Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Poems of Wilfred Owen

Source of book: I own this

Wilfred Owen didn’t write many poems. That wasn’t his fault. Dying at age 25 tends to be bad for a career. 

Owen was born in England in 1893. His father was unambitious and unimaginitive and Owen was never close to him. He had a much closer relationship with his mother, who was a devout Evangelical Anglican. (Those actually existed, back in the day…) Neither parent as particularly supportive of his education, and were suspicious of art - something problematic to the aspiring poet.

In 1911, he became a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunstan, with the intent of entering the ministry. This experience had a profound effect on him. The parish was a poor one, and social work was a significant part of his duties. His vicar’s seemingly cheerful indifference to the suffering around him and his focus on lordly authority soured Owen on the faith, and by the time he left 18 months later, he was an atheist, suspicious of both authority and religion.

After a brief period as a teacher, he enlisted in the Army after the breakout of World War One. He was surprised to find he enjoyed it. Well, at least until he was posted to the front lines and saw the brutality of trench and gas warfare up close.

It was during this period that he wrote most of his poems, only a few of which were published during his lifetime. He met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon at a military hospital, and they became friends. Sassoon would influence Owen, and was responsible for the fact that the poems were published after Owen’s death.

In what has to be one of the fiercely ironic tragedies of the war, Owen was killed in action one week to the day before the armistice was signed. His mother received the telegram regarding his death as the bells were ringing out celebrating the end of the war.

Most of Owen’s poems are about his war experiences, and are bleak, full of dark humor, and razor sharp. I was struck by the excellent technique and piercing work pictures. There are a whole roomful of outstanding young writers killed in World War One, and they are just a slice of the flower of young British manhood that never made it home. (American Joyce Kilmer, of “Trees” fame was one. Also, one of my favorite short story writers, Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki, also died in the war.)

World War One was a thoroughly stupid, unnecessary, bloody waste whose botched end led to another, even more brutal war. (It probably also bears some responsibility for triggering the Bolshevik Revolution, and thus ultimately Stalin’s purges.) It is good to remember that when everyone stands poised to escallate, all it takes is one lone actor to push the button and blow up a continent and more.

It really was World War One that changed the perspective we have on war. It was both the last “patriotic” war for the sake of glory and the first war that left such a rank, bitter taste. Some of the first truly anti-war literature - not counting Tolstoy - came from this conflict. (See my review of Erich Maria Remarche’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which was banned in Nazi Germany.) Out of the ashes of Europe arose two concepts whose ideals have resonated since the second half of the 20th Century. The first is the idea of the Just War, that war should not be waged for glory or profit, but for ideals, and even then, only on necessity. We haven’t always lived up this ideal, but few now would even propose starting a war for purely selfish reasons.

The second is the idea of international cooperation, through trade, the United Nations, and globalism in general. It took a few false starts (and a defeat of the last gasp of Nationalism as a justification for war in the form of Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan), but it is no accident that great nations no longer seem to have the bloodlust they did even 100 years ago. It is a fragile peace, and one that exists because humanity recoiled after the two great wars.

Many of Owen’s poems exist as fragments, and I believe there are a number which have never been published. I own the Wordsworth Library paperback, which has the complete published poetry.

Here are the ones which stood out:

To Eros

In that I loved you, Love, I worshipped you,
In that I worshipped well, I sacrificed
All of most worth. I bound and burnt and slew
Old peaceful lives; frail flowers; firm friends; and Christ.

I slew all falser loves; I slew all true,
That I might nothing love but your truth, Boy.
Fair fame I cast away as bridegrooms do
Their wedding garments in their haste of joy.

But when I fell upon your sandalled feet,
You laughed; you loosed away my lips; you rose.
I heard the singing of your wing's retreat;
Far-flown, I watched you flush the Olympian snows
Beyond my hoping. Starkly I returned
To stare upon the ash of all I burned.

Many of my favorite Owen poems are sonnets. This is no surprise, because I love the sonnet form and always have. A number of the poems I wrote in high school, while pretty bad, were strictly correct sonnets. This one is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is one which hints at Owen’s homosexuality. It is a sad reminder of what many still have to give up (unnecessarily in my view) to live as they were created. The peaceful life, many friends, and their faith. The poem is ostensibly to Eros, well known as an unfaithful deity, but I think it resonates more deeply than that.

