Exploring Conflict in Poetry
Conflict is a very comprehensive theme that could be interpreted positively or negatively. It is often associated with physicality and violence but people rather forget that internal conflict exists. It is when the mind of a person experiences clash of opposing feelings or needs followed by a serious incompatibility between two or more principles and opinions. Conflict embodies an obstacle to overcome and in this essay, I will present how these poems propose the theme of Conflict.
First on the list is the poem Prayer Before Birth. Written towards the end of World War II, Louis MacNeice expresses his fear of the world from the perspective of an unborn child. The narrator seeks help from a higher power to prevent from the frightful life on what the earth might hold. This poem deals with the unborn’s internal conflict. It creates a horrifying scene of the dehumanising effect of war. MacNeice uses a number of literary devices to make the stark truth behind the poem clear. The most noticeable among these is the repetition: “I am not yet born”. It appears in the beginning of every stanza and this is seen as hypnotic because it reminds the readers that all these thoughts are coming from someone who hasn’t even seen what the Earth looks like. It also highlights the innocence of the narrator. The poet might have done this to make us realise that we might be living in a manipulative world where we are coerced into being a certain character without realising. “Tall walls wall me” might indicate imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical. This internal repetition of ‘tall walls wall me’ create a feeling of oppression and claustrophobia. It illustrates the hopeless task of trying to escape the danger and corruption.
Analysing deeper into the context of internal conflict, the narrator deals with his own optimistic views of the Earth. In stanza 3, the poet might be trying to prove that we were all once innocent in the quote “Birds and a white light in the back of my mind to guide me” and that we were all born with ‘a light’. It might also suggest that the narrator might have some faith in humanity knowing that deep down inside there’s a ‘good’ in everyone to help kill the pessimistic views. On the other hand, the weakness within humans might have rose in this quote. Even though, we live in a manipulative world, at the end of the day, it is us who choose to activate the light within us or let it die with the rest of humanity. This shows the recklessness within us; letting others exploit our life. ‘Birds’ symbolises freedom and still in the narrator’s mind, faith might be a dominant feeling. The narrator wishes that people could unleash themselves and be independent. In addition, the sibilance of ‘sky to sing to me’ creates a much gentler sound than the harsh alliteration ‘drugs dope’ from the stanza before. Personification throughout this stanza gives nature the properties that are usually used to describe humans, and this contradicts with the narrator’s previous views on society emphasising how abysmal the human nature is.
In the 4th stanza, the child expresses its fear of becoming corrupted like everyone else on Earth. The use of the 3rd person pronoun ‘they’ is slightly disturbing; gives a sense of the child being controlled by a faceless authority. Right when the readers think the unborn might have some hope in humanity, it impugns its previous points. In stanza 5, the use of personification “mountains frown at me” shows even nature is caught up in the dystopia. In addition, “white waves call me to folly” might resemble alcohol. ‘Waves’ usually creates a sea sick effect similarly to being drunk; MacNeice might be suggesting that the atmosphere is toxic and trying to infect people into acting reckless. This shows how the atmosphere may have somehow be influenced by the hopeless society.
The last stanza is flowing in metaphors as the poet describes how mankind will manipulate the actions and emotions of the child. “Dragoon me into a lethal automaton” is a very heavy statement in my opinion. The exquisite use of the word ‘dragoon’ makes the statement very sophisticated and catches the attention of the reader. This engaging quote however is a powerful metaphor that has multiple subliminal messages. The poet is suggesting that people are being coerced into doing something that pleases society more than themselves. ‘Lethal automaton’ is an archaic mechanism which performs anything according to set instructions. This is referring towards the human behaviour of being unemotional and passive. Further quotes that highlight the theme of conflict is when MacNeice wrote “a thing with one face, a thing”. Here, the poet has used repetition and metaphor to create the ‘unknown’. The word ‘thing’ has been repeated twice to emphasise that society might treat each other like objects rather than a person who has a heart and soul. ‘One face’ suggests limitation which would mean that the human capabilities are controlled.
Right from the title to the lethal ending, this poem casts a very harsh light on the evilness of society and the corruption of mankind all over the world. The fact that MacNeice had to take up the persona of the unborn child shows how little he thinks of Man. He was propelled to see it through the eyes of an unborn child, one that is still within the safe confines of its mother’s womb, to have an untainted point of view.
