'Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry', wrote Yeats, attempting to justify his distaste for Owen. 'Exposure' gives a worm's-eye view of the front line, based on Owen's experiences in the winter of 1917, and passive suffering is what it is all about. 'Nothing happens', as he says four times - nothing except tiny changes in the time of day, the weather and the progress of the war. The men appear trapped in a No Man's Land between life and death, and the poem's movement is circular. When it ends, they are exactly where they were in the first verse.
'What are we doing here?' the poet asks in verse 2. The real cause of their suffering is that they are lying in the open under freezing conditions, with some psychological force forbidding them to get up and walk away. The parallel is with hanging on a cross, and verse 7 examines the possibility that they are suffering for others.
Two literary influences are present. 'Our brains ache' echoes 'My heart aches', the first words of 'Ode to a Nightingale', by Owen's beloved Keats. But he was aware that his generation was living through horrors which the Romantics had not dreamed of, and that in order to describe them, poetry had to change. He also has in mind Ivor Novello's song, 'Keep the home fires burning .... though your lads are far away they dream of home'. But in his dream of home, the fires are almost dead. 'Crusted dark-red jewels' is an example of the care Owen takes with small phrases; the fires are beautiful but, like jewels, offer no warmth or comfort. The house has been deserted by its human inhabitants and verse 6 suggests that if the young men went home they would not be welcomed. 'Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed', the poem laments, with the emphasis on us. They are compelled and expected to stay where they are.
Verse 7 appears to suggest that the men are Christ-figures, dying willingly - 'not loath' - for the sake of others, but Owen is not prepared to state this categorically and the words 'we believe' must be heavily stressed. 'Love of God seems dying'; the simple Christianity which he had once believed seems inappropriate. The last verse suggests that one more night in the open will finish them off.
The final version of this poem belongs to September 1918, a few weeks before Owen was killed, and it is mature and brilliant work. There are some daring half-rhymes - 'knive us/nervous', 'nonchalance/happens' - which come off, as does the short, simple, hanging line at the end of each verse.
Copyright: Merryn Williams, 1993 and 1999