Exposure - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Exposure

Owen uses two powerful similes in Exposure. In line 7, equating the harsh wind to ‘twitching agonies of men’ is a gruesome comparison that conveys a natural, merciless phenomenon in terms of vivid human suffering. In l.9, the mind-numbing power of the pounding the guns is proved by the men discounting it as just ‘a dull rumour’.

In complete contrast with the reality of the poem’s setting, the touch of snow is equated with an image of lying under a blossom-laden tree in England, touched by the gentle fall of petals dislodged by a blackbird (probably as it feeds its young) l.24. Within a line Owen evokes warmth, ease, procreation and fecundity.

Less positively, although the home fires contain glowing coals described as ‘crusted dark-red jewels’, this actually signifies a dying fire where coals are burning through to ashy crusts, a symbol of people’s waning interest in the fate of the exposed soldiers. They will not be there to embrace the men on their return – homes are empty of humans as loved ones have ‘moved on’. That the ‘doors [are] all closed: on us’ l.29 is also symbolic, representing the total alienation of the men on the front from those at home.

Investigating imagery and symbolism

  • Owen uses the imagery of England, with its home fires, sun-lit young, fruits and fields in Exposure as he does in Futility. Compare the similarities of Owen’s use of imagery in both poems.
  • How does the image of England emphasis the rawness of the men’s experience in Exposure?

Themes in Exposure

Shared endurance is at the heart of Exposure, with every stanza containing the pronouns ‘our’, ‘us’ and ‘we’ which give this poem its sense of men suffering together, comrades in arms and in death. Owen notes how ‘sentries whisper’ to one another, how the men share the same dream as they drowse, of their fellowship in suffering for those they love, and poignantly of how:

His frost will fasten on this mud and us. l.36

Despair: the poem is filled with the sense of the inevitability of death despite the fact that ‘nothing happens’. In an eternal present, ‘war lasts, rain soaks and clouds sag’ l.12 and even dreams of home do not suffice. Although the men cling on to the belief that their sacrifice is necessary for the survival of English life, their love for their homeland has become tentative, grown ‘afraid’ l.33.

Despair is allied to the theme of loss of faith. No longer do the men have a clear sense of purpose: ‘What are we doing here?’ they ask in line 10. They cannot console themselves that people care any longer about their fate – the symbolically empty home and dying fire portray the Home front as insensible and unconcerned. Most profoundly, ‘love of God seems dying’ l.35. God’s love for them is in doubt and their faith in him has dwindled. God now seems a tyrannical aggressor, ‘invincible’ and the controller of the cruel elements – it is ‘His frost’ that will attack and kill the men. Have they been created merely to serve as sacrifices to his greater purposes (l.34)? 

Owen frequently depicts dreams, which actually turn out to be nightmares. The dream of English life here is hollow. The flash of hope depicting Spring and resurrection in stanza seven is soon frozen out, the welcome of hearth and home dwindles and the men must resign themselves to turning ‘back to our dying’ l.30.

Investigating themes in Exposure

  • In Owen’s introduction to what would have been his collection of poems, he claims: ‘My theme is war and the pity of war.’ How far does Exposure provide us with an example of a poem which deals with these themes?
  • What other themes can you trace in Exposure?
    • Are they just different facets of war?
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