The title of “Exposure” signals a number of different meanings. A reader expecting to encounter a “War Poem” might be forgiven for thinking that the soldiers are going to be exposed to violence at the hands of the opposing army. However, whilst Owen initially elicits this expectation, it soon becomes clear that the soldiers are actually exposed to the weather, to the agony of waiting for death, and to a loss of faith in God. Of course, the title also applies to the readers; Owen is exposing us all to the difficult truth that warfare is not heroic, but is instead brutally futile and monotonous.
All of these meanings are encapsulated in the poem’s refrain. As the first four lines emphasise the excruciating wait for combat, the reader fully expects some action by line 5: yet, instead of the sound of a whistle and the command to proceed into battle, “nothing happens”. On reading this line, the reader is initially struck by the juxtaposition between the length of the preceding lines, and the brevity of the refrain. Taking the first line of the poem as an example (“Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us…”), it is clear that Owen has stretched it beyond the iambic pentameter beloved by so many poets, whilst the ellipsis extends the sense of stasis even further – although there is an end to the words, their meaning seeps into the white space surrounding the poem, which then becomes a visual reminder of nothingness. The ponderous use of stressed syllables (as I read it, I hear “Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us”) serves to emphasise the endless mundanity and dreariness of the act of waiting. Following on from four such lengthy lines, the brief refrain “But nothing happens” feels foreshortened and blunt. As in the preceding lines, ending on an unstressed syllable (“knive us”, “silent”, “salient”, “nervous”, “happens”) compounds this sense of anticlimax and frustration. This is most likely because the real threat to the soldiers is not the anticipated glorious death in battle, but rather a quiet yet harrowing fading from life due to the weather conditions.* For many soldiers, the reality of the war belied the celebration of military prowess and masculinity found in recruitment posters.
It is clear that as well as dwelling on the impact of exposure to the weather, Owen is exploring the psychological challenges posed by the war. This is reflected in the use of the present tense “happens” and the repetition of the refrain; both techniques convey stasis and entrapment in an endless experience of living death. And as the soldiers succumb to this psychological battle and to the elements, they lose their identity; by the end of the poem, the “burying-party” pause over “half-known faces”, a poignant phrase which signifies a loss of self. Perhaps this links to Owen’s use of the anonymous “we”. Whilst on the one hand, this use of the plural first person is surely a way of giving a voice to the powerless working-class recruits, on the other hand it reminds us of how the conditions of war can change an individual’s identity. These soldiers have become a homogenous group, whose right to a name and a face has been taken away by the decisions of military commanders.
Ultimately, if “Exposure” is a poem which speaks to us on a profoundly human level, surely it is also a poem of political protest. By the final stanza, the phrase “nothing happens” accrues a new meaning. As well as signifying the interminable wait for action, it also signals a failure of military and political bodies. “Nothing happens” to save these men: no one seems ready to speak up for them or to seek to redress the social and political structures and decisions which has led to their meaningless deaths. Siegfried Sassoon put this in a different way in his “Declaration against the War”. He argued that the “callous complacency” of those in positions of power had led to “agonies…which they have not sufficient imagination to realise”. “Exposure” unquestionably confronts us with these agonies, and so concludes with a tone redolent of betrayal, bitterness, and anger.
*Contrast “Exposure” to Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and Jessie Pope’s “Who’s for the Game?”.