The second poem that discusses the theme of conflict is ‘A Mother in A Refugee Camp’ written by Chinua Achebe. This poem tackles the catastrophic atmosphere in a refugee camp from the perspective of a mother accompanied by her son. The opening line sets out a tone of grief when Achebe wrote “She soon would have to forget…” might suggest that something bad would happen that would cause negligence towards the son. It might also mean that the mother has to somehow move on from an unknown future event. The unknown causes readers to be curious and rather more engaged in the poem. Furthermore, Achebe used pathetic fallacy to reflect the actions and emotions in nature. “The air was heavy with odours of diarrhoea” clarifies my point. The word ‘heavy’ is used to describe the reader’s feelings towards this whole poem specifically this stanza when Achebe explains everything explicitly. It might also suggest that the situation there is very tense therefore it correlates with the word ‘heavy’.
Dwelling deeper in the theme of internal conflict, Achebe uses metaphor to unveil the mother’s emotion mentally and physically: “She held a ghost-smile between her teeth”. A ‘ghost smile’ could suggest that the mother might somehow be forcing herself to smile through the pain. It shows that it is not a lively smile or a smile that is usually associated with happiness because ‘Ghost’ is well usually linked with fear and agitation. This shows how the mother is dealing with her own internal battle knowing that she’s petrified but has to hide it for the sake of her ‘son’. The lines followed after this shows that she’s actually alone and has been visualising her dead son. “She had bathed him and rubbed him down with bare palms.” From the mother’s perspective, the author is trying to show how she might be attempting to do a mother’s typical chore: bathing her son with her bare hands, cleaning him metaphorically and literally. She misses him and wishes that she could feel his warmth for her own sake.
Similarly, the quote “a broken comb and combed the rust coloured hair left on his skull” further explains her sentiment. “A broken comb” might suggest a broken life. The author is trying to show that even with a shattered life, a mother will try to do anything to fix it. In this quote, the words ‘rust’ and ‘skull’ validates the death of her son. This also shows how she’s hallucinating and imagining what it’ll be like to literally have her son by her side. ‘Broken’ represents her mind, spirit and frail self. It vividly shows that she’s not as strong as we think she is. Her emotions are dominating her in a negative way and all she probably needs is a stronger support: her son. These last lines suggest that they lived a normal life and had a very repetitive ritual. “A little daily act of no consequence” suggests that there were no worries involved in whatever they did back then. They lived a life that they would never get back. “Like putting flowers on a tiny grave”. In this quote, Achebe reveals the son’s identity even more. The word ‘tiny’ suggests that he is still a boy and had very little experience in life. This leads to further heartbreak for the mother because all she always wanted was to see him grow.
On the contrary, Jessie Pope created a very controversial poem titled Who’s for the Game? It encapsulates her opinion of the culture: that war is fun, jovial and full of glory that any young man could earn if he only had the courage. Joining this horrible bloodshed is being encouraged by her to all men especially the younger generation. Her use of rhetorical questions influences the reader to truly consider enlisting and persuades them with lines like “Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?” Jessie Pope tries to manipulate people into believing that if they didn’t enlist for war they would be missing out on all the ‘fun’. In addition, she has never mentioned any disadvantages or negativity on war like the previous poem A mother in a Refugee Camp did. “You’ll come on all right” suggests that she is listing all the positive possibilities of a war and possibly shows that it is directed towards young men because of their naivety.
Conflict sparked further when Pope used a feminine quality to describe the country. Back in the days, women were perceived as vulnerable whereas men were the opposite: strong and protective. By referring the country as a ‘she’, Pope might be encouraging men to look out for the country as they would for their women. The quote “She’s looking and calling for you” gives us an in depth of her narrow thoughts towards stereotypes. It shows her stance on women; not independent and needing guidance from men.
Contradicting the whole idea of pro war, Carol Ann Duffy captures the reality of agony in the fourth poem War Photographer. Published around 1985, she casts a harsh light on the destruction and bloodshed which results from war and how apathetic and uncaring the rest of the world, who is not directly affected by it, is. Duffy focuses a lot on internal conflict from the perspective of a photographer back from war. The narrator deals with his own thoughts and thinking whether it’s morally acceptable to be photographing those in pain. “In his dark room he is finally alone” is a brilliant metaphor that lets the readers know the thoughts running in his mind. The word ‘dark’ might be reflecting his depression or the pictures that he is looking through. War pictures are never pleasurable to look at therefore correlates with the word dark. ‘Finally alone’ unveils the chaotic atmosphere of war and how he was never alone previously. The word ‘finally’ emphasises how he has been waiting for this moment out of misery.
