Studying And Writing About Literature
This essay aims to explore the similarities and differences between the poems “Vergissmeinnicht” by Keith Douglas and “How Sleep the Brave” by William Collins; concentrating on tone, structure, form, theme and how the theme is reinforced by imagery, diction and sound patterns.
The speaker in “Vergissmeinnicht” is the poet himself, Keith Douglas. He tells his audience about his own personal experience on the front line. The poem is aimed at a universal audience; Douglas seems to speak directly to the reader making his feelings very clear. In “How Sleep the Brave”, the speaker seems not to be William Collins himself. The voice does not speak from personal experience but seems to be a voice detached from the immediate context of the poem.
Like “Vergissmeinnicht”, the message of the poem is aimed at everyone, however evokes the feelings of the readers rather than describing those of the poet.”Vergissmeinnicht” describes a time when Douglas and some of his comrades return over the battlefield to the place where three weeks before, they had killed in battle an enemy soldier, who had fiercely attacked their tank. They found the dead soldier lying where he fell; beside him was a picture of his girlfriend, Steffi, on which she had written “Vergissmeinnicht” (forget me not).Unlike “Vergissmeinnicht”, “How Sleep the Brave” doesn’t describe a specific situation but is about soldiers who have been killed in battle. The poem describes the battlefield as their graveyard and describes spring coming to make their graves look beautiful.
There is a feeling the soldiers are far away from home and that they have died honourably fighting for freedom.”Vergissmeinnicht” has a sombre and bitter tone. Douglas is expressing his sadness at the waste of war and his anger at the death it causes. He reflects on how they had killed an enemy who had attacked them, but instead of feeling victorious, he feels “almost content”. He realises when looking at the dead soldier and the picture of the girl who loved him, that he was not just an enemy soldier, he was also a person like himself, who loved and was loved.
Because of the war not only the soldier but the person was dead. This is encapsulated in the final two lines which seems to describe the very painful paradox of war:”And death who had the soldier singledhas done the lover mortal hurt.”The tone of “How Sleep the Brave” differs to “Vergissmeinnicht” in that there is no bitterness or anger; I feel there is a mixture of sadness and respect. Honouring and remembering the sacrifice of the “brave”. The poem also suggests a wish for those killed to “rest” peacefully.
Both poems share a common thread: a sadness at the loss of life that war creates; they are both as relevant today as when they were written.”Vergissmeinnicht” is an elegiac poem composed of six quatrains, written in free verse. There is no regularity of rhythm or metre throughout the poem: some lines are iambic tetrameter such as “the soldier sprawling in the sun” and “but she would weep to see today”, other lines have different stresses. The different stresses in each line and the use of rhyme, assists the meaning of the poem. For example, in the first stanza we have a rhyming couplet “ground” and “found” and the iambic rhyming couplet created by the last line of the first stanza and the first line of the second stanza:”the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun.”The regularity of the metre in this part of the poem and the rhyming line endings create a sense of ease and makes the poem flow along. This is reinforced by the sibilance and alliteration of ‘s’ sound of soldier, sprawling and sun. This is interrupted harshly by “overshadowing…
” on the next line. The word is imposing and assists the reader to imagine the large gun looming over the soldier’s body.Douglas also uses ABAB rhyming to reinforce meaning. For example in the fourth stanza the rhyme of “paid” with “decayed” adds emphasis to the word decayed forcing the reader to dwell on the thought of the soldier’s rotting corpse. This device is also used in the last stanza in “mingled” “heart” “singled” “hurt”.
I feel that this effectively ties the stanza together to form a solid and lasting final statement.The structure of “How Sleep the Brave” is very different. It is composed of two sestet stanzas of rhyming iambic tetrameter couplets. The poem has a lyrical and musical quality which could lend itself to be categorised as an Ode. You can very much imagine it being sung as a hymn at a remembrance service.
There is also something very allegorical about the poem; Collins does not actually state his meaning, the reader must decide what is meant by the personification of Spring, Fancy, Honour and Freedom.The imagery in “Vergissmeinnicht” is visual and is almost photographic in nature. We are forced by the imperative “Look.” To visualise in our minds eye the picture of Steffi amongst the “gunpit spoil” and we can imagine her handwritten message of “Vergissmeinnicht” in her “copybook gothic script” This image is driven home by the way in which each word in “copybook gothic script” must be pronounced, it is not a sentence which rolls off the tongue – you are almost forced to linger over each word, adding to the visual picture. Once again we are encouraged to visualise what the poet is saying when he tells us “We see him” and that Steffi “would weep to see”. We are then given some very strong visual images: