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6 — Ironic voices and visions

Painting of a desolate landscape with shattered trees shows the earth as a mass of shell holes. The sun hangs high in the sky, beams of light shining down through heavy, earth-coloured clouds.

Above: We are Making a New World; based on the drawing ‘Sunrise: Inverness Copse’, is a painting by Paul Nash 1918, Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1146), used under the terms of the IWM Non-Commercial Licence.

In this learning sequence the students will explore and examine how irony is used to represent the complexities of conflict in war poetry. They will explore how poets use language to criticise popular beliefs and interrogate established values associated with war, thereby appreciating how the larger concerns of human experience can be explored in poetry. The students will also publish their own poetry anthology.

Activity 1: Reviewing irony as a literary concept

Present the class with a brief explanation of the concept of irony. The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘a figure of speech or literary device in which the literal meaning is the opposite of that intended’. Show the students a visual image that represents the concept of irony, such as Paul Nash’s image above, which represents the desolation of trench warfare in World War I. Explore the disjunct between the image and the title.

Ask the students to write their own definitions of irony. They can then find other images that are ironic and create a visual representation entitled ‘Theatres of War’. Explore with the students the nuances of the phrase theatre of war and its inherent ironies. The sites below, from different theatres of war, offer starting points for image selection:

Activity 2: Irony in World War I poetry

Irony usually has a target. For example, irony in war poetry might be directed at:

Dramatic irony is also a feature of these poems, where the poet is all-knowing, in contrast to the ordinary soldier who is ignorant of the fate awaiting him (adapted from Susan Puissant’s Irony and the Poetry of the First World War, page 150).

Read some war poems (see the list in Activity 3) together as a class and invite the students to respond in class discussion. Discussion prompts on first reading might include:

The students should then re-read and annotate the poem, based on the class discussion.

In pairs, the students identify aspects of the poems that are ironic (for example, a contradiction between what we know and what the text says, use of exaggeration, extensive use of superlatives, juxtaposition and understatement). In a class discussion, determine the type of irony at work in each of the poems.

Activity 3: Creating an anthology

In this activity, groups of four students create an anthology of war poetry. The anthology will include the following elements:

The students will collaborate throughout the activity, consulting on selections as they develop an overarching theme. The preface will be co-constructed and each student will provide two poems with their contextual statements. The links below provide a starting point for research:

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