Wilfred Owen, Poems

Wilfred Owens was sent to Edinburgh to recover from shell shock after the Battle of the Somme in 1917, where he met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon’s realism cut the Romantic tone of Owen’s early work, and he began to juxtapose forms in new and interesting ways, such as rewriting the pastoral elegy in the scene of war terror He returned to the war and was killed in action. His poems play with enjambments and partial rhymes, with the Romantic tropes of addressing “you” vs the fatedness of “I” and “we” – almost like his voices are those of Virgil, guiding the reader through a hell.
“ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH,” 1920
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The beauty of the self-reinforcing imagery here is that the weapons are so various, so loud, and so terrible that they are not only the agents of death, but eerie, mechanized, inhuman copies of mourning rituals.

“EXPOSURE,” 1917

1 Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us …
2 Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent …
3 Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient …
4 Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
5 But nothing happens.

6 Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire.
7 Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
8 Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
9 Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
10 What are we doing here?

11 The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow …
12 We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
13 Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
14 Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
15 But nothing happens.

16 Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
17 Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
18 With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,
19 We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
20 But nothing happens.

II

21 Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces–
22 We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
23 Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
24 Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
25 Is it that we are dying?

26 Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
27 With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
28 For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
29 Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed–
30 We turn back to our dying.

31 Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
32 Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
33 For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
34 Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
35 For love of God seems dying.

36 To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
37 Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
38 The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
39 Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
40 But nothing happens.

The stagnancy and frozenness of this poem are a painful and ironic commentary on the constant, exhausting threat of death in combat. There is also a double meaning to nothing happens – that nothing is effected, that nothing arrives and happens.

“THE DEAD-BEAT”

He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ’em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
                               A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that AREN’T dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”

Obviously about the backwards joy and dehumanization of watching the enemy die.

“DULCE ET DECORUM EST, 1918”

1 Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
2 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
3 Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
4 And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
5 Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
6 But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
7 Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
8 Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

The first stanza paints in lurid and visceral detail the sights and sounds of war after battle.

9 Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
10 Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
11 But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
12 And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
13 Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
14 As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

15 In all my dreams before my helpless sight
16 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

This is interrupted by the frenzy to prevent death by gas, but one man fails to get his mask on and dies a terrible death before the speaker.

17 If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
18 Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
19 And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
20 His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
21 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
22 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
23 Bitter as the cud
24 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
25 My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
26 To children ardent for some desperate glory,
27 The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
28 Pro patria mori

The speaker’s dreams themselves become like gas, smothering him, and his mind is haunted with images of many deaths, of which this one man becomes a prime example. The poem ends with the bitter overturning of Horace’s line, “Sweet and fitting is it to die for one’s country.”

“STRANGE MEETING,” 1918

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 also focused on the subjectivity of the enemy, “the pity of war distilled,” and the horrible “vision” of the trenches, which seems otherworldly, rather than real, in its horrors.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s