Notes on Wilfred Owen's Poems
"Being the philosophy of many soldiers" Owen added to the title, and logically he included it under "Philosophy" in his Preface’s List of Contents. Philosophical it is, under-rated too and not the object of much critical attention.
One poem became another. Scarborough 3 December 1917: "….finished an important poem this afternoon", and on 6th he reported that WILD WITH ALL REGRETS was "begun and ended two days ago at one gasp." The following April, at Ripon, found him retouching "a photographic representation" of an officer dying of wounds, which after further revision that July had turned into A TERRE, a poem the Sitwells included in their 1919 publication WHEELS.
A lengthy birth and among Owen’s war poems the lengthiest (65 lines) of all. About WILD WITH ALL REGRETS (it applies equally to A TERRE) he had written to Sassoon, "If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say, ‘Here is poetry’, it will be so for me. What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt?" By that he meant pararhyme with which the poem is top-heavy, a "stunt" that should perhaps be used more sparingly lest it lose its power to surprise.
Ten stanzas of variable length, each explore a different aspect of the situation: 1 (lines 1-4) The dying man’s physical state, 2 (5-10) His mental condition. 3 (11-18) Looking back, 4 (19-24) Clinging to life, 5 (25-35) Dirt and death – an extended metaphor, 6 (36-47) Consolation and idealism denied, 7 (48-57) How will it be?
(58-60) Hope rejected, 9 (61-63) Who is this friend? 10 (64-65) A cry from the heart
In hospital an officer lies dying of wounds. We can tell he’s an officer from the diction which though largely colloquial is not the same demotic that we find in THE CHANCES. "I tried to peg out soldierly" (5) – a croquet term; "my buck" (11) – a fine fellow; "buffers" (14) – old fashioned-types; not the language of the average private soldier who again was less likely to be talking about teaching a son hitting, shooting, war and hunting (16-17).
His medals, once cherished, now mere "pennies on my eyes" (7), the ribbons having been "ripped from my own back" (9). How different now from then, when to be old and to be dead would seem much the same. He envies his servant, still alive when he himself is gone, whose menial tasks he wishes he could do; even envies trench rats their living state. No feeble attempt at humour can disguise the fear and anguish. To live one more year, one spring even:
Spring wind would work its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots. (23-4)
Freakishly, whimsically he thinks
Dead men may envy living mites in cheese
Or good germs even. Microbes have their Joys. (40-1)
How will he end up? As grain…buds…soap? (48-9)
Do you think the Boche will ever stew man-soup? (50)
He wonders, and then with the break in line 51,
(Some day no doubt, if….)
new trains of thought, more rational, more serious, lead to
….Friend, be very sure
and tiny rays of hope appear –
Soldiers may grow a soul when turned to fronds (59)
But ambiguity and doubt win once more, expressed figuratively in a nice blend with the colloquial. The simile in
One dies of war like any old disease (6)
brings thoughts about the nature of war. War and disease, how comparable are they? Both are preventable – to an extent. Both spread. Both remain intractable. Then comes a startling image:
Discs to make eyes close (8)
Literally so, but also in the sense that the kudos of medal winning may close eyes to what Owen calls elsewhere (in DULCE ET DECORUM EST) "the old lie", the contiguity of war and glory. Thus, and in the light of lines 30-35, "my glorious ribbons" (9) can be seen ironically as can the remark in line 18, "Well, that’s what I learnt" (to teach a son aggression).
The long dirt-death metaphor (30-35) conceives death to be the ultimate woe as distinct from life-retaining defilement.
Enjoying so the dirt. Who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust,
Less live than specks……..
Better a sweep (black as Town) or muckman than a muckman’s load. Death the absolute.
Tel me how long I’ve got (20)
Is a question not a statement, and when hope tentatively enters ("Soft rains will touch me, - as they could touch once") it is a hope of a very wavering kind.
A TERRE, dedicated to Sassoon, catches his style. Other writers too, who left their mark on Owen, resonate in his poem. King Lear of the Fool, "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all". Shelley’s Adonais. "He is made one with Nature". From Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, "And since to look at things in bloom, Fifty springs are little room". We find echoes too of Owen himself in such poems as INSPECTION, INSENSIBILITY, MINERS, FUTILITY.
There’s another link. A TERRE is addressed to some one, who is invited to "sit on the bed" (1), to "be careful" (2). Owen refers to "your poetry book" (10), "your jest" (58), "your guns"….chest….throat" (56-62). "My buck" (11), "We used to say" (12), "….not worse than ours" (37), and "D’you think?" (50) all suggest the presence of a second person. Who? A brother officer probably, though, perhaps illogically, a more fantastic thought may occur.
"Friend, be very sure" says the dying man, and where else in Owen is some one addressed thus? In DULCE ET DECORUM EST;
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest….
However, so ironic a tone would hardly belong here. STRANGE MEETING?
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
In A TERRE we read:
Your guns may crash around me…. (56)
My soul’s a little grief, grappling your chest,
To climb your throat on sobs….
Dying men may have strange visions, especially men with enquiring minds who are diggers out of truth, who carry within them something of Owen himself.
A passing thought, probably not worth considering. Still, both poems do have a philosophical bent.
To be one with nature after death (43-7) whether from the idealistic view of the poet or from the realistic one of the ordinary soldier, would certainly serve a useful purpose.
To grain, then, go my fat, to buds my sap,
For all the usefulness there is in soap (48-9)
While at the same time
I shall be better off with plants that share
More peaceably the meadow and the shower (52-3)
Which is fine until that further logical step:
……I’ll not hear (the guns)
Or if I wince, I shall not know I wince. (56-7)
To be unaware of evil things, that’s good; but to be unaware of the good? An amalgam of hope and despair. "My soul’s poor comfort" – yes; however, on the other hand, "my soul’s a little grief (61) to be wiped by fresher winds" (63), the wind perhaps that blew down at Pentecost.
"Carry my crying spirit" (64) the dying man (and Owen himself?) pleads, "To do without what blood remained these wounds." (65). Blood is an ambiguous symbol, of salvation but still also of guilt. We think that spiritual certainties had become less than secure in the latter part of the life of Wilfred Owen. A TERRE, more than most, may show us the way his thoughts were taking him up to the time of his death.
APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO
"Of this I am certain," Owen told his mother on 31 October 1918, (and they were the last words of the last letter he was to write), "you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."
It was one thing a war geared to acts of destruction could not destroy. It is what APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE is about.
" I have made fellowships" (17), we read, the durability of which Owen underlines through the metaphor of war.
…..wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of arm that drips;
Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong. (24-4)
Comradeship, together with resentment of civilians who should be fighting in the war but were not, constitute solid statements in a poem that, giving as it does a divergent perspective on Owen’s war experience, gives rise to certain questions, even doubts.
There is optimism here of a kind, though how well-grounded has yet to be decided. However, the regular stanzas, rhyme scheme, rhythm all help to lift it above the muted gravity that characterises so much of Owen’s best work, although at the same time variations of metre (a mixture of iambs and trochees) prevent jauntiness.
We know that late in 1917, about the time APOLOGIA is dated, Robert Graves had recommended Owen to cheer up and write more optimistically. This advice had been accompanied by such praise as Owen decided entitled him to write to Susan Owen about it. It is more than tempting, therefore, to imagine him considering a more upbeat approach to his task. Be that as it may, we shall find nothing like the tone he adopts in APOLOGIA elsewhere in the poems.
I, too, saw God through mud – (1)
Although the pronoun indicates a personal poem, like THE SENTRY, DULCE ET DECORUM EST and THE DEAD BEAT, it is unlike them in not being rooted in detailed personal experience. And although it is unlike, for example, SPRING OFFENSIVE, THE SEND-OFF or ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH where Owen distances himself from the action, it is yet like those poems in that it encapsulates a note of prophecy.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood…. (3)
Glory! Not a word we find often in Owen: one we associate more with Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell. In stanza 2 we read –
Merry it was to laugh there-
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
A troubling stanza indeed. Merry to laugh! In the trenches?
Coming after as it does –
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child. (4)
We aren’t sure if this represents emotion recollected in tranquillity or in fantasy. To talk of pride in slashing bones bare and not to feel remorse or sickness may be poetry but it doesn’t sound much like pity.
What mental state finds life and death absurd?
I, too, have dropped off Fear – (9)
How plausible is that? Even if true, we remember those lines in INSENSIBILITY –
…..cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns
That they should be as stones.
A sensitive man such as Owen without fear? "Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life," he’d written on 16th January 1917, and on the 19th, "We are wretched beyond my previous imagination." As for laughing and feeling merry –
18th February 1917. It is a good thing no photographs can be taken by night. If they could they would not appear in the Daily Mirror which I see still depicts the radiant smiles of Tommies. (Owen writing home.)
His poem SMILE, SMILE, SMILE makes much the same point.
Altogether, the merits and demerits of Apologia are not easy to discriminate. Almost it reads like a paradox, a set of contradictions, with truth contained amid apparent falsities. The pure love which is comradeship, and war seem mutually exclusive, yet war may be where comradeship at its best is found. War is evil yet may admit moments of spiritual significance.
In spite of reservations we know Owen was not a "Brooke". Probably had Brooke known what Owen knew he would not have been a "Brooke" either. That Owen could "drop off" fear does not exclude his taking it up again. That comrades’ faces could be "seraphic for an hour" (16) does not imply even a whole day. Owen’s superb metaphor to describe the strength of true fellowship in stanza 6 may be allowed to outweigh the odd expression or two in sub-Keatsian or Shelley-like mode, [ "And sailed my spirit surging light and clear" (11), "Shine and lift up with passion of oblation" (15)].
At the same time his positive celebration of comradeship should maybe overshadow his negative feelings about non-combatants. When he concludes – "These men are worth your tears" (he means comrades), "You are not worth their merriment" (35-6), the scorn is not what we should remember Owen for. Whatever our questions about merriment, Owen has certainly recorded elsewhere his experiences of exhilaration, of his "spirit surging light and clear", and those in the unlikeliest of situations.
For his brother Colin, to whom he writes from No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly on 14th May 1917, he describes the fighting at Fig Wood (St. Quentin)*** the previous month.
There was (he says) an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly…..
And after a "tornado of shells" –
I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.
Exultation. It is a word he thought sufficiently apposite to include in APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO. And as "showing ourselves openly" is what poets do, let us allow the word and the concept to stand.
Early in November 1917 Wilfred Owen left Craiglockhart Hospital and went on leave, to Shrewsbury first, then London and finally to Winchester to meet his cousin Leslie Gunston. Afterwards on 16th November he wrote to Leslie, "Good of you to send me the lyric…..I can only send my own….which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs."
The poem was ASLEEP (originally KILLED ASLEEP) which he revised at Ripon in the following May.
It comprises two irregular stanzas of nine and twelve lines respectively. Like DULCE ET DECORUM EST and FUTILITY it describes one soldier’s death in war but without the harsher reality that characterises the former poem.
