Somme 100: There is far more to Wilfred Owen's poetry than his battlefront verses

Dr Sally Minogue takes a look at Wilfred Owen's full range of work, from his juvenilia to his mature ‘late’ poems

Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, a great admirer and champion both of Wilfred Owen and of Owen’s poetic hero John Keats, notes a general problem about approaching the poetry of the First World War:

The poems risk becoming less and less intimate as poems, as they are more and more widely accepted as state furniture. Their fame makes them glassy, so we slip off their surfaces when we want to penetrate their depths. What is indispensable about them can also make them seem ossified.

[Introduction to First World War Poems, ed. Andrew Motion, London, Faber and Faber, 2004, pp. xi-xii]

This is particularly true of Owen’s poetry. We have become so familiar with certain iconic poems of his that it is difficult to see them freshly. At the same time, other less well-known poems are more and more sidelined. Anthologies play a homogenising role here; they can select only a certain number of poems per poet, therefore they must foreground the poems which have come to characterise the poet and his wartime experience. At worst this turns such poems into ‘state furniture’, to be wheeled out in centenaries such as the present one. Thus their very familiarity distances us from them; nuances disappear behind the poem’s ‘glassy’ surface. 

Wordsworth’s The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited with notes and introduction by Owen Knowles, is not a complete poems, but it gives us a very full range of his work from his juvenilia to his mature ‘late’ poems; the great benefit of this is that as readers we can see what was going on in the margins. We see what Owen was writing before he was a fully formed poet, before the war became his subject, and when the idea of being a poet was his first concern, as in ‘On My Songs’ (p. 27). And we see an early poetic reaction to the outbreak of war in ‘1914’ (p. 36) with its striking opening lines:

War broke; and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.

Owen was in France when he wrote this, but not yet a soldier. He was still acting as a private tutor, and even as the French went off to fight he seems not to have felt personally connected to the alarming and historic events taking place all around his petit bourgeois existence. He writes – rather repellently – to his mother, at the end of August 1914, ‘that the guns will effect a little useful weeding’, noting that he regrets ‘the mortality of the English regulars less than that of the French, Belgian, or even Russian or German armies: because the former are all Tommy Atkins, poor fellows, while the continental armies are inclusive of the finest brains and temperaments of the land.’ Hmm. These are the words of someone who clearly doesn’t see himself as in any likelihood of ‘a little useful weeding’; and Owen’s condescending tone about the ordinary soldier continued to reflect his own anxiety about his class and position until relatively late in his experience as an officer. 

When we get to the body of work springing from that experience (he returned to England, and volunteered in October 1915), we see not a massive change in style and feeling but, as one would expect of a developing poet, experiments, tryings out, different modes and moods. In any case, Owen’s poems were much revised and early versions were redrafted in the light of later experience. Dating is therefore complicated as an early poem might be revised late on. In this respect the Wordsworth Editions chronology is markedly different from that of Jon Stallworthy’s standard edition, since Stallworthy dates all the poems by their likely final revision. 

Owen’s soldierly experience was not the only or even the main factor in his maturing as a poet. His extraordinarily fortuitous meeting with Siegfried Sassoon, when both were being treated at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, had a profound effect both personally and poetically. Personally, his relationship with Sassoon probably confirmed (and endorsed) his sexuality; poetically, Sassoon both took him seriously as a poet, and took the red pencil to his over-Keatsian language. Every poet needs a good critic: Sassoon was to Owen’s poetry as Ezra Pound would be to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  

A significant poem of Owen’s, ‘Sonnet: to my Friend / With an Identity Disc’ (p. 40, and mentioned in my previous blog) shows the effect of Sassoon’s emendations in the final four lines of the sonnet (retained in Wordsworth; Stallworthy uses Owen’s later revisions). This is an interesting poem, as one can see Owen trying to find a new identity as a soldier, just as earlier he had tried to find an identity as a poet. But the power and glamour of being a remembered, a named poet (‘If ever I had dreamed of my dead name ...), outweighs the overt aim in the poem, to be remembered only by his name on the identity disc. The poem deliberately echoes both Keats’ ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 104, both about a poet’s posterity. Owen here conjures both his death and his immortality; and however he may appear to deny his own desire for fame, he isn’t shy to imagine his name in the pantheon of poets.

His name is now, of course, in that pantheon, put there by a central body of poetry which has come to represent the First World War in the way Motion cautions against. Not only that, but the words of Owen’s draft Preface to his putative collection of poems is used as the inscription which surrounds the names of the First World War poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’ These words have bedevilled his poetry and sometimes come to stand instead of it.