The next poem is another sonnet, and I love the musical imagery. Music as love, and love as music, and music as introspection. Yes, yes, and yes! All of those! And at the same time, separate yet inseparable. As a way to describe how music and life make me feel, it is hard to beat this poem.


I have been urged by earnest violins
And drunk their mellow sorrows to the slake
Of all my sorrows and my thirsting sins.
My heart has beaten for a brave drum's sake.
Huge chords have wrought me mighty: I have hurled
Thuds of gods' thunder. And with old winds pondered
Over the curse of this chaotic world,-
With low lost winds that maundered as they wandered.

I have been gay with trivial fifes that laugh;
And songs more sweet than possible things are sweet;
And gongs, and oboes. Yet I guessed not half
Life's symphony till I had made hearts beat,
And touched Love's body into trembling cries,
And blown my love's lips into laughs and sighs.

I have intentionally started with these two poems, which are probably some of his earlier work, before he went to the trenches. The later poems become much bleaker. Here is one of the most moving descriptions of the trenches.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t even know what to say. I’ll just leave it there in all its devastating effectiveness.

Owen’s sense of humor is dark, to put it mildly. This one has a really sneering edge to it.

The Send Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

“Grimly gay” strikes me as a fantastic word picture. The ghastly joviality of those knowing they will probably die.

How about another sonnet? This one is a good bit darker than the first two.

The Fates

They watch me, those informers to the Fates
Called Fortune, Chance, Necessity, and Death;
Time, in disguise as one who serves and waits,
Eternity as girls of fragrant breath.
I know them. Men and Boys are in their pay,
And those I hold my trustiest friends may prove
Agents of Theirs to take me if I stray
From fatal ordinance. If I move, they move---

Escape? There is one unwatched way; your eyes,
O Beauty! Keep me good that secret gate!
And when the cordon tightens of the spies
Let the close iris of your eyes grow great.
So I'll evade the vice and rack of age
And miss the march of lifetime, stage by stage.

Yeah, I guess die young, avoid getting old. The Who would approve. (Except they got old, except for Keith Moon. Oh well.)

Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is this one:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

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 goodbyes.
     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.

This one too is a sonnet. However, unlike the first three, this one isn’t a straight Italian sonnet form, but a weird hybrid between the English and Italian forms. The first eight lines are like the English form, the next four are kind of like the first part of an Italian (except now in the last part of the poem), while the closing couplet is English. Anyway, it’s a good poem, one of the most memorable descriptions of 20th Century warfare ever.

I’ll end with this one, which made me laugh. In a really dark way. Owen was no fan of authoritative fussiness, and this probably actually happened in an army somewhere. It seems impossible it hasn’t.

The Inspection

'You! What d'you mean by this?' I rapped.
'You dare come on parade like this?'
'Please, sir, it's-' ''Old yer mouth,' the sergeant snapped.
'I takes 'is name, sir?'-'Please, and then dismiss.'

Some days 'confined to camp' he got,
For being 'dirty on parade'.
He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot
Was blood, his own. 'Well, blood is dirt,' I said.

'Blood's dirt,' he laughed, looking away,
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
'The world is washing out its stains,' he said.
'It doesn't like our cheeks so red:
Young blood's its great objection.
But when we're duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God's inspection.'

“But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead/The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.” Dang. That’s a great line. And kind of true in a way. And rather bleak at the same time. Such a bloody shame he didn’t survive the war.

This was not the most optimistic volume of verse I have read, but it really made me think, and I enjoyed it in the same way one enjoys the great tragedies. It is beautiful because it is true, not because it is pleasant. It clears away a lot of the posing and preening and self-obsession we tend to accumulate, and throws a harsh light on the underbelly of human nature. The way we can so easily become beasts and tear at each other, until the fates have drained us all of our blood. Owen didn’t just write this. He lived - and ultimately died - in his brutally honest poems. 


I cannot believe I forgot this: 

Benjamin Britten used Owen's poetry along with the Latin Requiem service in A War Requiem. It is an amazing work, one I hope to play some day. 

Here is a bit:


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