene."

Although poems like those mentioned above are set in opposition to more experimental, or Avant-Garde, poetry of the time, they are compelling and unique in their own right. For instance, Siegfried Sassoon's "They" utilizes a conversational form and a satirical tone, while Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches" features a rat as the unlikely central figure, placing the mundane as worthy of artistic reflection.

However, my preference for more traditional poetry does not stop me from appreciating that which is more experimental. Guillaume Apollinaire's "Thunder's Palace," for instance, had similarities to Rosenberg's poem in its focus on the seemingly mundane. It is extremely visual, laying the foundation for more abstract observations sprinkled throughout. The lack of punctuation gives it a fluidity not found in other poems mentioned. Apollinaire's "It's Raining" is even more experimental, taking the shape of falling rain. These new techniques in punctuation and layout make for a varied reading experience, putting into question the value of subject matter as well as form.

A Discussion with the Professor

Alfred Stieglitz’ proto-dada journal 291 offers an interesting look into the way the Dada movement sought to define itself; that is, by resisting definition. While 291 shows distinct influences of artistic movements that we have already studied, such a Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, there is something altogether different about Dada. The movement itself arose as a response to the sense and rationality that led to WWI; and so came to define itself by non-sense, non-rationality. Dada un-defines itself in this way. In the first edition of 291, Paul B. Haviland speaks directly to this constant state of anti-definition in a short article. The article is displayed like an interview, or a discussion. And unnamed “Professor” attempts to question the magazine personified. The dichotomy between the Professor and the magazine is an interesting one, considering the stance Dada takes on established knowledge. As an art form, Dada is interested in the rejection of the artistic status quo, evidenced most clearly in Marcel Duchamp’s provocative submission of Fountain (a signed urinal) to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. A submission which was rejected, with prejudice. Haviland’s Professor becomes a symbol of this formal establishment which seeks to make or at least maintain the idea of Art, capital A. Though the Professor does not reject Dada outright, they are still trying to force Dada, or 291 specifically, to assume a more recognizable, homogenized form. The first statement/question from the Professor, therefore, cuts directly to the problem of anti-definition: “What I wonder at, is why you did not tell the world what 291 is.” This sparks an interesting set of responses from 291 that frustrate and resist the Professor’s reasonable, logical attempt to categorize it. The responses have an almost Socratic quality, as in this short set of questions from the Professor in which they continue to ask what 291 is:

“Prof. - Precisely; but there is a logical sequence in the course of events. The past history of 291 shows it. . . You started with a fight for photography; you wanted your problem answered; “What is photography?”; you got the photographers together, you held exhibitions, you published reproductions of meritorious work; writers came who wrote about photography and out of all these efforts came an answer. We all know now what photography is, what it can accomplish; we have standards by which we can judge new work. What was 291 while all this was going on?

291 - Nothing but a laboratory, a place for experiments.

Prof. - And is it not still a laboratory, only with new problems to solve?

291 - That is what it is.

Prof. - And what is the object of a laboratory?

291 - To experiment.

Prof. - And what do experiments lead to?

291 - To finding out.”

This intentional obscurity on the part of 291 does not slow the Professor. From these responses they extrapolate a definition of the magazine, and establish a set of laws by which to govern its production. Ironically, this elicits a response from 291 that is as close to a definition perhaps as is possible to give, “But laws are the very things I have been fighting against all my life.” The Professor skirts this protest, citing the fallibility of words, and goes on to propose the great discoveries of 291 and Dada in general that are to come. It is a wonderful article that darkly foreshadows the fate of Dada, becoming the very thing it sought to oppose, Art. 

