Sunday, March 26, 2006

Y13: Satire, Irony and the Literature of War
-with special reference to the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon-

It’s probably fair to say that the dominant tone of First World War literature is irony.
Irony can be defined as: a mode of discourse for conveying meaning different from- and usually opposite to- the obvious, ostensible semantic meaning.
Irony depends on the exploitation of the distance between words and their contexts.
Irony can be comic or tragic, and often it’s both. For example, there is tragic irony in the meaningless deaths of many of the soldiers written about in war literature (the contrast between the accepted glory of dying for one’s country is in ironic contrast to the pointless slaughter of many Great War actions- something Wilfred Owen explores pointedly in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, for example). There is comic irony, of a morbid sort, in these kinds of events too (Burns’ traumatic mouthful of German corpse is described in Regeneration as ‘a joke’- both Rivers and Burns recognize that if Burns had landed in, say, a cow-pat, the event would be a good, funny anecdote. The fact that he landed in a rotting corpse does not drain the event of humour, it just makes it black humour- there is an ironic contrast in the relief of surviving the shell and the horror of what surviving the shell did to Burns’ psyche).
Sassoon’s irony is heavy and pointed. There is a good reason for this:
-Irony depends, as we have said, on the difference between words and their context.
-The context for the trench poets is that the war is pointless, badly run and horrific. However, the public still largely chose to ignore these truths or were so misinformed by government propaganda that they believed the war was efficient, necessary and glorious.
-Sassoon, and writers like him, therefore needed to point out the horror of the war (the context) before words like, ‘You Marshals, gilt and red, / You Ministers and Princes, and Great men,’ (‘Great Men’) can be seen for what they are- an ironic attack on those running the war, not a more traditional praise or glorification of them.
· Irony relies on techniques like understatement, paradox, puns and so on to point out the difference between the semantic meaning of the words and their meaning in context. There are examples of both puns and paradox in the lines from ‘Great Men’ quoted above. What are they?
· The irony in Great War literature is often satirical. Satire- pointing out human stupidity and folly- like irony itself, is usually both tragic and comic: it’s funny that our leaders are idiots, it’s also tragic that that our leaders are idiots!
· Irony also allows writers to hold events at ‘arm’s length’. This is often called ironic distance. It is an English trait to be suspicious of overt expressions of emotion, which is one of the reasons many Americans don’t ‘get’ English humour. Sassoon, brought up in a typically ‘English’ aristocratic environment, is conditioned into this sort of distrust of emotional expression. Add this to the psychological ‘danger’ of reliving traumatic war experience and it is not surprising that he often chooses to commentate on the conduct of the ‘top brass’, rather than ‘writing himself into’ the poems in a more emotionally direct fashion in the way that, for example, Wilfred Owen often does (on a simplistic level, Owen’s poetry is more often in the first person than Sassoon’s).


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