Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A terrible beauty is born: The poetry of Wilfred Owen

Last week, people around the world celebrated Veteran's / Armistice / Remembrance Day. With that little lump still in our hearts, I thought it'd be a good time to talk about Wilfred Owen, a British poet who died too young, but not before finding his voice in the muddy trenches and madness of the first world war.

Owen was the oldest of four children. He grew up a quiet, intelligent kid, often taking care of his younger siblings. After graduating college, he was unsure what to do. He worked as a English and French tutor and dreamed of being a poet, but doubted if he could earn a living from it. The few poems he had published were heavily influenced by the Romantics and John Keats in particular. While they were proficient, they were fairly unremarkable. In a letter to his mother, Owen wrote, "My heart is ready, but my brain unprepared, and my hand untrained. I quite envisage possibility of non-success."

Then when he was 22, he enlisted and went to war. At first he was eager, caught up in the pageantry and pride of the military. After awhile on the front lines, though, he grew disillusioned, sickened by the grinding slaughter of trench warfare.

"For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep," he wrote in another letter. "For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B. Coy., 2nd Lt. G., lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9-days-Rest."

Soon after, Owen's mental state deteriorated rapidly. He was admitted to a hospital for post-traumatic stress syndrome, then known as "shell shock." While recovering, he returned to poetry. Stripping away the Romanticism and melancholy that had influenced his earlier stuff, these new poems were full of brutal scenes from the front lines, anger toward the old men who send young men to war, and a naked desperation to make people understand.

"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 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 poem mirrors Owen's own experience with shell-shock, but viewed from a much different perspective.

"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!"

After about a year of recuperation, first at the army hospital and then in Scotland, Owen returned to service. His hatred of the war and the people who glorified it didn't negate the sense duty he had toward his men.

Owen died on November 4th, 1918, one week before Armastice Day and the end of the war. The message telling his mother about his death was delayed, and apocryphally, she learned he had died while the church bells were ringing to celebrate the new peace.
In 1919, Owen was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The citation describes his final hours during an attack on an entrenched German position: "On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly."

But a greater honor came later that year when Sigfried Sassoon, Owen's friend and fellow soldier-poet, put together a small volume of Owen's poetry. While his body of work is tiny--only about forty poems and a few fragments, most written during his recovery from shell shock--he's come to be seen as a great war poet whose images still have the power to jolt ninety years later.

"All the poet can do to-day is to warn," Owen once wrote. "That is why the true Poets must be truthful." And we who've never been to war--who can barely imagine what is like--will always have a duty to listen and remember.


Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

(Cross-posted on my blog.)


tanita✿davis said...

Man, Owens. He was the one guy in high school who made me sit up and really take notice of poetry. Thanks for this.

Kristopher said...

He makes you take notice, no doubt. He was the first poet we studies in English 102. Basically, the professor wanted to show everybody that not all poetry was about daffodils and rainbows.

Colleen said...

I love Wildred Owens, just love him. Always have. I never learned a thing about him (or Sassoon or a single other "war poet") in school however.

Shakespeare and Keats over and over and over again. Sometimes Yeats thrown in for good measure. And Byron. But no war which is a pity because these are some seriously timeless words.

Andrew Karre said...

Echoing Tanita. Owen and Sassoon had 17-year-old me me telling people I was going to major in poetry in college.

There's a great setting of Anthem for Doomed Youth in Britten's War Requiem.