Avant-garde and the Great War

I found the contrast between our reading sets this week quite striking—jarring even—because we moved from some very traditional WWI poetry such as Rupert Brooke into the avant-garde world of Dada.  I must say that I am by nature firmly an admirer of the former, but I also find it interesting how my impressions of movements such as Vorticism and the avant-garde have become, if not quite sympathetic, at least more nuanced and understanding, throughout this past academic year.   Last fall in our Modernism course we studied Dada for a class period and learned Tristan Tzara’s tried-and-true method regarding “How to Make a Dadaist Poem” and it was quite entertaining working out just how the result was “like me.”  I also enjoyed discussing the “Dada Manifesto”, which taught me that everyone must listen for and move to the sound of his or her own “boom boom.”  Last week, when poring over the pages of BLAST magazine I couldn’t help but stand back in something of incredulous awe of the self-appointed Vorticists, who claim to build through destruction, all the while yelling VERY LOUDLY.  

Facetiousness aside, however, I have been fascinated by the vitality and conviction of these artists, but I must admit I have a difficult time connecting these movements in my mind to the events of WWI.  I can honestly say that until encountering the dichotomy of our war poetry this week I had not yet been able to connect these somewhat self-indulgent artistic movements (to my mind) with the terrible brutality of an ongoing and devastating world war.  Take, for example, a section of the 1917 Wilfred Owen poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” in which Owen discusses the horror of dreaming again and again of a man dying in agony due to a failure to get his gas mask on in time: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (l. 15-16), before addressing himself to the reader:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

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. (l. 17-20, 25-28).

Why it is so difficult for me to associate poems such as this above with avant-garde works on the same topic?  Perhaps because, as Marjorie Perloff notes in her article, “The Great War and the European avant-garde,” many avant-garde poets actually understood the war in an entirely different light.  Perloff highlights Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem on “War” in which he argues, “Before the war we had only the surface / Of the earth and the seas / After it we’ll have the depths” (l. 7-9).  Perloff notes that such early optimism may correspond to the inexperience of the for many involved, who, not realizing that many of their number would be soon killed in the fray.  However, according to Perloff, “What the Italian movement lacked, however, was a built-in critique that would have made poets, artists, and architects understand the downside of novelty and ceaseless change” (150).  It is not surprising, then, that, thirsting for an avenue their Manifesto “becomes a celebration of ‘the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness’” (145).  But what I find most interesting in this matter is Perloff’s statement that it is for the modern reader “accustomed to equating ‘war poetry’ with ‘anti-war poetry’” that “the response of the avant-garde to World War I must seem problematic” (161).  Thus, the poets of WWI—both those of the more “traditional” variety and those involved in the quest to “make it new”—were not of one mind chiefly because the poetry written during the war represents not simply one united whole, but instead a myriad of individual human experiences.

World War I Short Poetry and Nature

In the short poems offered for this week, nature is a consistent theme throughout. However, nature is not the friendly companion, or comforting force that it is in All Quiet on the Western Front. In "Dulce et Decorum Est," the soldiers are "cursed through sludge," and "deaf even to the hoots / Of gas-shells dropping softly behind" and somehow manage to march "asleep....lame; all blind." Nature is reduced to structureless mud, the gas shells hoot like owls and drop softly despite being shells shot from artlilery. The soldiers manage to keep moving despite the fact that they're asleep, lame, blind, and deaf. Nothing about Nature in the first stanza should work, but Owen offers it as a reality of Nature after World War I has gotten ahold of it. 


Sassoon's "They" is a short bit of criticism about religious backing for the war, with the maiming of soldiers (a corruption/weaking of natural forms) seen as the ultimate reality of war that the bishop character overlooks in favor of blind faith. I read "Everyone Sang" as the moment when the speaker dies and he joins a chorus of nature, where his "tears; and horror" can be taken away because he is now one with nature. 


Rosenberg, in contrast, offers nature (in the form of a rat) as a bridge between each front in the war. Basically, if the rat "touched this English hand," and goes on to "do the same to a German," then there must be a connection beneath the bloodshed and violence that promises something deeper and better than the horrors of the war. Brooke's "The Soldier" is depressingly accepting of his fate, but connects his burial to an eternal win for England. Even if he dies, his body will turn to dust and bear flowers or grass that is fed off of someone who was raised by the English. So England can lay claim to those growths, and forever claim the land he was buried in. Nature, then, is once again a force that stretches over the war and can offer success despite potential defeat.

