“A WORKING PARTY,” 1917
Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.
Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.
A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.
Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.
That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.
He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.
The emphasis on whiteness here mimics the faces of the dead, but also frozen stagnation before tumult (not being able to see ahead) that we see in the poems of Owens as well. Here the ‘hero’ is the most middling man of all – literally from “Midland,” nothing more than a decent chap, but whose death, in its suddenness and viscerality, affects us yet.
“THE REAR GUARD,” 1917
Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know,
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.
Tripping, he grapped the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
‘I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.
‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep.)
‘Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.
Dehumanization, blindness, inability to see ahead in multiple ways.
“GLORY OF WOMEN,” 1917
I love the line “wounded in a mentionable place” here, as if it is the ability to talk about war in a certain way that makes it exciting or manageable to those at home. The problematic cover of linguistic surface is revealed again in the line about how British troops ‘retire’ – not at all as one might picture. Finally, the turn is to the enemy’s mother, knitting socks in hope while her son is already dead, returned to the ground not with honor but by force and callousness.
“REPRESSION OF WAR EXPERIENCE,” 1918
Now light the candles; one; two; there’s a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.
Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you’re as right as rain…
Why won’t it rain?…
I wish there’d be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they’re so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There’s one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.
. . . .
You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on!…
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft … they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.
This seems quite obviously influenced by Freud in a way the other war poems are not. It deals plainly with the unconscious, with shell shock, etc.