Stanza 1 portrays the man’s death while asleep. Stanza 2 looks at the wider setting and puts the questions which are in Owen’s mind. Two stanzas but four parts: description, reflection, question and conclusion. The structure of the text does not accurately reflect the poem’s agenda, while the rhyme scheme also is idiosyncratic and the rhythm is disjointed within lines of variable length and stress.
It is one of Owen’s most "poetic" poems. There is much figurative language consistent with its metaphysical slant before Owen ends with a personal statement.
Stanza 1. lines 1-3. At the beginning sleep is literally that, but personified as a creature of benevolence bestowing rest on the exhausted soldier, a blessed relief after the stresses of war. "Working" and "waking" are a familiar Owen device, the half-rhyme functioning like a minor key in music.
4-5. First sleep "took him by the brow", then death "took him by the heart". The repetition suggests a natural, seamless process which the usual phrase "no time" augments.
5-6. The man’s death spasms bring a momentary disturbance to the poem’s flow until-
Life ebbs away and stillness ensues. Asleep….sleep…sleeping…sleepy, so much thematic repetition, and in the next stanza we shall get more: sleep…sleeps…sleeps, all enhancing a sense of peace.
8-9 "Intrusive" seems a mannered, understated word in relation to the savage penetration of flesh, but such restraint accords with the general tone, while "slow, stray blood" again underplays the enormity of the act. Not for the first time Owen uses blood as an ambiguous symbol; blood defiles but in Christian terms it also sanctifies.
Stanza 2 Lines 10-12. Owen asks what happens after death. Divine intervention or extinction? His thoughts first turn to the mystery of Christian doctrine and tradition and the hope that death may be transcended.
13-14. This in contrast to the war’s miseries, the merciless rain, the cutting winds (scimitar – very sharp curved sword) which reminds us of the opening line of EXPOSURE, "Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us".
15-18. Owen considers the alternative to religious belief. Death the end. Destiny no more than a body that rots and becomes part of the earth. Note the offence against nature implicit in "grey grass" and "finished fields" and think of war-scarred landscapes where nothing grows. Another parallel - Rupert Brooke’s THE SOLDIER and that rich earth in which a richer dust is concealed.
Owen’s dilemma he brushes aside and introduces a note of–what? Bitterness? Cynicism? Irony? The staccato beat makes an abrupt change from the poetic diction that had gone before.
20-21. If not survival, oblivion. At least he’s better off than the rest of us who are still cold and frightened and go on enduring the hell of war.
As in DULCE ET DECORUM EST and FUTILITY, ASLEEP is about a single death, a man perhaps known to Owen, who could yet stand for all who die in war – the Unknown Soldier whose tomb may in the end be truly empty for the best of all possible reasons.
( Despite Owen’s revision of the poem in 1918, six months after writing it, the last line seems disappointing after the deep feeling and vivid images created in the earlier lines. Perhaps "alas" felt stronger in 1917-18 than it does now, perhaps he would have reworked the line to provide a stronger ending. As it stands, it offers what seems like an unlikely word to utter in such circumstances, either flippant or merely banal.)
Without prior knowledge would we have known that CONSCIOUS was by Wilfred Owen? Other poems of his bear the mark of Siegfried Sassoon, but this perhaps more than most, reminding us as it does of Sassoon’s THE DEATH BED. CONSCIOUS was written early in 1918, either at Scarborough or Ripon and is about a soldier ill in hospital, though whether or not in France or England we can’t tell, or what he’s actually suffering from – physical wounds, mental illness, or both?
The reader encounters other unanswerable questions. Even the title may be queried. The man is certainly conscious in a way but not in the fullest sense, and the degree to which he is seems hard to determine. He has just come out of sleep, his fluttering fingers (1) suggesting imperfect bodily control, though his "pull of will" (2) shows his hold on life remains strong. He can pick out various details of his surroundings, but without our knowing his state of mind, how accurately and how significantly we can only guess.
Six other poems by Owen are set in hospitals or institutions: THE LETTER, DISABLED, WILD WITH ALL REGRETS (which Owen expanded into A TERRE), SMILE,SMILE,SMILE, and MENTAL CASES. The first five are to do with the physically wounded while MENTAL CASES explains itself. The angle in MENTAL CASES is that of an outsider, so we are able to take what’s offered at face value. CONSCIOUS on the other hand is totally subjective and because we don’t know what is the matter with the man, as mere observers we can’t be sure about the reality of his impressions.
A structure comprising four quatrains divided into two stanzas with a regular rhyme scheme is not typical of Owen. Only a few scattered trochees in a basic iambic pentameter metre, and variations in the number of syllables to the line disturb the rhythm and give a slight feeling of unrest.
Everything is seen from the patient’s angle though we are left wondering whether Owen’s recollections of stays in No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station (later No 41 Stationary Hospital) at Gailly have found their way into a poem written some months later. That those days occurred in the Spring of 1917 and the poem refers to "yellow mayflowers" (3) suggests this is so, as Owen wrote to his sister Mary on 8th May 1917 - "Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow mayflowers…….."
In stanza one the details are sharply observed:
The blind-cord drawls across the window-sill…..(4)
Three flies are creeping round the shiny jug……(7)
However, in the second stanza deterioration sets in. With-
But sudden evening blurs and fogs the air (9) the narrative undergoes a sea change. Not only is the air blurred but sight and mind with it. The patient may be "conscious" but what is he conscious of?
There seems no time to want a drink of water (10)
Well, there might be no time to drink one but wanting to drink is an involuntary act and not subject to time’s exigencies.
Nurse looks so far away………..(11)
Indicates impaired vision, after which illusion intensifies.
Music and roses burst through crimson slaughter (12)
We are not certain if the music and roses are real or as much in his head as his nightmare memories of trench warfare. Likewise the "blue sky" (13). Crimson slaughter, blue sky, yellow mayflowers – these are technicolor visions. What happened in the trench that "is narrower" (14) ? What dreadful sights are there that haunt him?
No time to want a drink of water (10)
No time to ask…. He knows not what (16)
Perhaps we have no occasion to ask either. He knows not what and how can we?
An elusive character and an elusive poem.
Owen’s beloved Keats, he who coined the phrase "Negative Capability", would have understood.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
In October 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart, "Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!"
While the earliest surviving draft is dated 8th October 1917, a few months later, at Scarborough or Ripon, he revised it.
The title is ironic. The intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.
It comprises four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure.
Stanza 1 sets the scene. The soldiers are limping back from the Front, an appalling picture expressed through simile and metaphor. Such is the men’s wretched condition that they can be compared to old beggars, hags (ugly old women). Yet they were young! Barely awake from lack of sleep, their once smart uniforms resembling sacks, they cannot walk straight as their blood-caked feet try to negotiate the mud. "Blood-shod" seems a dehumanising image- we think of horses shod not men. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. "Distant rest" – what kind of rest? For some the permanent kind? "Coughing" finds an echo later in the poem, while gas shells dropping softly suggests a menace stealthy and devilish. Note how in line 8 the rhythm slackens as a particularly dramatic moment approaches.
In Stanza 2, the action focuses on one man who couldn’t get his gas helmet on in time. Following the officer’s command in line 9, "ecstasy" (of fumbling) seems a strange word until we realise that medically it means a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied solely with one idea. Lines 12-14 consist of a powerful underwater metaphor, with succumbing to poison gas being compared to drowning. "Floundering" is what they’re already doing (in the mud) but here it takes on more gruesome implications as Owen introduces himself into the action through witnessing his comrade dying in agony.
Stanza 3. The aftermath. From straight description Owen looks back from a new perspective in the light of a recurring nightmare. Those haunting flares in stanza 1 foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, dying, "plunges at me" before "my helpless sight", an image Owen will not forget.
Another aspect again marks Stanza 4. Owen attacks those people at home who uphold the war’s continuance unaware of its realities. If only they might experience Owen’s own "smothering dreams" which replicate in small measure the victim’s sufferings. Those sufferings Owen goes on to describe in sickening detail.
The "you" whom he addresses in line 17 can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, the "my friend" identified as Jessie Pope, children’s fiction writer and versifier whose patriotic poems epitomised the glorification of war that Owen so despised. Imagine, he says, the urgency, the panic that causes a dying man to be "flung" into a wagon, the "writhing" that denotes an especially virulent kind of pain. Hell seems close at hand with the curious simile "like a devil’s sick of sin". Sick in what sense? Physically? Satiated? Then that "jolt". No gentle stretcher-bearing here but agony intensified. Owen’s imagery is enough to sear the heart and mind.
There are echoes everywhere in Owen and with "bitter as the cud", we are back with "those who die as cattle". (ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH). "Innocent" tongues? Indeed, though some tongues were anything but innocent in Owen’s opinion. Jessie Pope for one perhaps, his appeal to whom as "my friend" is doubtless ironic, and whose adopted creed, the sweetness and meetness of dying for one’s country he denounces as a lie which children should never be exposed to.
A poem seemingly written at white heat. Harsh, effective in the extreme, yet maybe too negative to rank among Owen’s finest achievements: those poems in which he transcends the scorn and the protest and finds the pity.
The front line on a bright winter morning. A soldier has recently died though we don’t know precisely how or when. Owen appears to have known him and something of his background and he ponders nature’s power to create life, setting it against the futility of extinction.
Only five of his poems were published in Wilfred Owen’s lifetime. FUTILITY was one of them. It appeared, together with HOSPITAL BARGE, in "The Nation" on 15th June 1918, shortly after being written - at Ripon probably - although Scarborough is a possibility. At about this time Owen categorised his poems, FUTILITY coming under the heading "Grief".
It takes the form of a short elegiac lyric the length of a sonnet though not structured as one, being divided into seven-line stanzas. Owen uses the sun as a metaphorical framework on which to hang his thoughts.
The sun wakes us (lines 2 & 4), stimulates us to activity (3), holds the key of knowledge (7), gives life to the soil (8), gave life from the beginning, yet (13) in the end the "fatuous" sunbeams are powerless.
"Move him into the sun". "Move" is an inexact word yet we feel the movement has to be gentle, just as the command has been quietly spoken. (What a contrast with the body "flung" into the wagon in DULCE ET DECORUM EST.) Of course, we may have been influenced by "gently" in line 2 which reinforces the previous impression, while "touch" again not quite an exact word, is surely light, reverent even.
A similar tone characterises line 3 with "whispering", so soft a sound. "Fields half-sown" ("unknown" in an earlier version) has its literal sense of work on the farm that this man will never now complete, and a metaphorical one as well, suggesting the wider tragedy of life left unfulfilled.
"Even in France" (line 4). No fields here to speak of, no seeds to grow on ground devastated by war. Does the mention of snow startle? Sun, sowing, may have put a different picture in our minds.
Line 7 "kind old sun" again suggests the softer emotions, "old" being literally true of the sun but again, as used here, a term of affection.
Stanza 1, then, seems tender, almost unchallenging. Stanza 2 is very different.
"Awoke", "woke", "rouse". This poem is about their opposite. In stanza 2 Owen invites us to share his thoughts, and soon a note of bewilderment is struck that becomes near despair. The questions he asks, prompted by the sight of his dead comrade, seem direct and rhetorical at the same time. So much has gone into the making of a man ("so dear achieved"), how can the sun that has done all this in the end do so little? Line 12’s "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" has life, in man, reaching its peak merely to come to nothing, and the poem ends, fittingly, in ambiguity:
-O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s peace at all?
Why ever did the sun do anything so fatuous is one question, while another is - what was the cause of the sun behaving in this way? Depending whether the stress falls on "what" or "made" in line 13. A clever end to Owen’s set of imponderables.
Notice the simplicity of the diction which together with the use of so many words of one syllable accords with the elegiac, deeply felt mood. Owen is careful, however, to avoid smoothness. The first and last lines of each stanza are shorter than the rest. Some lines begin with the stress on the first syllable (trochee), some on the second (iamb). He makes much use of his favourite pararhyme (half rhyme): sun-sown, once-France, seeds-sides, star-stir, tall-toil, snow-now; which also helps to disturb the natural rhythm.
The problem Owen faces in FUTILITY is how to reconcile the miracle of creation with the evil of that creation laid waste, which intimates futility in two senses, first the futility behind the paradox of life made death, and second the futility of trying to find an answer. Where Owen stood at that time in relation to his practice as a Christian is impossible for us to know. At least the bitterness of ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH and DULCE ET DECORUM EST, in FUTILITY gives place to the pity that characterises his finest work, and manages, I think, to transcend the pessimism and the bleakness.
Owen’s war poetry has blood as a recurring and ambiguous symbol of sacrifice: of the sacrifice demanded of and offered up by the fighting soldier and also of Christ’s sacrifice for man’s redemption.
Blood, sacrifice, guilt are at the heart of INSPECTION.
Owen wrote it in August/September 1917 at Craiglockhart (see web site for current picture of this establishment) and later listed it under "inhumanity in War". Sassoon’s influence is strong (read the latter’s STAND-TO, GOOD FRIDAY MORNING). The diction is largely colloquial, the tone matter-of-fact and tinged with bitterness. It assumes an analogy between a military parade and the Last Judgement and between the Army High Command and God.
INSPECTION has a cast of three – officer, sergeant and presumably, private soldier. Stanza 1 in which the men are on parade, is characterised by formal, stylised dialogue between all three, stanza 2 an informal conversation between officer and private, while stanza 3 comprises an apologia or short homily by the man who has been punished for having a dirty uniform. As the poem moves forward, the officer experiences a diminution of status from, first, being in command to, second, conversing on more or less equal terms to, finally, being given a sharp lesson. Meanwhile, the soldier, after being at the receiving end, finishes up firmly in charge.
A heavy beat at the start of line 1 promises drama to come. Then from line 5 the tension abates leading to a more reflective tone in the third stanza. The onomatopoeic "rapped" and "snapped" add to the initial feeling of menace. Fairly constant rhyme and rhythm aid the poem’s mostly conversational style.
The MACBETH reference ("damned spot") in stanza 2 is charged with irony. In Lady Macbeth’s case the blood is dirt, the dirt of guilt; in the soldier’s case it clearly isn’t, though the officer doesn’t realise this and his naïve remark prepares the way for his instruction to come.
Stanza 3 reveals the soldier as the poem’s truth-teller. He looks "far off" to where he was wounded, and is far-seeing too in being able to grasp what Owen later describes in STRANGE MEETING as "truths that lie too deep for taint". "The world is washing out its stains," he says, believing of course that it’s doing nothing of the kind. Material stains, these may be erased easily enough; but as Lady Macbeth finds, the stains of guilt cannot be disposed of by physical means.
The soldier’s laugh is hollow, his stance cynical, although the full extent of his cynicism may not be as clear as it seems. The army is his immediate target for all its preoccupation with the superficial, but the army is the world in microcosm, a world that has not even begun to wash out its figurative stains, a world only faintly aware, if aware at all, of what the expiation of guilt entails.
But when we’re duly whitewashed, being dead,
The race will bear Field Marshal God’s inspection.
Who or what is being satirised here in these final, stunning lines? Certainly the army, a clear target for its inappropriate practices, and warmongers, militant clergy and so on whose call for others to be sacrificed and therefore "whitewashed" carries its own stain.
But Field Marshal God? There’s scorn in that, also some sadness. An army commander who thinks he’s God and a God turned army commander all in one. If they’re indistinguishable where do we find God on His own and blood’s sacramental significance? Who now will take out stains that matter?
Sometimes Owen stands back from his subject, as in SPRING OFFENSIVE. In INSPECTION he places himself at the centre of the action. He can be recognised as the officer in stanza 1, conscious of his rank and of the importance of maintaining discipline. We see him also in the second stanza, perhaps slightly unhappy on reflection about the man's punishment and seeking him out for a quiet chat, man to man.
But whose is the viewpoint in stanza 3? The young soldier’s yes, who had been treated unfairly, a young man of evident education and a philosophical bent.
What charge is he making? That those who run the show have got it badly wrong. It’s a serious charge and because he’s been harshly dealt with he feels strongly about it. However, if we assume that Owen himself is sharing the truth-teller’s role, then Owen’s angle will be a little different.
For Owen is part of the system that is being called to account, a part of that world that needs to wash out its stains, a party to the guilt and conscious of the fact. Unlikely that once flung into the maelstrom of war he would have retained his faith intact, yet I do believe that he was still able to hold on to certain truths which God’s church on earth (Field Marshal God as he accused the Church of seeing Him) appeared largely to have forgotten.
INSPECTION leaves both private soldier and officer in rueful mood. It may have left its poet with more cause for ruefulness than either.
When was it written? France, April 1917 it was thought at first though for several reasons Scarborough towards the end of that year now seems more likely. Consider other verses that belong to that earlier period: TO THE BITTER SWEET HEART, ROUNDEL, HOW DO I LOVE THEE? HAPPINESS, WITH AN IDENTITY DISC. All conventional, immature work alongside LE CHRISTIANISME which more easily fits with his end-of-year, immediately post-Craiglockhart and Sassoon output, poems such as APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO, HOSPITAL BARGE, AT A CALVARY NEAR THE ANCRE and ASLEEP. Like these poems, LE CHRISTIANISME bears the true Owen stamp which six months earlier he had yet to find.
The verse form is conventional enough: two quatrains (abab), but where at one time he would have played fairly safe with metre and rhythm, now he’s ready to experiment and take risks. And because it’s what he wants to say that now comes first, not the way he says it, the way he says it comes out of the poet he is rather than the poet he once wanted to be.
On the surface all seems plain. A church (not Quivieres as written on the ms, for it has no church, but another) has been shelled and a statue of Christ is one of the casualties. Fortunately, removed below ground for safety, effigies of the saints remain unscathed. For the moment the Virgin Mary, grotesquely wearing a tin hat, smiles, unharmed. But for how long?
Is this poem merely a record of an image of war? Hardly. Owen has more to say than that.
Is the Christ figure a statue only –or an embodiment of Christ who Himself "hit and buried" shares the suffering of war’s victims, the Christ who, as Owen wrote, is "literally in No Man's Land"?
The saints who "lie serried" are, in other words, in ranks. Well, so were the troops. Together they may form a band of brothers in spirit if not in actuality.
Then the "immaculate Virgin", surely an ally in the cause by virtue of being invested with "an old tin hat", a spiritual combatant who shares in the "trouble" and is vulnerable to the same dangers of war.
But a piece of hell will batter her (8)
However much the Church may transgress, Christ and His Mother and his saints are there in the line alongside the fighting men. So says Owen.
Or….or does he?
Under its rubbish and its rubble (2)
Could be a metaphor for the rubbish and rubble that Owen assigns to the practices and attitudes of the Church he sees as presently constituted. Those packed up saints who "lie serried" may not be banded together with anyone, or even packed away to be saved from the depredations of war, but banished from the scene as irrelevant being unconcerned about all that’s going on above, glad to be
Well out of hearing of our trouble (4)
Is Owen quietly deriding Christian tradition when he calls the Virgin "immaculate"? Is it that when she
Smiles on for war to flatter her (6)
He sees self-satisfaction in that smile, the same lack of real concern that he attributes to the packed up saints? That the "old tin hat" with which she’s "halo’d" turns her head into an object of fun. An icon no longer?
Wherever we look in LE CHRISTIANISME we find ambiguity. We know that Owen’s religious sense was not the same in 1917-18 as it had been before the War, but to what degree and in what way it had undergone change we are far from certain, and from such ignorance ambiguity springs. That there was disillusionment we do know, but did that sour his love affair with religion itself? Did his basic faith remain firm or not?
Like poets generally, Owen here presents us with as many problems as he does solutions.
Throughout his short life Wilfred Owen seems to have had a nightmare fear of tunnels, holes, areas underground. Such features may be found in the poems both early and late, from "Death’s trapdoor" and "Chaos murky womb" in the 1912-13 DEEP UNDER TURFY GRASS right up to the "profound dull tunnel" and "sullen hall" of STRANGE MEETING. The late 1917 fragment CRAMPED IN THAT FUNNELLED HOLE has its "death’s jaws" and "many mouths of hell". "We cringe in holes," he writes in EXPOSURE, and in that horror poem THE SHOW we read:
From gloom’s last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes,
(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)
Did his upbringing in a Calvinistic household, with its insistence on the reality of hell contribute to his fixation? Certainly what happened to him in France during March-April 1917 may have prompted his quick response to an event that occurred in Staffordshire some months later.
At Bouchoir, near Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre,- SEE MAP OF FRANCE- Owen fell into some sort of well (which he describes as "a shell hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar") and finished up at No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly. A psychological shock perhaps as well as a physical one. Then at Savy Wood, near St.Quentin, came the episode that led to his invaliding home with shell-shock. As he relates, "For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out." (Reference to the Manchesters’ War Diary suggests that Owen was confused with the number of days an indication, perhaps, of the severity of his shell-shock). Blown in the air, "I passed most of the following days…… in a hole just big enough to lie in," with a colleague for company who "lay not only near by but in various places around and about."
We move forward. January 1918 finds Owen with the 5th Manchesters in Scarborough where he reads of an underground colliery disaster at Halmer End, North Staffordshire, in which more than one hundred and fifty miners, boys as well as men, are killed. Easy to imagine old fears returning to haunt him. With an emotion recollected in anything but tranquillity, within a week MINERS had been "scrawled out on the back of a note to the editor" of THE NATION and accepted for publication only days later. It was Owen’s first poem to appear in print nationally.
So sombre a subject demands a minor key and he achieves it by heavy use of pararhyme (a feature of each of the eight four-line stanzas) and by shortening each poignant or punchy fourth line.
"Sigh" (2) and "wistful" (3) establish a subdued note from the outset which finds Owen day-dreaming by the fire, remote (in distance if not in thought) from the war. As a boy, geology fascinated him, and the burning coal leads his mind toward those primeval times of great heat when coal measures and fossil relics were being formed over millions of years in swampy deltas and the earth’s first forests. In his musings warmth rises from "steam-phantoms" simmering "From Time’s old cauldron" (9-10) as thoughts centre on a foreshadowing and
……………the low slow lives
Before the fauns.