Owen's poem is the bleakest and most graphic, and it also provides the most twisted form of nature as a victim of the war. Sassoon's poems show nature as a victim of war (the soldier's maimed bodies) as well as a reward for death that war cannot taint. It is Rosenberg that offers nature as a connection that even war cannot destroy, and Brooke that agrees with Sassoon's "Everyone Sang." This is an interesting dichotomy between the poets, and I'm interested in other poetry of the period. Is nature a pure force in the majority of works, or do most poets see World War I as so destructive that its power even stretches to the immutable presence of nature? 

The Use of Pictorial Representation in WWI Lit

While studying Alfred Stieglitz's Dada magazine and Guillaume Apollinaire's Il Pleut (It's Raining), it was interesting to compare the use of images in these two pieces to each other and to the vorticist images in BLAST. The images in BLAST were angular and acute, black and white. They used stark contrast of colors and severe angles to create powerful abstract images. 

Stieglitz's work in Dada utilizes depictions of machine-like objects that seems as if they might be found in a manual or a blueprint. While one of the objects looks like a lamp of sorts, I was unable to identify what the other machines might do. I know very little French, so I thought the text that accompanied these images might be about the way in which these images are utlized or what they represent as products of the war. However, after using a translator to help me with the French, I learned that the phrases are humanized, making the machienes seem alive (which I suppose is the purpose of a manual in the first place). For example, one image looks like a tool of some sort that might have a screwing device at one end (page 4). The text above it reads, "PORTRAIT D'UNE JEUNE FILLE AMERICAINE DANS L'ETAT DE NUDITÉ," which translates to "PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN GIRL IN THE STATE OF NUDITY." I'm not sure how to interpret this image when it is accompanied by this text, but I recognized that this sentiment is somewhat backward from what we encountered in Brittain's Testament of Youth, as she said that she was becoming an automoton - a machine. This image in Dada might suggest that the inverse is occuring and that machines are becoming more human throughout the war.

Guillaume Apollinaire's It's Raining also employs illustration to emphasize its message. Rather than seperating text and image, Apollinaire turns text into an image by typing his poem in such a way that it looks like streams of rain coming from the sky. Readers are meant to read from top to bottom rather than left to right. I read this poem aloud the first time I read it, and, for some reason, I actually found myself reading in a lower voice as I got closer to the bottom of the page. I think I was prompted by the way the poem was written to do this, and I was most intruiged by this use of image when comparing the three works.

BLAST, Dada, and It's Raining each find a way to diverge from artistic norms while effectively making simple images more complex. In BLAST, there is no color, no shading, and very few curved lines, yet the way in which the shapes and figures in the pieces are composed come together in an intruiging way. Wyndham Lewis is able to evoke emotion with mere shapes. Alfred Stieglitz draws a fascinating parallel between man and machine with his work in Dada by juxtoposing simple diagrams and thought-provoking French phrases. Guillaume Apollinaire manages to use literal imagery in his text with formatting, eliminating the need for a drawing.


