The poem begins with the words of God. He looks out over the world and decides that humankind has “forgotten” him. But, he also determines this can change. In order to make humanity return to his side, he “smote the earth with chastening rod” because “redemption comes through pain”. In the last three lines, the “desolation” God wrought upon the earth brought the people “agony” and they cried out “‘There is no God’”.
Poetic Techniques in August, 1914
‘August, 1914’ by Vera Mary Brittain is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets follow a very simple and unifying rhyme scheme of ABA BCB CAC. The meter is also regular, with eight beats per line.
Brittain makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘August, 1914’. These include assonance, alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The latter, caesura, occurs when a line is split rhythmically. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The last line is a great example of how strategically placed pauses in the text of a poem can add drama and suspense to important moments.
Assonance is the use and reuse of vowel sound within one line, or multiple lines of a poem. For example, the “e” sound in “Men” and “forgotten”. Its opposite, consonance, the repetition of constant sounds, could also apply here. Another example can be seen in “blinded” and “eyes” in the third line of the first stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “sleep shall” in the second line of the first stanza and “So since” in the first line of the second stanza.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a few examples within ‘August, 1914’, including the transitions between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines one and two of the third stanza.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of August, 1914
In the first stanza of ‘August, 1914’ the narrator tells the reader what “God said”. He was of the opinion that humankind had “forgotten” him among their own troubles and joys. God felt as though he was no longer the main source of adoration and reasoning. Therefore, he was forced to remedy this lack. He declared that,
The souls that sleep shall wake again,
And blinded eyes must learn to see.
God describes his intentions simply, as if to children. The lesson he’s about to teach humankind is much needed, or so he thinks. He compares humanity’s moral state to a sleeping being that must be taught to rouse itself. Humankind is “blinded” to God’s truth in the world and must “learn to see”.
With the title, ‘August, 1914’ in mind, a reader might be ready for what’s coming next. It is Old Testament God at his best, teaching humankind a lesson through sheer force. There is no mercy in his actions. He knows that “redemption comes through pain”. This statement made not by God but by the narrator is an interesting one.
It speaks to a larger sense of the world that will strike each reader differently according to their own morality. To the speaker, it is a simple fact that pain is the answer. This perspective is one that leads to war and countless deaths. Therefore, it can also be attributed to those who warmonger and any who seek conflict rather than peace.
God, in an effort to return humankind to their knees, “smote” or firmly struck the earth with “chastening rod”. The “rod” symbolizes the war, or the political climate and tension that started it. God sought to “chasten” or humble humanity.
This action brought with it “destruction’s lurid reign”. For years the earth was meshed in a world ruled not by reason or peace, but by “lurid” or shocking (also meaning explicitly unpleasant) destruction.
God’s desolation “trod” across the earth in the last stanza of ‘August,1914’. It is personified by Brittain and given the ability to move, as if human or animal, across the landscape. The “desolation” is, of course, World War I. But, the lesson did not turn out as God planned. Rather than turn the people back to him, and away from false idols and distractions, the “chastening rod” destroyed any remaining faith in God. The people cried out “in their agony,”
“There is no God.”
With this statement, Brittain concludes the poem. It is a powerful and moving ending that leaves one to consider the state of human spirituality, divine power, reasons and motivations for war, as well as what comes next. What do the countries involved in this wide-ranging “desolation” do to recover from it?