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The Poems of Wilfred Owen

The review of Owen's poetry which follows was recently republished by the Guardian in one of their "Centenary" supplements looking at the 20th century decade by decade as it appeared in the pages of that newspaper.

Owen is so much enmeshed in the overall image of the Great War that it is difficult to remember that there was a time when few people had heard of him. Thus the review published on December 29th, 1920, just over two years after his death is fascinating as a record of someone's first experience of reading the poems. I don't yet know who the reviewer "CP" was, but it is not impossible that he had been through similar experiences to Owen.

Sassoon, who edited the poems wanted the work to speak for itself, and refused to give any but the briefest details of the poet; which made him rather like the Unknown Warrior whose image and personality and identity could change depending on who was talking or thinking about him.

Geoff Dyer, in The Missing of the Somme, makes a very pertinent point:

To a nation stunned by grief the prophetic lag of posthumous publication made it seem that Owen was speaking from the other side of the grave. Memorials were one sign of the shadow cast by the dead over England in the twenties; another was a surge of interest in spiritualism. Owen was the medium through whom the missing spoke.


Poems. By Wilfred Owen. London: Chatto and Windus. Pp. ix. 33. 6s. net.

Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, MC., an officer of the Manchester Regiment, was killed in action on the Sambre Canal a week before the Armistice, aged 25. The twenty-three poems of this collection are the fruit of not quite two years' active service, less than half of it in the field. But they are enough to rank him among the very few war poets whose work has more than a passing value. Others have shown the disenchantment of war, have unlegended the roselight and romance of it, but none with such compassion for the disenchanted nor such sternly just and justly stern judgment on the idyllisers. To him the sight and sound of a man gassed suffice to give the lie to "dulce et decorum" and the rest of it. The atrophy that he damns is not that of the men who fought -

       having seen all things red,
The eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever;

it is the atrophy of those who "by choice...made themselves immune from

         What ever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

If he glorifies the soldiers - and he does, gloriously - it is as victim, not as victor; not as the hero achieving, but as one whose sacrificial love passes the love of women:

O Live, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead...
Heart, you were never hot,
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot:
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

His verse, as he says in his preface, is all of the pity of war, and "except in the pity" there is no poetry. But it is a heroic exception, for the pity gets itself into poetry in phrases which are not the elegant chasing of ineffectual silver, but the vital unbeautiful beauty of unwashed gold.

It is the poetry of pain, searing and piercing to pity; it is the poetry of the Tragic Muse, whose visage, though "marred more than any man", is yet transfigured in the sorrow of song. He has revealed the soul of the soldier as no one else has revealed it, not because his vision of the externals was less vivid and cleaving, but because to that vision he added an imagination of the heart that tnade him sure of his values:

...except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but has the highway for a shell.
You shalt not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well contents
By any jest of mind. These men are worth
Your tears: you are not worth their merriment.

Irony his poetry has, and grim humour; but the Spirit of the Pities always breathes through the hutnour and the irony and keeps their bitterness sweet. Sometimes, as in "Mental Cases", the pain is too poignant even for pity, and moves only to the anger of despair; but more often the anger gives place to a beneficent impulse, as in "Strange Meeting" the first and one of the finest of his poems:

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.

This poem happens also to be a good example of a technical innovation that is rather puzzling. Enough has been quoted to show that Owen uses traditional metres and rhymes, but, as here, he also uses, and uses throughout the poem, a device which is neither rhyme nor assonance. It is not assonance because the vowels are different, and in any case it could not be rhyme, because the initial consonants are alike: "spoiled - spilled, "laughed - left", "grained - ground". It looks like a subtly contrived escape from tonal completeness, a calculated deflection from the kindred points of heaven and home, which are rhymes, lest the musical significant should soften the conscious starkness of his treatment. But the result gain is more than doubtful. The thing affects you as the baffling elusiveness of a fugitive pun, or the half-foiled meeting of two stanzas of a sestina; and just because of the baffling and the foiling it fails in its artistic purpose. It is significant that it is not used in his greatest poems, such as "Apologia pro Poemate Meo" and "Greater Love"; and one cannot help feeling that, fine as it is, "Strange Meeting" would have been finer without it. This trick apart, Owen uses words with the poet's questing instinct for the heart of things and his homing instinct for the heart of man. His work will not easily die.

  You can now hear an account of Wilfred Owen's death, and the tragic irony of the circumstances in which his parents received the dreaded telegram, together with a reading of Strange Meeting - either in RealAudio or Windows Media format

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Wednesday 21 December 2005