Blast the Insistent

Examining the shifting narrative from the first issue of BLAST to the second was the key fascination for me this week.  Although what the magazine accomplishes for the print world is no doubt remarkable, I became primarily interested in the ways in which the Vorticists are fighting against the suggestion that something like “the war” could potentially disrupt the current movements in world of the arts.  In both issues of BLAST there is the same desperate desire to set their art apart from the Cubists and Futurists (as well as utter disdain for the abhorrently naturalistic Impressionism, that takes its inspiration from the insipidly feminine curvatures of the natural world), but what I felt differently in this second issue was a fervent desire to maintain the momentum of Vorticism, apparently lest the movement fade away into obscurity (or even in fear of this potentiality, but perhaps this is only my reading into matters after the fact).  In essence, Lewis & co. seek to assert that, although they are quite supportive of their nation, the war does not change in any way whatsoever the ways in which art is being reimagined and revolutionized in England; ie: even after the war concludes, Lewis & co. will still be those artistic “revolutionaries” in a new and vital movement.  It should, perhaps, not seem so remarkable that hindsight would prove such a drastically different reality, but it is striking to me just how completely the assertions made, both here and in pre-war writings throughout our semester—I have in mind Brittain’s early letters, and the pre-war editions of The Crisis—are proven to be an underestimation of the great and lasting trauma of WWI.  Understanding this, I know it is rather petty to feel that Lewis & co. are being, well, petty, to continue debating the truly great and wonderful difference between Vorticism and Futurism—and how both reject the terrible uncertainty of the natural world—in the midst of a terrible and nigh-worldwide catastrophe, but I suppose that one must continue their work in whatever way they see fit, even during times of crisis.

Nowhere was this struggle most apparent to me than in the section of the second issue of Blast, “Written from the Trenches” by Henri Guadier-Brzeska.  Guadier-Brzeska was a French sculptor, one of the “Vorticists” who signed the initial manifesto, and was apparently quite involved in the initial movement, for according to the Modern Journal Project’s “BLAST: An Introduction,” he assisted in disrupting a meeting where the word “Vorticist” was mispronunced by “hissing ‘Vorti-cc-iste’ while the other Vorticists disrupted the event” (qtd. In Morrison).  Even having read of his earlier exploits, however, I was still quite surprised by what he writes and sends while fighting during the war.  When he declares in the second issue of Blast: “I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life” (33), I imagined he would then describe the warfront for the reader, but instead the emphasis is placed upon his steadfast loyalty to the Vorticist philosophy, for “MY VIEWS ON SCULPTURE REMAIN ABSOLUTELY THE SAME” (33), and he even feels capable of suggesting that “THIS WAR IS A GREAT REMEDY” because “IN THE INDIVIDUAL IT KILLS ARROGANCE, SELF-ESTEEM, PRIDE” (33).  A shocking proposal, indeed.  Finally, I was quite surprised by his need to do an “experiment” in order to prove that the Vorticist ideals are still relevant, even during times of war:

“I have made an experiment.  Two days ago I pinched from ran enemy a mauser rifle. Its heavy unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful IMAGE of brutality.

I was in doubt for a long time whether it pleased or displeased me.

I found that I did not like it.

“I broke the butt off and with my knife I carved in it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred.


What are we to make of such insistence on the necessity of Vorticism when surrounded by the physical horrors of the war?  Perhaps finding comfort in the precision of “lines and planes” may be a comfort in the midst of chaos?  I am unsure, but although I understand each individual wartime experience may be vastly different, I am struck by just how dissimilar this account of the war-front is to many we have encountered previously.  When I think of Vera Brittain’s adjustment to her contact with the natural (and somewhat grotesque, granted) human body in the various hospitals in which she worked, or Erich Maria Remarque’s descriptions of an entire troop of German soldiers returning to an almost return to Eden relationship with “mother” earth, I am captivated by the way in which some wartime experiences seem to strip away much of the desire to engage in civilized trivialities.  Perhaps this only shows my own ignorance of the Vorticist ideals, but I would expect that, under such conditions one would cease to argue for any movement in particular.  Indeed, a short notice located at the end of the piece brought home a sense of grim futility to me, for we are told on the very same page where this argument appears that “after months of fighting and two promotions for gallantry Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in a charge at Neuville St. Vaast, on June 5th, 1915” (34).

Image of Gaudier-Brzeska's self-portrait found at:

The Lessened Aesthetic Impact of Blast Vol. 2

Something I noticed looking at both issues of Blast is the amount of empty space left in both issues. When compared to something like The Crisis, which packs every inch of their pages with text or pictures or advertisements, Blast looks sparse, even in the second volume, which, as Kelsey points out, has a more traditional journal layout.