Before the fauns; before, too, those who aeons later will lead "low slow lives" below ground.
With stanza 4 comes a change of approach. The coals are murmuring of not just the past but the present, of "their mine" (13). Reverie makes way for tension, pointing to the recent disaster. There are echoes of other poems. "And moans down there" (14) will reappear in STRANGE MEETING – "or down the flues made moan"; line 15 recalls ASLEEP; "writhing for air" (16), the man in DULCE ET DECORUM EST who, inhaling poison gas, "….plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." In a similar way, boys who, down the mine, slept their "wry sleep" (15) and the men "writhing for air" (16) are shown to have their counterparts across the Channel, other men and boys who died for their country in a different sphere of operations.
In stanza 4 Owen is listening. In stanza 5 his mind’s eye is finding parallels between the tragedy in the mine and tragedies personally witnessed on the battlefield: "White bones in the cinder-shard" (17). (Shard - broken coal), (Shrapnel - fragmented shell). "Many the muscled bodies charred" (19). Different circumstances, same result. And afterwards "…..few remember". Though some may think this a generalisation too far.
Stanza 6 and Owen continues to reflect, directly on the miners who perished, indirectly on his own dead comrades. "Dark pits of war" (21-2) may equally apply to the coal mine and the dug-outs, trenches, tunnels that marked the Western Front. All are places
……….where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed. (23-4)
Here Owen indulges his liking for personification. To intimate-what? We might suppose recompense for the fallen were it not for the following stanzas which cast on the forging lines a suspicion of irony.
Stanzas 7-8 focus on a different set of people, those who benefit from the miners’ toil, (if only toil itself were the end of it!). They sit "sift-chaired" (25). Their "rooms of amber" (26) could suggest rich bright textures, or possibly recall for us what amber is made of – fossil resin from plants and animals, dead now and, aptly, long underground. That these beneficiaries should be gladdened, should be-
By our life’s ember; (27-8)
comprises a paradox. For "ember" indicates a dying fire, and Ember days are days of fasting and particular solemnity; a paradox pointing to the dissociation of the "soft-chaired" from as Owen expresses it elsewhere, "truths that lie too deep for taint".
In the final stanza he identifies with the victims by using the personal pronouns "we" and "us". How should we interpret the "rich loads" which "centuries will burn" (29)? Plentiful yields? Wealth for the owners, wealth that in terms of lives is expensively obtained? What of "With which we groaned" (30)? Groaned on account of hurt? Discontent? Literally under the weight? The weight of sacrifice? Owen’s diction always makes us think.
However, we can assume that the "dreaming" (31) of those who bask in the coal’s warmth "while songs are crooned" (32) is of a different order from Owen’s compassionate imaginings.
Writing to his mother about MINERS, Owen said, "I get mixed up with the war at the end." In fact the echoes of the war reverberate throughout the poem. It may be true that
………they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.
Nevertheless it is certain that Owen himself will dream of them, Owen with his phobia and his past experiences to prompt him, whether the ground they are left in be a coalfield in Staffordshire or a battlefield on the Western Front.
The poem which was started at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917 divides into four unequal parts: Prologue (14 lines), Action (4), Poem (7) and Epilogue (2), corresponding to (a) the man’s background and mental state, (b) the central event, (c) commentary, (d) final twist; a structure which seems arbitrary and disparate. Rhythm too is variable throughout, but variations in the rhyme scheme mostly occur once the introduction is done with, and such variation helps to augment the final dramatic impact.
Pressure is exerted on the man who kills himself from three directions: having to endure the hell of battle, military tradition and the family back home.
First he suffers an existence
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim (12)
And undergoes the
…..torture of lying machinally shelled, (19)
As Owen puts it –
….never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch.
Cleverly he captures the feeling of entrapment: the "infrangibly wired and blind trench wall" –
Curtained with fire, roofed in with creeping fire,
Slow grazing fire, that would not burn him whole
But kept him from death’s promises….. (31-4)
In addition to the hell of military action there’s pressure from people, his immediate superiors with the whole war machine itself behind him; all demanding more than this man can bear.
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok. (20)
To those powers he owes –
…..more days of inescapable thrall, (30)
while from his NCOs and officers he risks
… ….. scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling. (34-5).
Also for breaches of discipline, condemnation, calumny, contempt.
Where does Owen stand in all this? Although by referring to "our" wire patrol (25) and admitting "we" could do nothing (26) he acknowledges his being there at the time, his account of the tragedy shows understanding but not, noticeably, pity.
Lastly, there’s pressure from the family who pat him and underline what they expect from him by telling him to-
….. show the Hun a brave man’s face; (2)
and just to make sure the message gets across –
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same, (9)
So, all the time knowing he mustn’t let them down, the burden grows.
Owen’s phrase "inescapable thrall" (30) owes much to the family as it does to trench life and the military machine. "Their people never knew", (referring to the families of previous offenders) shows the extent to which his own family is on his mind.
Sisters are envious and belligerent, brothers more casual but inevitably tuned in to the family ethos, and then there’s Father who –
Was proud to see him going, aye and glad. (4)
…..would sooner him dead than in disgrace, - (3)
There’s no mistaking what Father thinks:
"Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!" (23)
Father is more concerned for himself and his standing in the community than for his son. Meanwhile, Mother romanticises about having "a nice safe wound to nurse" (6). Get real, we feel like saying, though to be fair to her it’s typical of Owen’s scorn for the women at home, which shows, too, in the pejorative verbs "whimpered" and "fret".
Part 3 is The Poem, Part 1 merely The Prologue, but there is "poetry" also in the latter (lines 13-18) that reveals the mental and physical state of the man.
…….. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain. (15-16)
Is a marvellous observation-based simile, and although with "the hunger of his brain" (13) we cannot be sure of the precise insight we are being offered, the effect is clear enough. That death should be "withheld" (18) suggests the rejection of chance in favour of some hostile transcendent force, and is a tantalising thought.
Others have been there before to show the way (21), "Yet they were vile" (22). Propaganda has done its work, and Owen’s declaration. "It was the reasoned crisis of his soul" (29) shows fellow feeling though not necessarily vindication.
Owen reserves precise details of the act for the final dramatic two lines in which "kissed" and "smiling" take on a sinister, frightening aspect. But even now the story is hardly complete, for how can we know if Owen intended the teasing ambiguity in the last line or not?
The largely colloquial diction, together with the draft date, September 1917, suggests Sassoon’s influence. There is a comparison to be made between S.I.W. and a fine poem of Sassoon’s, THE HERO in which the protagonist, like Owen’s, is "blown to small bits" under ostensibly ignominious circumstances. The mothers of both men are consoled, in Owen by being told "Tim died smiling", in Sassoon by being made to believe her son died a hero.
On this occasion the comparison may not be in Owen’s favour. Where the tone of S.I.W. is fairly dispassionate, Sassoon’s poem, though vigorous and satirical, also manages to breathe compassion.
Wilfred Owen’s letter home dated 25th April 1917:-
Immediately after I sent my last letter…..we were rushed up into the line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our "A" Company led the attack and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets.
By September 1918 the above had evolved into, arguably, a poetic masterpiece on different (though connected) levels of meaning.
An account of the action, its prologue and aftermath, and the men involved in it.
Events within the context of the natural world.
Events on a supernatural plane.
The six stanzas reflect phases of the offensive:
(1) Scene set. (2) Pause before attack. (3) Tension. (4) Attack. (5) Casualties. (6) Survivors.
Broken rhythm, a 10-syllable line with variations and a mixed iambic-trochaic metre together with irregular rhymes interspersed with couplets produce the necessary tension. Such verse requires attentive reading!
The tone is measured and solemn. Unlike, say, DULCE ET DECORUM EST in which Owen is personally involved, here he distances himself to achieve objectivity.
Immediately the landscape comes into view. "Shade" is nature in beneficent mood. "Last hill" though? Last before –what?
(Line 2) The troops, shaded, are also "eased".
(3) Bodily contact implies comradeship and trust and matches the sense of well-being. However, the break at (4) signals a mood change, and "a last hill" (1) takes on new significance. Some men stand, unable to sleep like the rest.
(5-6) "The stark blank sky" reveals nature suddenly less benevolent. That "last hill" may be their last. They stand on a metaphysical precipice, catching a glimpse of last things.
(7-8) "Marvelling" perhaps not just what lies at their feet but within themselves. Nature shows a smiling face again, the "long grass swirled" in the "May breeze" and Owen gives us that lovely Keatsian sound image "murmurous with wasp and midge". The whole stanza ebbs and flows between nature’s grace on one hand and her disfavour on the other.
(9-10) A remarkable simile illustrates nature’s healing power. "Oozed" – another onomatopoeic word straight from Keats.
(11-12) The soul grows sharp when healing stops and capricious nature signals menace.
More of a piece. Pastoral, idyllic. Calm before storm but pathos too with Gospel-like image of the brambles (Christ’s crown of thorns). Did Owen intend a link with the victims of war? The simile "like sorrowing arms" is almost beatific, like the "distressful hands" in STRANGE MEETING. "Blessed with gold" fits too. This image is supposed to have originated on an occasion when the Owen family returned across the fields from church one Sunday evening before the war. Wilfred, noticing the luminous effect of buttercup petals on brother Harold’s boots, announced piously, "Harold’s boots are blessed with gold."
(18) "They breathe like trees unstirred." The sense of man and nature in communion is strong in this stanza.
(19) That "little word" of command, and the "May breeze" becomes " a cold gust".
(20-1) With the introduction of the soul, a spiritual dimension to the poem is confirmed.
(22-3) Minimal fuss or gesture mark the onset of attack. No longer the bringer of summer’s balms, the sun is "like a friend with whom their love is done."
(25) The "O" in "O larger shone that smile against the sun" suggests an act of real significance. In war, men, as well as spurning their fellow creatures, also reject nature.
"whose bounty these have spurned". In war, man and nature share a flawed relationship.
(27 The start of military action. Owen says in a letter of 14th May 1917:-
"The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you."
Outlaws would take to the heather to hid. No hiding in this heather and no cure from the heather either.
(29-30) The sun having been turned against, in retaliation "the whole sky burned with fury against them" (Ruskin’s Pathetic Fallacy).
(30-1) "Earth set sudden cups in thousands for their blood" might suggest the Eucharist, ("This is my blood of the New Testament….."). though cups must surely be a metaphor for shell craters? War as a travesty of religious sacrament?
(31-2) That "green slope", earlier an aspect of nature’s grace, now "chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space" and what therefore? Promised eternity? threatened extinction?
Heaven and hell in contraposition.
(33) "A last hill" (1) now "that last high place". A place in the topographical sense or, historically, as a place of sacrifice?
(34-5) "Hell’s upsurge" seems to suggest a hell below as well as on the surface, just as
(36) "this world’s verge" might imply the existence of some non-physical region on the other side.
(37) The stanza ends with perhaps the most problematical line of all. "Some say……" Some say but don’t? It is possible that…… or a wry expression of assent?
The survivors are about to put the final question.
(40-2) The Hell of war and an infernal hell seem indistinguishable. War is the Devil’s game and they have taken him on at his own game, winning by dint of "superhuman inhumanities". Which is puzzling if "superhuman" cannot be reconciled with "inhumanities".
And what are we to make of an action that yields both "long famous glories and immemorial shames? "Crawling slowly back" reminds us of those who "creep back, silent" in the SEND OFF; the "cool peaceful air" of the healing water of "village wells". nature once more restorative of bruised bodies and minds. Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought? There seems to be troubling issues here that are unresolved and unresolvable. One problem we face is not knowing how Owen’s religious thought was developing as the war went on. Did we know that, much that is unclear about SPRING OFFENSIVE might become clearer.
(Early on the morning of 14th April 1917, Owen’s battalion, the 2nd Manchesters left Savy Wood with orders to attack a trench on the west side of St.Quentin, part of the British and French armies Spring Offensive against the Hindenburg Line. In order to reach the "Start Line" for this attack, the battalion took a circuitous route involving a halt in the shade of a valley before receiving further orders to move on. Leaving the valley they reached a ridge and racing down the other side were immediately exposed to artillery fire from the Germans in St. Quentin, suffering some casualties. At 2.30 p.m. they commenced an attack on the final objective charging up a slope only to find that the Germans had fled as they reached the trench. That evening, Owen was in the party of Manchesters which went back to Savy Wood for a rest.
THE NEXT WAR
Its form may be conventional (sonnet); its content is not.
Out there we walked quite friendly up to Death (1)
Quite friendly! Isn’t Death (personified by Owen to heighten the reality) the enemy? It seems not.
Oh Death was never enemy of ours (9)
Death can be nonchalantly walked up to, sat down beside, eaten with. A meal with Death! That symbolic act of sociality and fellowship! Death’s table manners may not be of the best (‘spilling mess tins in our hand’) but still ‘we laughed at him’ (10), more than that, we ‘leagued with him’ (10) as if after all we might be on the same side.
Can coolness, blandness such as this really be a part of war? Yes, Owen says, for it links with courage, comradeship, pride, an unconquerable spirit. To read Sassoon’s remarkable MEMOIRS OF AN INFANTRY OFFICER is to have it confirmed that something in the soul of man makes such an attitude more than a mere defence mechanism.
Here then is one aspect of the poem. Against this buoyant strain runs a harsher counter-melody, as if Owen is saying don’t let’s forget what has to be overcome for optimism to prevail, and echoes of other Owen poems help to put things in perspective. When in line 4
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath
we’re reminded of DULCE ET DECORUM EST and the ‘thick green light’ through which Owen watches his comrade die of poison gas. Though ‘our eyes wept…..our courage didn’t writhe’ (5) we read and with Owen we see ‘those white eyes writhing in his face’, and we are made to understand that high endeavour and incomparable spirit in no way preclude the torment.
He’s spat at us with bullets, and he’s coughed
Onomatopoeic, like ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’ of ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH. We may have ‘chorused if he sang aloft’ (7) or ‘whistled while he shaved us with his scythe’ (8), but the ‘shrill demented choirs of wailing shells’ will not always be capable of being out-sung.
Wilfred Owen sent the first draft of NEXT WAR to his mother on 25th September 1917, telling her a week later, ‘I included my "Next War" in order to strike a note. I want Colin (his youngest brother) to read, mark, learn etc it.’ What exactly did Wilfred want Colin to learn? The answer must lie in those last three lines in which, as in STRANGE MEETING and THE SEND-OFF, for example, he dons his prophet’s hat.
….knowing that better men would come
And greater wars: when every fighter brags
He fights on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.
If by greater wars he means wars ultimately of wider significance, then prophet he truly is, with World War Two away on the horizon, the cause of which was to have a sharper edge to it. Good that Colin should learn about man’s indomitable spirit and its ascendancy over evil. That ‘flags’ (a metaphor for national aggrandisement) are never worth the sacrifice of one life let alone millions, would not have been a bad thing for Colin to learn either.
Owen began THE SENTRY while he was receiving hospital treatment at Craiglockhart in 1917 and he continued it the following summer. Finally, it was completed in France that September. For its origins we go back to a letter to his mother dated 16th January 1917.
In the platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don’t do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I’m afraid, blinded.
A very personal poem, therefore, the eighteen month gap between the experience and its translation into words suggesting an experience of great intensity.
The verse is basically iambic but trochees at significant points disturb the rhythm and effectively accentuate the unrest and tension, while the break at line 10 suggests that Owen is looking for his readers to pause and maybe gasp.
The parallels with DULCE ET DECORUM EST are quite noticeable. As in DULCE a young soldier suffers a tragic fate in horrifying circumstances and in Owen’s presence. Remembering how the war preyed on Owen’s mind to the extent that he experienced nightmares, a symptom of the condition for which he was treated at Craiglockhart –
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids’
Watch my dreams still….
I try not to remember these things now. (THE SENTRY)
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea I saw him drowning. (DULCE)
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, (THE SENTRY)
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…… (DULCE)
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and flound’ring about (THE SENTRY)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-need, coughing like hags……(DULCE)
Those other wretches……(THE SENTRY)
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged, like squids’, (THE SENTRY)
In both poems Owen shows us men under unendurable stress. Like the men in ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH who "die as cattle", these are "herded from the blast". A whine is one of the least manly of sounds but our sentry, all shreds of dignity lost, whines, "O, sir, - my eyes,- ". He sobs, needs, child-like, to be coaxed, which also points to another of war’s features – the paternal role of the junior officer.
Those such as Owen in effect became surrogate fathers to the young men under their command, and the care that Owen shows in this poem typifies those acts of succour without number that punctuate the insensible business of war. At the same time Owen conscientiously tells the entire truth. "Yet I forget him there." Even moments of selflessness give way. Not to indifference, but simply to life as it is, to the need to, as it were, get on. And so it is here, Owen "half-listening to the sentry’s moans and jumps" as he goes about his other duties.
The poem opens almost conversationally, though with understated menace in "and he knew". (line 1). But this is an occasion when Owen will not draw back from presenting truth in its most graphic form. Thus, THE SENTRY takes its place alongside, for example, DULCE ET DECORUM EST, THE SHOW, MENTAL CASES, and relentlessly unveils the full scale of war’s horrors.
One of his techniques is to make use of onomatopoeia (words echoing the sound of what he is describing). A succession of identical vowel sounds (u): "buffeting", "snuffing", "thud", "flump", "thumping", "pummelled", "crumps" which suggest hard-hitting assault and battery and ruthless punishment. We also find "mud", "ruck" (repeated), heavy, ugly words that match the situation. Then, "shrieking air" to denote both the sound of bombs and the terror that goes with it.
And one who would have drowned himself for good.
Here is double ambiguity, as to the identity of "one" and "for good" as a final act simply, or as leading to some better existence; while for a combined visual-aural image, "And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth" is horrifying and unforgettable.
How powerfully Owen conveys the conditions they live – and – die under. "Waterfalls of slime" (4) is almost an oxymoron, for our notion of a waterfall is surely of a pure, clear cascade. We see "the steps too thick with clay to climb" (6) and that awful olfactory image, "What murk of air remained stank old, and sour." (7).
Atmosphere is heightened by examples of what Ruskin called Pathetic Fallacy, the practice of attributing human emotions to inanimate objects – a form of personification. In line 2, "Shell on frantic shell" and the whizz-bangs that "found our door at last" (11) both add a layer of malevolence to the enemy action.
Lastly, "lit" in line 3, though meaning "alighted" not "showed light", seems an interesting choice of word in view of the poem’s "light" motif – the candles, the sentry’s cries of "I’m blind", the flame held against his lids. That last line "I see your lights! – But ours had long gone out" makes a terrifying conclusion, not only underlining the personal tragedy but on a wider front reminding us of the famous words of Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war:
The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
In one of his lesser poems Owen refers to "the night before that show", and "show" is the word he chooses for the title of one of his most startling works. It doesn’t of course mean an entertainment for the troops but is army slang for battle. He drafted it at Scarborough in November 1917, finished revising it the following May, and Edith and Osbert Sitwell included it in their 1919 edition of WHEELS (a miscellaneous collection of contemporary poetry) which they dedicated to Wilfred’s memory.
His own recent reading has left its mark on the poem. UNDER FIRE, for example, by Henri Barbusse, which he read at Craiglockhart. This is a graphic account of a Europe at war with the dead looking down on terrible scenes of crawling things dwarfed to the size of insects and worms. (It is likely that Owen would have seen a similar scene on 3rd April 1917 as he crossed the battlefield near Savy village on his way to join the 2nd Manchesters in the front line at Francilly-Selency. The field was strewn with the bodies of the Lancashire Fusiliers (200 casualties) as the wounded soldiers had made their way to the doubtful shelter provided by the hundreds of shell-holes where they had died and in doing so had left a trail of their discarded equipment. Viewed from the higher ground this could well have prompted his observations in lines 4-13 of THE SHOW).
Worms too figure in Hardy’s THE DYNASTS along with creeping caterpillars, writhing, crawling. Then there are the lines Owen borrowed from fellow poet W.B.Yeats which stand at the head of this poem:
We have fallen in the dreams the ever-living
Breathe on the tarnished mirror of the world,
And then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh.
To Siegfried Sassoon, Owen wrote on 27 November, ‘My "Vision" is the result of two hours leisure yesterday – and getting up early this morning’.
Back in January 1917, soon after he arrived at the front at Serre, Owen was likening the scene to "the eternal place of gnashing of teeth…..The Slough of Despond could be contained in one of its crater-holes, the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it…. It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease….crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness."
Then from a hospital bed at No. 41 Stationary Hospital at Gailly on 14th May 1917, after the searing experiences on the Savy/St.Quentin battlefields with the 2nd Manchesters that were to cause his being invalided home, "….I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies."
The genesis of THE SHOW, therefore, is obvious, and we can be sure that when writing it Owen did not exaggerate. Personal involvement is clear from the outset.
My soul looked down from a vague height, with Death. (1) And later, "I saw their bitten backs…." (21), "I watched those agonies…." (22), "I reeled and shivered…." (24).
His motive in writing it? Almost certainly to shock. He was based in Scarborough at the time, from where he would not be averse to wishing (as he expressed it), "the Bosche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the Pleasure Boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war profiteers now reading JOHN BULL on Scarborough sands.
So how does he achieve his effects? By using the plain language of specifics and avoiding abstractions. By heavy use of half-rhyme to give a harsher edge (like dissonance in music). By breaking it up into irregular and illogical stanzas: for example lines 10-13, though separated on the page, form one half-rhyming stanza, and 19-22 similarly. And finally by employing three repellent images – an environmental hell, bodily sickness and humans seen as less than human.
