Exposure Poem Annotated Bibliography
The context in which a poem was written can sometimes tell you more about its themes, message and meaning.
Some questions you might ask include:
- are aspects of the poet’s life reflected in the poem?
- is the time or place in which it was written reflected in the poem?
You will need to research the poet’s background to discover answers to these questions. But if you do write about a poem and its context, be careful to include only details that reveal something about the poem.
Context of 'Exposure'
'Exposure' gives a first hand depiction of life in the trenches
World War One began in 1914 and at first it was predicted that it would end swiftly. However, as both sides dug trenches across France and Belgium, the opposing armies became locked in a stalemate that neither side could break. By the winter of 1917 both sides had sustained massive losses and extreme cold weather made the misery even worse. It was said to be the coldest winter in living memory. The soldiers suffered from hypothermia and frostbite and many developed trench foot, a crippling disease caused by feet being wet and cold and confined in boots for days on end.
Owen and his fellow soldiers were forced to lie outside in freezing conditions for two days. He wrote: “We were marooned in a frozen desert. There was not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death… The marvel is we did not all die of cold.”
It was against this background that Owen wrote Exposure.
Owen and a number of other poets of the time used their writing to inform people back in Britain about the horrors of the war and in particular about life on the front line. The picture they painted contradicted the scenes of glory portrayed in the British press. Exposure is a particularly hard-hitting example of this.
Owen had joined the army in 1915 but was hospitalised in May 1917 suffering from ‘shell shock’ (today known as PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In hospital Owen met the already established war poet Siegfried Sassoon who, recognising the younger man’s talent, encouraged him to continue writing.
Owen eventually returned to the war but was tragically killed just days before the war ended; he was just 26. He is now regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war poets.
More about commenting on context.
In “Exposure,” Wilfred Owen depicts the fate of soldiers who perished from hypothermia, exposed to the horrific conditions of open trench warfare before dawn. Often, before death, soldiers would enter a delusional state in which feelings and memories of warmth clouded their minds; Owen portrays this through the imagery of “sunk fires” and other home comforts. The mood is sombre and heart-rending. There is a repeated refrain which represents the boredom of waiting for action experienced by soldiers during long extended battles. Therefore, Owen repeats the phrase ‘But nothing happens’ at the end of several stanzas; ironically as the most significant event does happen; their death.
The title is significant in several ways. The soldiers are exposed to two enemies; the Germans beyond no-man’s-land and the fierce elements which are more lethal than the humans. But Owen is also referring to his wish to make known — to expose — the incompetence of those in power whose failure to protect the men sufficiently from the weather leads them to die of hypothermia.
The poem comprises eight stanzas of five lines each, known as quintains. The lines are of uneven length according to the meaning the poet wishes to convey. There is no regular rhyme scheme. This is typical of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.
Language and Imagery
There are three extended images woven throughout the poem. The fierce weather — snow and frost and rain, describes the conditions suffered by the men — but it is also a metaphor for their death from hypothermia and the pointlessness of the war.
Another theme is that of its opposite, the sun, which represents the soldiers' homes, fading hope and the love of God.
Lastly there are military references; ranks of soldiers in grey uniforms, bullets, gunfire, and lastly the burying party; the inescapable structures surrounding their lives as soldiers.
Owen uses a range of techniques to give the poem coherence and unity, notably vivid use of visual language, long stretched-out lines to suggest waiting; good examples are in line two of stanza three, and the first line of stanza six. The last line of each stanza is short, two repeating refrains; ‘But nothing happens’ and the references to dying in stanzas five, six and seven. These serve to emphasise the themes.