The two statements are monolithic, whereas the poetry itself is many-sided and complex of voice. This can be illustrated by two poems which stand next to each other on pp. 42 and 43, ‘Greater Love’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’. ‘Greater Love’ plays on a much-used Biblical axiom of the war (subsequently deployed on numerous memorials): ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. At the same time, Owen eroticises the concept with the opening lines:

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead

The emphasis on the sensual attributes of the soon-to-be-dead body continues through the poem, punctuating each stanza. Thus Owen connects the primary sense of male comradeship and loyalty, which drew both him and Sassoon back to the Front when their consciences pulled in the other direction, with the subtextual desire and love of the male body underlying (or perhaps overlaying) it.

Drawing attention to this is not to reduce the poem to its homoerotic elements but to show the coexistence of many strands of thought and feeling. ‘The Parable’ – similarly drawn from a Biblical source – is on the other hand powerfully univocal. Taking the known story of Abraham and his son Isaac, where Isaac is saved at the last minute by the angel of mercy, Owen neatly re-reverses the expected narrative reversal. In Owen’s version Abraham follows God’s original command and slays not only his son but also ‘half the seed of Europe, one by one’. God, the old man Abraham, and the old men of Europe, are all implicated in the deliberate act of slaughter of their young sons.

The homoerotic interpretation of ‘Greater Love’ (and other Owen poems) has been made available to us since the later 20th century, through a body of cultural criticism which re-interpreted First World War poetry in the light of greater biographical information and in response to a different social and moral context. Readers in the earlier part of the century would have been unlikely to pick up these connotations. This reminds us that even apparently monolithic bodies of poetry can be changed, reviewed and seen in a different light. It is useful then to look at poems which don’t quite accord with the standard Owen canon, such as the great ‘Mental Cases’ (p. 92):

Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked ...

Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, ...

If these poor men ‘whose minds the Dead have ravished’ must always ‘see these things and hear them’, then the poet insists that we must too. His phantasmagoric language brings the men’s hellish interior world into the present tense – as it always is for them.

What then of Owen’s central canon? It is formed round a number of key poems: ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Exposure’, ‘Futility’, ‘Spring Offensive’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. Even this short list reminds us of the poetic range and diversity achieved by Owen in such a brief period of development. ‘Anthem’ (p. 56) is a sonnet and employs the sensuous Keatsian vocabulary of Owen’s early style; but never forget that the whole poem is predicated on the fact that ‘these’ young men ‘die as cattle’. ‘Exposure’ (p. 80), with its refrain ‘But nothing happens’, emphasises the long stretches of waiting in war, while its title reminds us of the sheer vulnerability of the human body – here afflicted less by the ‘sudden successive flights of bullets’ than by ‘the merciless iced east winds that knive us’.

In the final stanza the burying-party ‘Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, / But nothing happens.’ In this world, the death of men isn’t significant enough to be regarded as an event. Here we see a glimpse of despair (‘For love of God seems dying’), which finds fuller and angrier expression in ‘Futility’ (p. 90). A poem which begins with a tender image of moving a dead body into the sun, as if it might warm it into life, ends:

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

‘Spring Offensive’ (p. 99) by contrast conjures up, in the first three stanzas, the beauty of a day in May ‘murmurous with wasp and midge’... ‘where the buttercup / Had blessed with gold their slow boots’ (Keats again); the latter stanzas are driven by the verve and vigour of young men at full athletic stretch. Owen catches the excitement of the engagement:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather

Only that word ‘Exposed’, left hanging from the previous headlong lines, reminds us that this is a charge which will end for many in death. Death underlies the poem, but is brought to the front of our minds only at the poem’s end.   

I leave the reader to ponder Owen’s two best-known poems, ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in the light of my remarks, and with a mind open to nuances of voice, emotion and poetic tone. For a dazzling critical display on the latter poem, I refer you to two contributions by pre-eminent First World War scholar Santanu Das, on the British Library website. Das’s written piece [www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/a-close-reading-of-dulce-et-decorum-est] shows the many facets of current critical understanding of First World War poetry, even if at times it seems to be firing off in all directions.

His more reflective video [www.bl.uk/world-war-one/videos/Wilfred-owen-dulce-et-decorum-est], looking closely at the manuscript revisions of the poem, gives us an inwardness with the process of writing as seen through the marks of Owen’s own hand. It is to those marks that we always return, and from those marks that his imaginative world has been translated to us – the true gift of poetry.

Further Resources

On Youtube you can find two fine readings, one by Christopher Ecclestone of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the other by Sean Bean of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Both show the centrality of the human voice to Owen’s work.

See my previous Owen blog for further reading.

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