The result is terrifying, an extravagant vaporous portrayal of a living hell that subsists
on the edge of reality where the vision is from "a vague height" (1)
As unremembering how I rose or why (2)
Not all is how it was but "as it seemed" (8), almost defying description or explanation.
Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean
I reeled and shivered earthward….. (23-4)
which replicates that common nightmare experience of falling. Throughout, the observer has a close and alarming companion: Death, by his side in line 1, at the end "….fell with me, like a deepening moan." (25).
But surrealism is not the whole story. The "slimy paths" (10) and migrants "intent on mire" (18) remind us that soldiers in the Great War lived and died in mud. As Owen wrote on 16th January 1917 (after his experiences at Serre), "I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man's Land." They also negotiated a subterranean world of "hidden holes" (13), ground "cratered like the moon with hollow woe" (4) and "foul openings" (14) that exuded, as Owen put it in a letter home, "the breath of cancer". What was the Western Front but a wasteland, barren, all beauty gone - "…a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth" (Death – dearth, a particularly striking half-rhyme). Line 12 starts, "From gloom’s last dregs…." Dawn follows the gloom that is night’s darkness, but, ironically, the gloom that is despair, that remains.
The second image is that same "sad land" prefigured through disorder in the body. "Myriad warts" (11), sweats of dearth" (3).
And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues (5).
Here are links with Owen’s subterranean fears: pitted – pit hell, and (ironically) its homophone "pitied". Then, pocks, eruptions from beneath the flesh. "Deepening moan" (25).
The third image, equally disturbing, is of creatures no longer identifiable as men, of grotesque appearance, creeping "long-strung" (12), "brown strings"…. With bristling spines" (17), "a manner of worm" (26). "Migrants" should apply to the animal kingdom not humans. Movement and action seem subhuman, the caterpillars that abhorrently "slowly uncoiled" (7) and "writhed and shrivelled" (9).
By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped (10)
Indeed a long, long trail a-winding, but to the land, not of dreams but nightmare, a trail of men crawling, heads to the ground ("intent on mire") men scarcely distinguishable in their transmuted state, (and from "a vague height") from their abandoned equipment.
The poem ends with Death personified, and the one who looks down, and the army of wounded all merging into one bizarre image in which Death, in the manner of Salome holding aloft the head of John the Baptist, is manifestly the winner.
Certainly THE SHOW is a tour de force but do we allow it the status of belonging among Owen’s best works? Maybe it is too negative for that. Perhaps Owen’s greatness lies where his vision is broader, in the likes of SPRING OFFENSIVE and STRANGE MEETING, poems in which he reveals himself not only as a war poet but as – a poet.
There are no linguistic experiments in 'The Send-Off; the rhymes are full, not half, and the groups of two and three lines form four perfect verses. It is quieter-toned than some others - being set in England, not the war zone - but makes its point with utter clarity.
The poem was written at Ripon, where there was a huge army camp. The troops have just come from a sending-off ceremony - cheering crowds, bells, drums, flowers given by strangers - and now they are being packed into trains for an unknown destination. From the beginning, the atmosphere seems sinister. The lanes are darkening and claustrophobic; the shed reminds us of execution sheds and slaughterhouses; the crowds have gone elsewhere and they are watched only by 'dull' porters and the uninspiring figure of a tramp. Traditionally flowers have a double significance - coloured for celebration, white for mourning. So the women who stuck flowers on their breasts thought they were expressing support but were actually garlanding them for the slaughter (like the heifer in Keats' 'Ode to a Grecian Urn'). Their departure is secret, 'like wrongs hushed-up', because the true nature of what is happening to them is being concealed.
Owen seems to have distrusted public emotion and felt that the highly-organised displays which have just ended can only obstruct true communication between people, and clear thought. Of the men who have been sent off, only a few will survive and each of them must find his own way back; the healing process needs silence and privacy. In a letter home, Owen had described how the Germans 'choked up the wells with farmyard refuse', and the image found its way into two poems, 'Strange Meeting', where blood is washed away by 'sweet wells', and this one. Village wells were a traditional meeting-place where travellers can find refreshment, and half-known roads, it is suggested, are better than the broad highway of public opinion
During and after the First World War, many people could not bear to watch a train moving away because this reminded them of a last meeting. Today, we think of trains being packed with victims for the concentration camps, other wrongs which were hushed up.
THE LAST LAUGH
"Oh! Jesus Christ! I’m hit," he said; and died.
Owen made a point of choosing attention-grabbing opening lines, though few are as stark as this one. (THE LETTER has "Guh! Christ! I’m hit. Take ‘old, Aye, bad." But that comes in the body of the poem.)
The earliest draft of THE LAST LAUGH dated February 1918 was titled LAST WORDS and Owen sent it to his mother whose religious susceptibilities may have received a jolt on her reading what was the first line:
"O Jesus Christ!" one fellow sighed
Perhaps she would have been mollified by his comment:
There is a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer.
As in this first verse.
Or perhaps not, for on 21st February he was writing to her:
That "Last Words" seems to have had rather a harrowing
effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is
not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.
The poem having been chastened over several revisions and given a more penetrating title, it emerged with a regular stanza pattern but irregular metre, rhythm and rhyme: indeed pararhyme predominates. No soothing effects there and the same applies to mood and content. There seem to be six lines of what might be called "proper" poetry, while the rest could be extracts from children’s nursery (un)rhymes. Children love onomatopoeia, and "chirped", "chuckled", "spat" "hissed" etc come in this category.
A typical Owen effect is his personifying of inanimate objects. Here the bullets, guns, bayonets and so on, all display human, or at least animal, characteristics, making the antagonism more real by casting them, not as the instruments, but as the agents of instruction.
Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting; all the arts of hurting
Owen wrote in ironic vein in A TERRE. Nevertheless, the weapons of war did interest him in that their details feature in his output to a fairly immoderate extent: rifles, machine guns, big guns, shells, poison gas. We tend to forget that from a teenager Owen had been used to handling guns. he writes of having "a little shooting match" with his uncle. He shot in Bordeaux, bought his own miniature rifle in Aldershot, an automatic pistol in Amiens. He did well on his musketry course at Mytchett; went revolver shooting for pleasure in Scarborough and "scored dead central Bulls with five shots in a 4 inch group" in a friendly contest at Fleetwood.
We may sense a slight ambivalence in Owen’s feelings about weapons. As well as providing a measurement of his skills, their raw power may have exerted a fascination. Certainly in this poem it is the bullets and shrapnel etc. that come out on top.
Who are the victims? (1) An old sweat whose language, however it may be interpreted, is of the Army. (2) A young soldier, not long from home, who invokes his parents:
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead
(3) A somewhat older conscript with thoughts of wife or girl friend, "love-languid", his kiss destined for the wrong quarter altogether.
In each case the momentary response is different. Blasphemy/prayer, wistfulness and resignation, sentiment. Only the manner of their destroyers is the same. Chuckling, guffawing, tittering, grinning. In a word, derision. "Fool!" proclaims the shrapnel cloud.
"Tut-tut!" the machine guns mock sardonically. "In vain, vain, vain" snigger the bullets.
At the beginning we were introduced to what we thought would prove to be an interesting and important theme, the relationship between blasphemy and prayer. But it doesn’t happen. Any question about ethics is simply irrelevant. In the terms Owen offers us in this particular poem, ethics don’t come into it. The armaments of war have knocked morality sky high and theirs is unquestionably the last laugh.
We may ask whether Owen ever wrote a more cynical, dispiriting poem than this, in which nihilism reigns and everything amounts to nothing in the end. As in the case of the young soldier,
Then smiled at nothing……..being dead
In Stanza 1 a soldier, or ex-soldier, is reminiscing – from what vantage point we don’t know. The fighting front? Behind the lines? Hospital? Back home? Wherever it is he and his four mates were talking about "going over the top" next day. One of them, Jim, reckoned they each had five chances, from being killed outright to being wounded to some degree or other, to more or less getting away with it.
In Stanza 2 the narrator relates how, in the event, they all fared.
Written throughout in demotic language, Owen makes much use of Army slang: show = battle, cushy = slightly, scuppered = killed, mushy = not in the best condition, chops = little bits, Fritz = Germans, blighty = a wound serious enough for the recipient to be sent home.
This is Wilfred Owen’s only poem written entirely as a monologue. The colloquial dialect is no doubt accurate enough, for this was one form of speech he would have heard regularly in the trenches. It well illustrates the troops’ remarkable sang-froid, nevertheless being less educated speech and alien to Owen’s true poetic voice it comes over as specious and condescending. It is an irony that Siegfried Sassoon, who came from a much higher social background than Owen, could do this sort of thing rather better.
The two stanzas (6 and 10 lines respectively) comprise a series of rhymed couplets which change to "abab" at the final four lines, possibly to heighten the dramatic effect. The metre is basically iambic pentameter with variations, and incorporating a number of breaks within the line (caesura). The result is a slowish rhythm that may suggest a slowness of speech or indeed thought.
We don’t expect colloquial diction to contain much in the way of imagery, and that’s fine as regards realism though less helpful in compelling our imaginative grasp of a dire situation. Our senses are not worked on and are little affected. Where Owen gains is by communicating that tone of wry resignation characteristic of those who wage war; where he loses is in adopting an artificial style to which he is not naturally suited.
A cursory reading may fail to reveal certain anomalies regarding what happened to these five men.
One "Had the misfortune to be took by Fritz" (10) while Jim too is taken "pris’ner" (15). Capture was not given as one of the five chances. These included being knocked out, also scuppered, but "scuppered" means killed and so does "knocked out". ("One of us got the knock-out, blown to chops").
As for poor old Jim who was –
…….wounded, killed, and pris’ner, all the lot,
The flamin’ lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad. (15-16).
While he might have been wounded and then killed, the chances of a dead man being taken prisoner or even mad seem remote.
One other minor puzzle. Written at Craiglockhart and revised at Scarborough the following July, THE CHANCES, was published in WHEELS in 1919 together with, among others, STRANGE MEETING, THE SHOW and THE SENTRY. Alongside poems of real distinction, this one would seem at best a dubious selection.
A twenty-first birthday present, the complete poetical works of Shelley from his brothers and sister, was to provide the title for Wilfred Owen’s most problematical poem. In Shelley’s "TheRevolt of Islam" we read: Gone forth whom no strange meeting did befall.
STRANGE MEETING was written in the spring or early summer of 1918 and stands in the forefront of Owen’s achievements. Siegfried Sassoon called it Owen’s passport to immortality. On the poet’s memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey is engraved the famous quotation: I am the enemy you killed, my friend which words continue to re-echo down the years.
Inspired probably by Sassoon’s "The Rear Guard" and based on an earlier draft of Owen’s "Earth’s Wheels", STRANGE MEETING recounts a dramatic meeting between two dead soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of "the truth untold" and the need for the poet to proclaim that truth in the face of a world set to "trek from progress". In the words of Owen’s famous Preface, "All a poet can do today is warn".
