‘Exposure’ offers an in-depth view of life in the frosted winter of Northern France, where soldiers on duty would be left exposed to the elements. Sometimes soldiers would march during the night, and given the frigid temperatures that beset Northern France in the winter, would be in danger of frostbite and pneumonia.
It is one of Wilfred Owen’s last poems, written in September 1918, a few weeks before he was killed.
The coldest winter was 1916-17. The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact the only time… I didn’t actually cry but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire. We were in the Ypres Salient and, in the front line, I can remember we weren’t allowed to have a brazier because it weren’t far away from the enemy and therefore we couldn’t brew up tea. But we used to have tea sent up to us, up the communication trench. Well a communication trench can be as much as three quarters of a mile long. It used to start off in a huge dixie, two men would carry it with like a stretcher. It would start off boiling hot; by the time it got to us in the front line, there was ice on the top it was so cold.
— NCO Clifford Lane.
Analysis of Exposure
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
The beauty of Owen’s poetry lies in the simplicity of his words: he does not need to tangle himself up in words to show what he means. The opening stanza delivers us to the bleak French landscape without delay, and Owen brings the surroundings alive by using action verbs. For example, ‘our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us’. Not only that, the use of his language shows that the soldiers are truly alone in a hostile environment. Even nature has turned against them. Even nature is angry at them.
They exist in their own world, and yet, as we can see from the stanza, they seem to scarcely exist at all. Tired and aching, they trudge onwards – the silence offering them enough threat to stay awake, and thus, through Owen’s description, we, as well, are afraid of the silence. There is so much in the first stanza that is building, the atmosphere pushing up to an almost tangible point by the end line ‘but nothing happens’, and while the phrase helps to entrench the idea of immovability, of soldiers, stuck, it seems to hint that something is on its way to happening.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
In the second stanza of ‘Exposure,’ Owen introduces the war: always present, even when it is not visible. The phrase ‘twitching agonies’, although simple, helps to nudge the reader into the poem. Also, note the distant prevalence of war; although not immediately there, the presence of it is felt in the simplest of words – ‘the flickering gunnery rumble’, ‘the dull rumour of some other war’.
Once more, Owen shows the confusion of soldiers by asking, ‘what are we doing here?’ near the end. It is no secret that this war was not meant to last as long as it did and that by the time it was in its second year, many soldiers were fighting not for king or for country, but because they were there.
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
The awful continuation of war seems to be a cycle – ‘we only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy’, an inevitable fact of life, a piece of nature that the soldiers have now taken to be as accurate as possible. Everything is war. Dawn masses her melancholy army, ‘attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey / but nothing happens’. Again, the use of ‘but nothing happens’ works twofold: to heighten the atmosphere of ‘Exposure,’ and also to show the terror of living, day in, day out, waiting for death. It is a simple mechanism, but it works especially well in this part of ‘Exposure.’
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Nature, here, seems to be an attacking force itself – the bullets are ‘less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow’, the wind is nonchalant at their suffering. Owen gives the impression that the soldiers have been lost in a drifting, desolate land, where everything at their beck and call is going to attack them, where everything strives to see them hurt.
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?
Note the misery inherent in these few stanzas. The soldiers have been beaten – not by the Germans, but by the weather, the awful, crushing weather that has left them unable to fight, that has dazed their minds to days of brighter futures, that has left them in a shell-hole of misery. They have reached the point that the despair they feel feels almost like death, and there is no way out of it, not for these soldiers. There is no stanza that helps to lift the poem, ‘Exposure,’ up; it is singularly and wholly sad, reflecting the soldiers’ situation.
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.
Even in peace, there is exhaustion – ‘slowly our ghosts drag home’. And there is the sense, here, that peace is not really for them. It is glimpsed, not attained. ‘Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed’, Owen writes, and this shows the distance between soldier and civilian, that the soldiers cannot envisage, anymore, a state of peace. They are at war, and thus their lives have been completely swallowed up by the presence of war.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
The despair reaches a point in the final two stanzas of ‘Exposure.’ This is where action, should it happen, must happen – however, nothing does. The soldiers die alone, in a field, frozen, and are found by the members of the army that bury the dead. They come across them in this field, and wait for something to happen – but nothing does. All of the soldiers have died miserable and far away from home, scared and in pain, and the final ‘but nothing happens’ seems to serve as an idea that these things cannot be changed now. This is the way that life is. There is no way out of this life but through death.
“We were behind the line; we were in reserve, we were at Mametz Wood. We were under canvas in the middle of winter, this was December and I’d been down on a course and had come back. And my kit had gone on up, I knew where the battalion was, I was there before I left, I knew the way up to the battalion and had left my kit to be sent on, my valise, to be sent up with the rations. But my kit never arrived and I had no cover and the battalion had only one blanket per man. It was a very hard frost and I arrived at this place very hot and sweaty and got a chill and was carried down from that to hospital.”
– Charles Wilson, September 1917.