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Wartime Writings and Paintings


Any war may be considered a sore on the body of humanity and the history of development of human society. War is the greatest punishment for human beings as it is the monster that indiscriminately takes lives of those who attack and those who try to defend their lives and country. Deep grief and horrors of war affect all people despite their age, religion or occupation. However, in the atmosphere of general panic and fear, courage and sacrifice are always needed to continue military confrontation. This is why governments of the countries involved in wars pay special attention to patriotism of citizens, inspiring the creation of patriotic literature during wars. Still, patriotic wartime literature is opposed by the literary works of those poets and artists who took part in military actions. John Nash, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg witnessed the horrors of war, and their painful experience found reflection in their works. The common aim of their works was to open ugly truth about nightmares that came true at war; they showed terrible doom of soldiers instead of the nobility of sacrifice in the name of the country.

Main Body

John Northcote Nashe’s painting “Over the Top”

John Northcote Nashe’s painting “Over the Top”, the one that is exhibited in the Imperial War Museum, shares the artist’s experience of fighting in the First Battalion Artists Rifles. The painting presents the picture of the attack, during which about seventy soldiers out of eighty were killed at the very beginning of the attack, the artist was among those twelve who managed to survive the horror, and the painting was created three months later (Gregory 176). “Over the Top” presents a frame from the artist’s past experience, it is striking due to its authenticity. Nash pictures suicide attackers and there is nothing heroic in the picture, we only see people doomed to death.

Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Nash’s painting may well be used as the illustration to Wilfred Owen’s most prominent poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”. In fact, the events presented in the poem resemble the event depicted by the artist. “Dulce et Decorum Est” is the soldier’s argument with the Roman poet, Horace, and his idea “that it was a sweet and noble thing to die for one’s country” (Spurr 65). By means of resorting to the quotation of Horace, Owen shows the other side of the coin of patriotism. The poem describes the war experience as a terrible nightmare. This may be proven by the fact that the events described by the poet are going on very slowly, this is the typical pattern of a nightmare, when a person wants to act as fast as he can but finds it impossible. This may be observed by the following examples: “All went lame”, “stumbling” (Owen 543). Thus, by means of creation of the impression of involvement of the reader, Owen is trying to create the visualization of the events described in the poem. This visualization is the direct reflection of Nash’s painting that proves the sameness of the author’s ideas. Besides, the poet’s main aim is to expose the real image of a soldier as the one that may be characterized by weakness and inability to resist the situation. Horrific imagery of the poem vividly presents the image of a real soldier who is “drunk with fatigue”, “blind”, “asleep” instead of being a man with supernatural power (Owen 543). For this purpose the author intentionally makes use of such similes as “like old beggars”, “coughing like hags” (Owen 543), which, certainly, do not correspond to the image of a heroic soldier. The same thing may be observed in “Over the Top”, where the men are stooping, their heads bent down. They are, evidently, not eager to sacrifice their lives, they understand that they are going to a slaughterhouse.

Rosenberg’s “Break of the Day in the Trenches”

As for the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg, it is also characterized as “astonishingly mature”; just as Owen, he “mixes disturbing images with poignantly restrained detail” (Carrington 272). The events described in the text of the poem “Break of the Day in the Trenches” by Rosenberg may be treated as those that precede the events of “Over the Top”. The imagery of the poem differs from the one applied by Owen, as it is more figurative, more allegoric. The poem suggests the idea about loneliness and isolation of a soldier whose only interlocutor at the dawn is the rat, which can be with him and then it can go to the enemy’s camp. The rat is a primitive creature, but the poet describes its “strong … [with] fine limbs” and “haughty athletes”, people “have less chance than [the rat] for life” (Rosenberg 544). Thus, he also undermines the image of a strong soldier who is less powerful than a small rodent. One more image, the image of a poppy that is the symbol of sorrow is used by the author. The narrator sticks “a parapet’s poppy” (Rosenberg 543) behind his ear, this action draws a parallel with the future grave of the soldier and poppies that will lie on it. One more association that is created with the poppy behind the ear is the bleeding wound that is sure to appear on the soldier’s head in the next battle.

Sassoon’s “Suicide in Trenches”

Speaking about Sassoon, the interesting fact about him is that “he did have his antiwar poems published during the war” (Weinen 29) and his poetic style has much in common with the styles of abovementioned authors, but, at the same time it has its own features. The poem “Suicide in Trenches” shows the ugliness of soldiers’ routine, terrible conditions they have to suffer: “crumps and lice and lack of rum” (Sassoon 38). There are corpses of soldiers in the trench in the painting of Nash; maybe one of them is a soldier from Sassoon’s poem. The author shows futility of the sacrifice of a man, his character commits suicide, unable to cope with war but he is soon forgotten, because human life means nothing at war. One more thing deserves mentioning: in comparison with the previous poems, the style of this poem is rather light, but it conveys the author’s sarcasm and his dissatisfaction with the situation at the battlefield.


Drawing a conclusion, it should be stated that it is impossible for those who have faced the pale face of death, who have felt its putrid smell, to inspire other people to sacrifice their lives in the name of their country. However, Van Weinen states that the poets “were not altogether solitary, individual geniuses, but rather members of a community of antiwar protesters”, but Weinen cannot see in their works the ground for effective protest (29). Still, the impact of the poets into antiwar movement should not be underestimated. As the inscription on the stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner says (quoting Owen): “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” (Owen unpaged). This idea unites all the poets and Nash as well. They have achieved their primary aim; they have shared with the readers their personal past and their personal pain done by the war.

Works Cited

Carrington, John. Our Greatest Writers: And Their Major Works. Oxford: How To Books Ltd., 2003.

Gregory, Barry. A History of The Artists Rifles. London: Pen & Sword. 2006.

Owen, Wilfred. Preface. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Hogarth Press, 1985. Web.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia NY: Longman, 1999: 543-544.

Rosenberg, Isaac. Break of Day in the Trenches. Collected English Verse. Ronald and Margaret Bottrall. London, 1969: 543-544.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. London: BiblioBazaar, 2007.

Spurr, Barry. Wilfred Owen. Glebe: Pascal Press, 2004.

Van Wienen, Mark W. Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


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