Duffy shows a lot of contrasts between the life of the readers, the photographer and the
victims of war. In the second stanza, the photographer tries to decide if his job is morally accepted. He tries to avoid reality by justifying himself that “he has a job to do” and has to treat it just like anyone else would in their daily life. However, his true emotions become transparent when “his hands, which did not tremble then though seem to now”. He was physically steady when he took the war pictures but it changed mentally when he witnessed the results of his work. He drowns in fear and anxiety as he reflects the conflicted situation that he was involved in.
“Home again to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel” forces the reader to think about the contrast between the photographer’s life and those who were at war. People who live in comfort endure no real hardship often complaining about the weather and that is nowhere near real suffering. Duffy uses oxymoron in the phrase “ordinary pain” to suggest the photographer is rationalising the torturous memories. In addition, the quote “Rural England” further contrasts between the lives of each individual. Rural England is a place of serenity and safety and is a total opposite of the earlier mention of various war zones. This could be ironic because beneath the cosy exterior of England, there were undercurrents of conflict. People living in first world countries always become oblivious to the fact that small conflicts could turn into a big one anytime, hence acting unappreciative.
Clashes of emotions flood the narrator’s mind when he starts to contemplate his job. “From the aeroplane he stares impassively” suggests numbness that the narrator is going through. The photographer may care about his job but thinks his viewers may not, leaving him thinking that it is meaningless. He might feel ‘impassive’ because he is running away from the affected location and knows that he can’t physically do anything to help those suffering. The phrase “From the aeroplane” could be interpreted in many ways. One of them is that he is looking from above where things are a lot calmer and feels depressed because he cannot help the victims. He has reached the point of his career where he just doesn’t know what to do or feel anymore except for emptiness.
Doubts of the war photographer on ethicality and negativity of war is somehow ‘reinforced’ by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. This poem promotes anti-war and divulges into the horrific reality of war. Owen tries to influence people to witness the harsh atmosphere by his words as a British Army and call out poets and propagandists who praise the glories of war. Owen uses powerful imagery to depict the horror of war that can really only be understood by those who have experienced it first-hand. The quote “many had lost their boots” conveys that the men have marched so far and for such a long time that they are injured, are without their boots, are covered with blood and are limping along half asleep. In addition to this, the metaphor “drunk with fatigue” refers to how the soldiers have been working and fighting for so long they can barely control their actions anymore. They are so weary and suffered so much they are unfocused and practically ‘dead’.
In this poem, Owen focuses a lot on his own internal conflict dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of emotive language in the phrase “in all my dream, before my helpless sight” effectively conveys the sense of despair and futility felt by so many who fought in the Great War. Even when the war is over now, he is helpless to save himself from escaping the memories that continues to haunt him every day.
Similarly, in the last poem The Right Word written by Imtiaz Dharker, she touches on how it is unfair for young people to join the war. In the previous poem and this, there are no believes of optimism in war and how it is unfair for the families of the soldiers. Dharker stresses on how there are no benefits in joining war just to earn a ‘reward’ if you’re going to end up dying or hurting people surrounding you. Perception of people are being discussed in this poem dealing with doubts and clashes of emotions. The use of foreshadowing in the quote “Lurking in the shadows, is a terrorist” might imply something sinister and dishonest. ‘Shadows’ are often associated with eeriness and darkness. The poet’s fear identifies the person as a ‘terrorist’ possibly showing the stereotypes that people has these days. This doubt is followed by the sentence “Is that the wrong description?” possibly scared to get judged by others labelling the ‘unknown’. This shows a lot about how society nowadays care too much about what others think and often forget about themselves trying to please others. Along this whole poem, she continues her internal debate stating that she’s an ordinary human who’s just as baffled as anyone else and has no intellectual or superior knowledge. However, her doubt has somehow been answered when there “stands a martyr”. The ‘terrorist’ has been misunderstood and clearly shows how a person is perceived depends on how society wants to discern them.
“A child who looks like mine” unveils her loss of words at seeing a child so closely resembling her own. She feels intimidated by the thought of the child who could “look like your son too”. In this poem, she shows how easy it is to manipulate children and how we were all born with moral and respect.
In conclusion, I have learnt that majority of people suffer from their own thoughts and have doubts with themselves. All of these poems are related to war and that is the biggest physical conflict of all. However, each poet touches on the incompatibility of opinions whether that is individually or with other people. It is something to overcome with over the period of time but not every conflict has a resolution.