The opening line beginning "It seemed that……" ushers into a dream-like world in which a meeting for the two protagonists is for us a meeting with ambiguity. "I knew we stood in hell," says the first speaker. A strange meeting in an even stranger meeting place for what will become an act of grace. A strange meeting and an even stranger fate for ones who are war’s innocent victims.
Who is the first speaker? We might assume it is Owen himself, the first-person narrator, yet the second speaker is one who delivers the message-Owen’s message. There will be further ambiguities yet.
Structurally the poem comprises 44 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three irregular stanzas which do not correspond exactly with the poem’s natural constituents. The pararhymed couplets, as with the metre, are subject to minor variations.
In lines 1 – 3 Owen sets the scene. Holes, caverns, tunnels – these form a recurring image in his mind and find their way into the poems. "Titanic Wars" imply not just Owen’s war but conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale. At the outset we are made to realise that past and present interfuse as, later in the poem, will the future also. This is Owen reaching out to an altogether new dimension.
Lines 4 – 10. "Encumbered" by their uniform and kit but also they carry with them the burden of suffering. "Sleepers". More ambiguity here, for although one man springs up and lifts his hands his smile is dead while others are "fast in thought or death….." So often in this poem we find ourselves on the edge of certainty. The two men had already shared one terrible, intimate moment – the moment of killing. Now comes recognition. "Piteous" – not pitying of course but calling for pity which explains why ambiguity attaches to why the distressful hands are lifted.
Lines 11 – 13. Those "thousand pains" are the legacy of war inflicted in life not after-life. In this hell there is relief, "no blood", "no guns thumped or….made moan". War – hell. In what relation to each other do they stand?
Line 14. The narrator introduces their one-sided dialogue with a paradox – "strange friend".
Lines 15 –29. Whereupon there ensues a homily on the true purpose of poetry. Whatever hopelessness of the "undone years" it is a purpose they both share.
Whatever hope is yours Was my life also; A shared purpose. A shared identity also? Is the doppelganger theory valid here? Yes or no the "hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world" corresponds to Owen’s high-sounding quest for beauty and truth which in former days he believed he had inherited from Keats and Shelley but which was really a substitute for thought and experiences he had not yet undergone. A continuation along these lines might have achieved something but not what was to be the core of his short life’s work: The pity of war, the pity distilled.
Distilled. The pure essence. Pity without any emotional by-products. Meanwhile the poet-prophet faces a probable future when a world shattered by war is accepted as the norm and endures a further regression into "this retreating world" – a frightening, and accurate, prediction of events.
Lines 30-39. Here the two strands – the aim and rationale of poetry and the predicted course of events come together in a movingly expressed blueprint for the cleansing of the human spirit. As poetry’s disciple Owen is able to claim the courage, mystery, wisdom, mastery to combat the march from progress and finally when the retreat can go no further, "when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels", to bring life-giving water from "sweet wells" and reveal "truths that lie too deep for taint". To this end, says Owen, I would have poured my spirit without stint.
Line 40 – 44. "My friend". Such a contrast to the former bitterly ironic "my friend" of "Dulce et decorum est". The conjunction of "enemy" and "friend" is another paradox but without a sense of jarring. This final section brings a change of tone with nothing high-flown but plain, mostly one-syllable language, the simplicity of fulfilment. Paradoxically again, blindness is lifted in the tunnel’s dark.
"I parried", says the man killed. "As if to bless", had said previously the man who killed him. STRANGE MEETING brings with it many entanglements that make a final judgement improbable, perhaps inappropriate.
Does "Let us sleep now….." suggest a work unfinished? Maybe. At least the important message is clear, that mankind must seek reconciliation and "the truth untold" embrace pity and the greater love.
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
And smile, smile, smile.
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.
So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
and smile, smile, smile.
Wilfred Owen would have heard lots of marching songs during his two tours of duty in France and would have joined in himself no doubt. There were the nostalgic, sentimental ones such as TIPPERARY or KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING; the more cynical, for instance WHEN THIS B……. WAR IS OVER; and others often designed to boost morale. In September 1918, PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES….. gave Owen just the ready-made title he wanted.
That September, now back in France, Owen had picked up on two events that virtually coincided. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau refused Austria’s peace offer on the grounds that it would betray the fighting troops. Meanwhile, in London, pictures were being published of three smiling wounded men, captioned "Happy". Within a few days Owen had delivered his stinging response. Much in the manner of his friend Sassoon, to whom on 22 September he addressed his disgust at these happenings, adding in paraphrase of Sassoon’s own lines. "O Siegfried, make them stop!"
Although SMILE,SMILE,SMILE, comprises a single extended stanza, it in fact divides into six quatrains (alternative rhyme schemes – abba, abab) with final couplet. The more logical sequence would be:
Lines 1-4 Scene set (objectively)
5-17 A propaganda message
18-23 How things really are
24-26 Ironic conclusion
Fittingly, while the propaganda middle section is in a rather monotonous iambic metre, in the other three, a smattering of trochees help to point up the truth of the matter.
It is a satirical poem, quite Sassoon-like and not perhaps the sort of thing that Owen does best, but it’s effective and certainly stays in the mind.
As in APOLOGIA PROEMATE MEO and S.I.W. we are in the territory of "them" and "us" with no doubt which side Owen is on. We catch the condescending tone in –
The men’s first instincts will be making homes (6)
Instincts, not rationality, not clear thought. With –
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead (9)
Owen brings out the insult in the suggestion that the dead would resent the survival of their fellows. Then in line 14 –
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
It is all out in the open. We are the wise ones who’ll decide what is what, the ones with the say. And just to remind us that Owen hasn’t forgotten to mock the women at home, there’s that clearly feminine voice in the final line –
…..How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.
But those being patronised and spoken down to have their own ideas, for history later to bear out. In THE SEND-OFF and STRANGE MEETING, the prophet Owen looked directly at the future. Here he does the same only obliquely.
Those who "smiled at one another curiously" (19) are, it seems, querying the assumptions – and presumptions – of their masters.
They read –
If we got nothing lasting in their stead (11)
So what did they get? Smouldering resentment, a mere truce and economic misery.
We must be solidly indemnified (12)
Were they? Where was the Armistice’s solid base?
These smiling men, these"….secret men who know their secret safe" (20), like their rulers they have their own brand of freemasonry. They know the real England is no longer where it was but where they are. The people at home see one set of smiling men, for the camera. These others, the "sunk-eyed wounded", who shared their curious and secret smiles which were more of the wry variety, were men bemused by the message they were given. Yet they have the satisfaction and, in a sense, the security, of knowing that theirs alone is the truth of the matter.
Who is the happy Warrior?
Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
asked William Wordsworth, knowing nothing of war but certain, nevertheless, of what the answer should be, while
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold
replied Wilfred Owen a century and more later, knowing too much about war, nevertheless, to be altogether sure that he was right
No uncertainty in Shelley’s mind when he wrote in his famous Defence of Poetry that the state of mind produced by delicate sensibility and enlarged imagination is at war with every base desire.
Which is fair enough except that Shelley had not been to war either. It was left to Owen to decide whether sensibility in war was a blessing or a curse.
Was he referring to INSENSIBILITY when he wrote from Ripon on 21 April 1918 to his cousin Leslie Gunston:
I have written, I think, two poems: one an Ode which,
considering my tuneless tendencies, may be called dam (sic) good….
Tuneless tendencies might fit because the poem is not notable for its melodic harmonies. What rhythm it has is broken, the metre irregular as is its structure – 6 stanzas of 11,9,12,9,10,10 lines having irregular length. It is not a poem of any great beauty.
A remarkable feature, however, is the elaborate use of pararhymes. The poem is almost top heavy with them, and they effectively produce a downbeat feeling that recalls Mathew Arnold.
Stanza 1 opens with Owen apparently propounding his opinion that the fighting man is better off having no sympathetic imagination, ("fleers" = mocks).
Lines 4 & 5’s horrifying image
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers
echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 –
They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls… (The German breakthrough of March 1918 when the British Army "had its back to the wall" being pushed back some 40 miles from St.Quentin to Villers Bretonneux. – See Owen web site Lancs. Fusiliers at Hawthorn Redoubt and Edmund Blunden web site for views of Beaumont Hamel.)
How easily then might an excess of imagination play havoc with men’s nerves.
Lines 7 – 8 have
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets’ tearful fooling:
The troops are those who matter, those same heroes of whom Owen tells us in his Preface, English Poetry "is not yet fit to speak"; the same men who are thought of merely as " gaps for filling" (9), men "who might have fought longer" (10-11), bitter words that lead to an end-of-stanza dying fall like that in EXPOSURE ("But nothing happens")
……but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling (12)
Well, some do. For the rest,
The tease and doubt of shelling (15)
means the grim reality of wondering who’ll cop it next. It’s
Chance’s strange arithmetic (16)
Not mathematical probability that operates here, yet even that
"comes simpler" (17) than gauging the final reckoning, for how can that be quantified?
The word "happy" crops up again. If to lose one’s imagination (19) implies having had one in the first place, battle seems an unlikely occasion for its surrender. Owen suggests that with imagination "lost", physical burdens may be unavoidable but that the men’s "spirit drags no pack" (21), that "having seen all things red" (23) spilled blood no longer has power to derange. Hearts remain unaffected, small-drawn" (27). Having seen men die "in some scorching cautery of battle" (28) minds are thenceforth immunised against further hauntings.
We may think, tell that to the Mental Cases.
The expression "soldier home" (31) must mean repatriate not one who has not gone out. How then can he be "with not a notion" of the business of war. Who is the lad "whose mind was never trained" (34)? Trained in what? In sensibility?
Now comes the turning point. So far it has all been about our Happy Warrior. Suddenly in mid-stanza pronouns change from "they" to "we" and Owen slips quietly into another gear. We don’t sing, we "march taciturn". (37), we who are fully conscious of the dusk and
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night. (38-9),
we for whom insensibility is not an option.
Stanza 5 continues in the first person (we) (40-3) but then reverts to third (he, his). Seemingly Owen is arguing a dichotomy between us (the wise) whose thoughts of guilt
Blood over all our soul, (40-1)
and the insensible ones, "not vital overmuch" (44), not even "mortal overmuch". (45) not sad, proud, curious. In other words, not much anything really. If this comes from losing imagination it’s hard to see where happiness comes in. Perhaps after all we should not see the two states as polarised. Does the clue come in lines 42-3?
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
How, asks Owen, can we poets do our job properly and rationally without curbing our imagination? Against this, without a measure of sensibility, mind and spirit die. So what’s the solution?
In stanza 6 Owen seems to confute the arguments he started out with, that the soldier should abandon feeling in the interests of keeping sane.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling he’d written in stanza 1 while in stanza 6 we read
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns (50)
Can Owen have it both ways? Well, yes if we see the irony in that first quotation, see it not as advice but as a wry observation. The tone of the last stanza suggests that the kind of happiness achieved through suppressing feeling is achieved only at a price.
