In my post about my 2014 reading list I noted my surprise that I had not actually finished any books of poetry all year long. I actually quite enjoy poetry, but I tend to dip into it rather than reading through complete volumes. This year I intend to change that.
Thus, my first book of the year is the slim volume of ‘The Poems of Wilfred Owen‘, in the Wordsworth Poetry Library series; it was a gift from one of my children, and I’m very grateful for it. I’ve been familiar with some of Owen’s more famous poems (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, “Dulce et Decorum Est’ etc.), but not with the broad sweep of his work. This volume gives a really good overview of his poetic genius; it’s incredible to think that almost all of his most important poems were written in the space of one year, and very sad to think of him being killed by a sniper one week before the Armistice. But then, that is the tragedy of war that Owen wrote about so eloquently: the shattered lives and wasted talents.
A few brief words about the poet (adapted from the Wikipedia article, which is worth reading in full). Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 near Oswestry, Shropshire. He worked as a pupil-teacher in a poor country parish before a shortage of money forced him to drop his hopes of studying at the University of London and take up a teaching post in Bordeaux (1913). He was tutoring in the Pyrenees when war was declared, and he enlisted shortly afterwards.
In 1917 he suffered severe concussion and trench-fever whilst fighting on the Somme and spent a period recuperating at Craiglockart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. It was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon who read his poems, suggested how they might be improved, and offered him much encouragement.
He was posted back to France in 1918 where he won the MC before being killed on the Sombre Canal a week before the Armistice was signed.
I will give a couple of samples of his poetry. In the first, ‘Strange Meeting’, the poet finds himself face to face, after death, with the enemy he killed the day before:
It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘Here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said the other, ‘Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now …
This poem is a good example of Owen’s style. He’s not an easy writer to follow, and ideally his poems should be read over three or four times, slowly, so that the metaphors can be explored to the full. But to me the mark of genius in this poem is that, although a discerning reader might already have guessed it, Owen does not explicitly reveal the identity of the one who ‘sprang up, and stared with piteous recognition in fixed eyes’ until close to the end.
Another piece, ‘Disabled’, is a snapshot of the life of a dismembered veteran of the war.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim –
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg;
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
Wilfred Owen looked up to Siegfried Sassoon, but in my view, Owen was the greater poet. His work is firmly situated in the Great War, but needs to be read over and over again in these modern times when we continue to send young people off to the slaughterhouse with depressing regularity. I conclude with the incomplete preface he himself wrote for his poems:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power, except War.
Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the Pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the True Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders…