“…flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” Without context, this quote is just a meaningless jumble of words. Context plays a major role for modernist poets to communicate their message. The role of context is evident in Wilfred Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Futility. Owen is able to portray his messages effectively with the aid of the audience’s knowledge of the modernist period as well as his situation amidst the Great War.
In his modernist poem Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen capitalises on the audience’s knowledge of the period to present his message. Owen alludes to Roman poet, Horace’s, patriotic odes that preach about the glory of fighting as a soldier. Horace’s collection is deliberately alluded in the original Latin by Owen in the title and the closing of his poem. The line “Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori” in Horace’s poem- that it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country- is used by Owen as the overarching condemnation in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen questions this phrase throughout the poem and closes the poem with this line to allow the audience to reminisce on this line and whether it really is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. With the context of World War I, Owen effectively explored “the old Lie” and presented the truth of war.
Futility questions the value of life due to the inevitability of death. The title ‘Futility’ meaning pointlessness or uselessness immediately sets the theme of the poem. Owen echoes the idea of a useless life in the poem by using the Sun and Earth as metaphors. The Sun, Earth and seeds are things that support and provide life, however, Owen questions the purpose of the hard work of each. Owen poses a rhetorical question “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” to his audience. The Earth which Owen metaphorically presents as ‘clay’ allows him to explore whether life emerged from Earth just to die. The context of the horror and trauma of World War I made many soldiers question the value of life and thus Owen poses the same question to the audience. The first rhetorical question is then followed by another “O what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth’s sleep at all?” on which the poem ends. This final rhetorical question again doubts why the sunlight would bother to create and support life. Aporia is usually used at the beginning of a text, however, Owen has used it at the end of his poem. By doing so, he leaves the audience with questions to ponder upon similarly to the soldiers in World War I.
Overall, the context of the war has allowed Owen, a modernist poet, to convey his ideas to the audience. The importance of context is evident in Wilfred Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Futility where his messages are effectively communicated. Ultimately, if it wasn’t for context, Owen’s poems would be meaningless.