By choice they made themselves immune
we’re told. So does he condemn them? No, for he understands why they choose thus. He’s told us in (42-3) that the poet must look at these issues through the soldiers’ eyes. Yet to discard pity or whatever hurts or gives cause for lament, to whatever shares "the eternal reciprocity of tears" (and I take the "whatever" to mean an entity or quality beyond ourselves) diminishes us all.
Whether "eternal" simply signifies "timeless" or as containing a spiritual dimension is up to us to decide.
'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.
We hear a lot about Siegfried Sassoon’s influence on Wilfred Owen, but what about the part played by that other famous poet, Robert Graves?
14th October 1917. Wilfred to his mother
On Sat. I met Robert Graves…… showed him my longish war-piece "Disabled"…. ..
it seems Graves was mightily impressed and considers me a kind of Find!! No thanks, Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.
18th October 1917. Again to Susan Owen.
I think I described to you my meeting with Robert Graves……
He carried away a Poem, or was carried away with it, without my knowledge. It was only in a Draft state. I was perfectly aware of all the solecisms.
On the 17th Graves had written to Wilfred,
Do you know, Owen, that’s a damn fine poem of yours, that "Disabled". Really damn fine…..you have seen things; you are a poet; but you are a very careless one at present…. But I have no doubt at all that if you turned seriously to writing, you could obtain Parnassus while I’m still struggling on the knees of that stubborn peak.
Graves criticised Owen for not abiding by the rules of metre, and it is true that DISABLED seems loosely organised with its apparently arbitrary irregularities of stanza, metre and rhyme. Perhaps Owen felt, not unreasonably, that a poet was entitled to break the rules as long as he knew them first.
Drafted in October 1917 and revised at Scarborough in July the following year, DISABLED presents a poignant picture of a young soldier "legless, sewn short at elbow" ( a nice combination of brutal frankness and tactful circumlocution) which sets what he had been before against what he has left him with.
Supremely, he once had youth, energy, virility. Impelled to enlist under-age (line 29 "Smiling they wrote the lie: aged nineteen years"), with a fine figure of which "Someone had once said he’d look a god in kilts" (25), with girls glancing "lovelier", this young man would certainly have looked forward to a normal relationship with women.
That was then. Now, he is old; (16)
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. (11-12)
Now there are only nurses who "touch him like some queer disease." (13)
While as for the rest
….he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men who were whole. (43-4)
In the park in his wheeled chair, "Voices of play and pleasure after day" (5) remind him of his own former play and pleasures. Strenuous activity, football for example, then; now just inactivity but immobility. Where once he could enjoy company, respect even hero-worship, knew what it was like to be carried off the football field shoulder-high then hear the drums and cheers when he was drafted out, what can he now expect but loneliness and neglect? Yes, "Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal" (37) until finally he is left to lament.
…..Why don’t they come and put him into bed? Why don’t they come? (45-6)
Self-esteem had been important to him. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks, of smart salutes,
And care of arms…… (33-5)
….. a few sick years in institutes
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole. (40-2)
Such stark contrasts are pointed up through metaphor and symbol. The "blood-smear down his leg" (21), a badge of prowess at football, may be thought life-enhancing, whereas the loss of colour (17) and blood poured "down shell-holes till veins ran dry" (18) is life-draining. The "light blue trees" (8) represent a carefree past when "Town used to swing so gay" (7), while "his ghastly suit of grey" (2) illustrates a joyless present. Evening time blossomed with enjoyment "when glow lamps budded" (8), but evening now means "waiting for dark" (1) shivering, resentful of "how cold and late it is." (45).
Does Owen identify with this tragic figure? There are certainly autobiographical echoes in the poem. Town (London) did swing gay for Owen when he first enlisted. Edinburgh’s Mrs Steinthal did paint his portrait (which Susan Owen disliked so much she destroyed it). And the ambition for "smart salutes" recalls Owen’s remark soon after his commissioning.
I had the misfortune to walk down the road to some Camp Shops when the men were "at large", and had to take millions of salutes.
Only the word "misfortune" may be queried.
Other echoes whisper of Wilfred Owen’s personal dislikes.
……..to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. (26-8)
Those giddy jilts surely belong with such female patriots as mother and sister in S.I.W. or the ones who handed out flowers in THE SEND-OFF.
Other civilians isolated from the war incurred his wrath, such as the "artist silly for his face" (14) and the "solemn man who brought him fruits" (38) and who piously and impertinently
Thanked him and then enquired about his soul. (39)
Finally, an important feature of Owen’s writing is his subtle insights through irony.
Voices of boys rang saddening like hymn, (4)
Like a hymn? But isn’t a hymn a song of praise, and what’s sad about that? Nothing except that what is supposed to be one thing may, and frequently does, have an opposite effect.
Only a particularly negligent individual would throw away his knees (10) or even pour his blood down shell-holes (18), and of course, this man committed neither folly, it was committed for him, unless we accept that it depended on his enlisting in the first place.
After all he did think "he’d better join" (24). Better? Better than what? For the better? "Better" here calls into question a range of topical and eternal issues.
And whatever pity they may dole. (42)
Is this the same pity that Owen decided contained within it the poetry? We cannot think so. So what is pity exactly? What, apparently, it isn’t, is a single, discrete attitude or emotion.
Like all great poets. Owen doesn’t half make you think!
Only two of Wilfred Owen’s war poems have to do with specific locations, HOSPITAL BARGE with its summer setting, and this one which most likely looks back to winter 1917 and Owen’s first direct experience of war. He wrote on 4th January, "I have joined the Regiment, who are just at the end of six weeks’ rest". (He joined the 2nd battalion Manchester Regiment which was shortly to see action near the River Ancre)
A Calvary, a model of Christ on the Cross placed appropriately at a crossroads, is a common sight in France, and seeing this particular one will have led Owen to re-enact in his mind the events surrounding the Crucifixion, adapting them as a metaphor for certain aspects of the war he was presently engaged in. Its tone is savagely satirical for the most part.
However hard it may be to chart the development of Owen’s faith from orthodoxy in an institutionalised religion framework to a more modified one later, this was a man who having witnessed the horrors of war could make such declarations as "Christ is literally in no-man’s-land, and "Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism."
The poem opens with a poignant representation of the crucified Christ overlooking the ravages of war, a symbol of permanence ("One ever hangs…..") in a world rent apart.
In this war He too lost a limb
The mutilated Calvary, caught by a shell, allows a degree of identification with the fighting troops, themselves victims, who in turn by line 4 have become aligned with the Roman soldiers who at Christ’s Crucifixion "bear with Him." Meanwhile, His disciples, out of fear, have made themselves scarce. Does Owen intend "bear with Him" to mean sharing His burden? More likely that "bear" means put up with, be resigned to. The Gospel story has the soldiers quick to join in the fun, mocking, stripping Him, hitting, spitting, piercing His head with thorns, probably not best pleased at being put on fatigues, (‘Right, three volunteers for crucifixion duty, you, you and you’). Only the officer it was who said after Jesus was dead, "Surely this was a righteous man". At the same time, the present-day soldiers were sharing the burden in a sense, by sacrificing their own lives. Different ideas, different interpretations.
In stanza 2, having dispatched the disciples and possibly the soldiers as well, Owen turns to the priests who stroll near Golgotha (Aramaic for Place of the Skull). "Stroll" suggests insouciance, indifference to Christ’s suffering, and his use of the present tense brings the story up to date with his distaste for clergy more ready to subscribe to the sacrifice of lives in the patriotic cause.
And in their faces there is pride
Not of course the pride that is right and proper but, Owen thinks, sinful pride. "Flesh-marked by the Beast"? Here the virulence towards the Church Militant becomes uncompromising as Owen, biblical scholar, recalls the passage in Revelation:
If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives
his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will
drink of the wine of God’s fury……….
To deny "the gentle Christ", as did the priests in Jesus’s day, and as many were in essence doing at the present time, is indeed, Owen implies, doing the Devil’s work.
Next, in stanza 3 the scribes, men who occupy high places, brushing aside people of lesser degree; whose successors Owen sees in the politicians and directors of affairs, publicists for the doctrine of "pure patriotism" that Owen maintains Christianity will not fit in with it.
Finally, he allows negative thoughts to give way to the more positive one of "greater love" (a theme he was to develop in his poem of that title) the supreme example of which, calvaries such as that near the Ancre, provide a constant reminder.
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
The redrafting of this poem with the help and encouragement of Siegfried Sassoon, whom Owen met while convalescing in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital in August 1917, marked a turning point in Owen’s life as a poet. A remarkable writing period was just beginning. In sonnet form, ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH is an elegy, a lament for the dead, a judgement on Owen’s experience of war rather than an account of the experience itself. Doomed youth is right. These were young men, some very young.
Lines 1-8 (the octet) contain a catalogue of the sounds of war, the weapons of destruction – guns, rifles, shells – linked, ironically, to religious imagery, until in line 8 we switch from the fighting front to Britain’s "sad shires" where loved ones mourn. The tone now drops from bitter passion to rueful contemplation, the mood sombre, the pace slower, until by line 14 the poem quietly closes with "the drawing down of blinds".
In this octet the devilish clamour of trench warfare is carefully set against the subdued atmosphere of church. These religious images: passing bells, orisons (prayers), voice of mourning, choirs, candles, holy glimmers, symbolise the sanctity of life – and death – while suggesting also the inadequacy, the futility, even meaninglessness, of organised religion measured against such a cataclysm as war. To "patter out" is to intone mindlessly, an irrelevance. "Hasty" orisons are an irreverence. Prayers, bells, mockeries only. Despite Owen’s orthodox Christian upbringing, how his faith actually developed during the last years is far from clear, and it is hard not to think that he was not remembering in this poem those members of the clergy, and they were many, who were preaching not the gospel of peace but of war.
Right at the start the simile "die as cattle" jolts us with its image of the slaughterhouse and the idea of men being treated as less than human. "Anger of the guns" (line 2): were the men behind the guns angry? Probably not. Hatred of the enemy was more common among civilians than the troops. Onomatopoeia, alliteration and personification come together in line 3 in a brilliant sound image.
The juxtaposition of "choirs" and "wailing shells" is a startling metaphor, God’s world and the Devil’s both as one; after which line 8 leads into the sestet with the contrasted, muted sound of the Last Post.
Religious images and allusions dominate lines 9-14. Forget about altar boys and candle bearers, says Owen. These have nothing to do with the real rites. Look in their eyes and in the ashen faces of their womenfolk to learn the truth about war.
In line 12, "pallor" – "pall" (paleness-coffin cloth) is almost an example of Owen’s use of pararhyme (half rhyme), a poetic device which may give a downbeat, lowering effect or creates an impression of solemnity. "Flowers" (line 13) suggest beauty but also sadness, again a word that runs counter to the pandemonium of the first eight lines.
Aptly, dusk is falling in the last line and speaks of finality. The dusk is slow, for that is how time passes for those who mourn, and with the drawing down of blinds and the attendant sadness we may think of a house in Shrewsbury’s Monkmoor Road where at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month a telegram was delivered that informed Wilfred Owen’s parents of his death just a week earlier.