Wilfred Owen Part 2
In honour of Wilfred Owen on his centenary, here is a brief introduction to five of his most admired poems. For me, pathos at its most upsetting and hurtful.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Perhaps the most famous of all war poems, here Owen openly questions the Roman poet Horace’s assertion of the title: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”
Written in plain language, readily comprehensible to ordinary soldiers, Owen’s verse characterises his fellow infantrymen “coughing like hags” and “Drunk with fatigue” as they trudge onwards, asleep on their feet.
When they are struck by “the hoots of gas-shells dropping” and find themselves drowning in a green mist of poison, the writer is unsparingly graphic:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
“Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
“Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
“Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
“To children ardent for some desperate glory,
“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
“Pro patria mori.”
Anthem for Doomed Youth
Owen here focuses on the sheer brutality of the slaughter, finding no romance in the fate of men “who die as cattle” having been summoned to their inevitable end by “bugles calling for them from sad shires”.
Denied the ceremonial niceties of mourning rituals, the “doomed youth” can expect only the mock sorrows of “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells”.
The onomatopoeic burst of the phrase “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” illustrates the craft of the man.
Again drawing on antiquity, Owen imagines a descent down, down through a foxhole into Hell itself.
There the narrator encounters a corpse who reflects on his life, “the truth untold,/The pity of war” and the legacy of their sacrifice before the haunting revelation:
“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…”
“Strange Meeting” concludes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, composed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
Repurposing his early taste for nature poetry to chillingly ironic effect, Owen opens by describing the emerging abundance of spring in Keatsian fashion:
“Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
“By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge.”
As soldiers’ boots stomp through buttercups, the poet breaks off to describe the sudden eruption of violence (“instantly the whole sky burned”) subverting the innocence of the preceding image: “And soft sudden cups/Opened in thousands for their blood”.
For Owen, the natural world is indifferent to the affairs of men, the earth resilient and ready to endure and outlast the worst humanity can afflict upon it and each other, its beauty simultaneously providing an uneasy contrast to the industrialised bloodshed.
The poet’s own experiences of shell shock made him uniquely qualified to address a condition we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The narrator muses on the consoling oblivion of the condition: “Happy are these who lose imagination.” The phrase echoes the state of “drowsy numbness” Keats articulates in “Ode on a Nightingale” (1819).
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Wilfred Owen speaks for the men fallen at his side and for millions since when he writes:
“And some cease feeling
“Even themselves or for themselves.
“Dullness best solves
“The tease and doubt of shelling
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