But I think part of why Blast's second issue falls flat for me circles around to a comment my father always made about my jokes; if they are funny, they are only funny the first time. I think the same reasoning applies here, but I am not saying Blast is a joke of a publication. Once something has been shocking or affective, it proceeds to be less so the second time around, and even less so the third time, and so on and so on. The first issue of Blast was, according to Morrison, a manifesto and call to arms for the latent avant-garde movement in London at the time. Blast's first volume is a mess of capitalization, bolded words, and lists, all scattered across the page with what seems to be carelessness. If this was going to be effective, it was only going to be effective once. Blast's second issue, to me, feels like an aesthetic and stylistic defeat, as it falls back towards standard journal format, regardless of what the content inside may be. For what it's worth, I think Blast Vol. 2 has some fascinating thoughts on the war and warfare in general, positing that humanity may very well end up in a state of perpetual warfare (13), which has actually kind of happened. However, I had to try harder to zero in on these insights, because I found the second issue of Blast to be a bit of a chore to read.

The Evolution of BLAST

BLAST has always fascinated me, but I've never taken time to consider the two issues side-by-side until now. As is true with many feature films in the present era, the sequal wasn't as inspiring as the original in terms of design. I was suprised by how traditional the wartime number looked compared to the orginal publication. In the first edition that was published in 1914, the aesthetic was more experimental in every way. The minimalistic pink cover of the first edition is more striking than the artistic yet nuetrally-colored cover of the second edition. Despite the avant garde nature of Wyndham Lewis's work on the 1915 cover, the art itself is still familiar to a reader that picked up BLAST 1 (I found the cover art to be very similar to Lewis's Slow Attack [image vi. in the first edition], though perhaps that's my undiscenring eye.) One obvious difference between these two images is the prescense of human figures, and this feature of human abstractions appears in many pieces throughout the second edition. 

Another obvious difference between these two publications is the way in which the text is formatted. In the 1914 edition, BLAST uses a variety of fonts and text sizes on the same page; blocks of words, phrases, and paragraphs are pieced together like a puzzle. This practice is evidenced throughout the Manifesto, more specifically. However, in the second editon, most of the text is organized in sensicle columns, more akin a newspaper. This certainly dulled my experience as a reader of the text.

I would be really curious to see any work that had gone into a third edition of BLAST to see if it followed the vorticism exhibited in the first edition or if it continues to return to more tradtional styles.

Health, Nursing, and Propaganda in "The Crisis" 16.4

While searching through various issues of "The Crisis" for content related to the War, I stumbled upon an article entitled "The Health and Morals of Colored Troops" from vol. 16 no. 4 that made me think more critically about the Keene chapter that we read for this week.  Although Keene is dealing almost exclusively with poster propaganda, "The Health and Morals of Colored Troops" addresses all the ways in which the United States Army is attacking the problem of sexually transmitted infections and diseases that Keene also mentions in her chapter.  As I read through this rather extensive list of actionable items (more STI/STD prevention than what is taught in many schools now), I found myself wondering why a captain in the medical division of the army would feel compelled to share this information with a larger audience than the soldiers the army is trying to protect.  I found myself wondering if this was mean to allay public fears that sending your son off to the army might also mean that he loses not just his health, but his sense of moral rightness.


Complicating this narrative around health and morals is the fact that this article is immediately followed by three pictures of African American nurses marching in various cities throughout the United States.  In almost every picture, the United States flag accompanies the Red Cross flag as the women march down a crowded road.  Although there is no explicit call to action in these photos or even in their descriptions, I think they do hit on what Keene describes in her chapter as using visuals to draw a particular response from viewers.  In this case, these picture show that African American women can also participate in the war effort outside of just conserving food.  Considering that these pictures also follow a lengthy description of all the health services needed to be provided to African American soldiers, I could not help but think the placement of these photos as operating on at least an unconscious level which "The Crisis" readership may or may not recognize.