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A Critical and Contextual Analysis of Wartime and Religious Poetry and How They Are Used as Propaganda

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People in the modern world had never seen warfare so shattering as World War 1, and because of this, had very little idea as to what devastation could be expected. This is highlighted by jingoistic poems such as ‘Who’s for the Game?’ By Jessie Pope and ‘Fall in’, by Harold Begbie. This essay will discuss what methods were employed in these poems that were used as part of a political campaign in Great Britain to encourage military enlistment. In response to these naive representations of war, poets who had experienced the cold and harsh reality of life on the front line such as Wilfred Owen, developed his own kind of literary retaliation; used for the purpose of truth. The essay will discuss the religious connotation found in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and assess the context of Owen’s clear affront to the manipulation of Christianity by institutions of governance in ‘Insensibility’.  Since the end of WWI, people’s values have altered significantly; including the fall of religious influence in the United Kingdom and the rise and perversion of such beliefs in the Middle East. This essay will look at modern conflict poetry and compare it with the literature of Owen, Pope and Begbie. Using the comparison, the essay will explore the context of shared patriotism across vastly different cultures, mutual displays in the poetry demonstrating dissatisfaction among populous’ regarding religion and political agenda, and similarities in language and form.

Jessie Pope wrote pro-war poetry between 1914 and 1918. Pope has been heavily criticised for her lacklustre poetry, and has been described as the poet readers ‘love to hate’ (Pruszewicz, 2015). With the ‘benefit of hindsight, the sentiments now seem crass, even sinister, and the light, tripping style’ of her poetry ‘appallingly inappropriate’ (Pruszewicz, 2015). Pope’s opening lines in her poem ‘Who’s for the game?’ (See Appendix A), invites the reader to embark on an adventurous journey and beckons them to sign up for the grandest game of them all. ‘Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played, The red crashing game of a fight?’ The use of the words ‘crashing’ in the first, and ‘grip’ and ‘tackle’ in the following couplet, are light-hearted and boisterous when setting the scene of what a ‘lad’ could easily compare to a fun, highly charged game of rugby. The word ‘red’ is associated with lust and glory and most importantly, the socialist movement. This political evolvement influenced by Chartist and Marxist views and with the influence of trade unions would have developed a more politically opinionated youth group by this period of time, particularly after the first liberal government was voted into power in 1906. The colour red is very deliberate and is a misleading use of imagery that would make young working class men believe that they were fighting for a cause true to their hearts, an image highly associated with revolution and social change. Furthermore, Pope uses cowardice as a way of manipulating public opinion so that young men will feel even more pressure to enlist. ‘Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid? And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?... And who wants a seat in the stand?’, are all lines that use patronising language, designed to influence public perception of men who chose not to enlist. Pope also uses a man’s sense of duty to encourage enlistment, she refers to going to war as a ‘job’; Something that was not only desperately needed in those days, but also had connotations of social status. A job is something a man is duty-bound to do; particularly in a bid to provide for his family, a cause certainly worth fighting for. Additionally, Pope personifies Great Britain to make Great Britain feminine, ‘Your country is up to her neck in a fight, and she’s looking and calling for you’. This evokes the chivalrous duty within a man to protect a lady. It’s also preying on the desire of boys to become men; Pope insinuates that boys will become men if they go to war. The poem doesn’t offer an incredible amount of subtext, it is simply written and designed so that the masses, the uneducated and the young could understand it. To reinforce this, the rhythm of the poem reflects that of a nursery rhyme, possibly the only kind of poetry the targeted audience would be familiar with. It must be considered though that in context of the beliefs of this time and the heavy sense of patriotism within Britain, that Jessie Pope was certainly not alone in her way of thinking. It was only after the war that artists such as Stanley Spencer described his war time experiences as ‘as a disruption to his development as an artist and as a loss of innocence’ (TheConversation, 2014). Regardless of the clear sentiment of obsessive nationalism, no one was aware of the horrors that would ensue.

Pope and Begbie used a jingoistic style in their writing in the form of social commentary. Social commentary is a way of raising issues in society by appealing to a community’s sense of justice (OxfordDictionary, 2016). In poetry, this is done by asking rhetorical questions. The subtext of this choice of style for both writers is that if a person does not enlist; questions will be raised about their patriotism, their cowardice and their scruples.

The poem ‘Fall in’, by Harold Begbie (See Appendix B), was one of the most popular WWI poems and encapsulates the scale of peer pressure that was put on young men to enlist. Similar to Pope’s boy’s to men implication, Begbie uses the lustful attention that men receive from girls if they are war-time heroes, or more aptly, the ‘lack’ of attention, if they aren’t. This is demonstrated in the opening stanza of the poem, ‘What will you lack Sonny, when the girls line up the street, shouting their love to the lads to come back, from the foe they rushed to beat?’. Begbie uses multiple instances of manipulation to emasculate a man should they not support the war effort. ‘Where will you look?’ in the second stanza, suggests that a man won’t be able to look his children in the eye should he not have carried out his duty by enlisting, playing on the respect a family shows the father as head of the household. First published in the Daily Chronicle in 1915 and subsequently on posters and in magazines, ‘Fall in’ is a simple poem similar to that of Pope’s poetry. Ultimately, used wholly as a tool of propaganda. Furthermore, a traditional element of propaganda is that they are alarmingly obvious and memorable. This led to poems created for purposes of propaganda, being transformed into song; a method that is still used heavily in the middle east today. Fall in, as a war tune, is sung to a fast paced marching beat (see Appendix C), and used to pass time as soldiers would march. It is entirely possible in addition to the obvious connotations of propaganda, that the deliberate language selected to provoke thoughts of loved ones, children, and the thrills of girls are present to provide the soldier with thoughts of home; and that in this case, a sad poem masked with the patriotic beat of comradery could provide in some form, comfort.

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