Posts Tagged ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

In memoriam

November 4, 2018

2013-09-19 10.17.45 sommeWilfred Owen is etched on the collective British memory of the Great War in a way that no other poet is. I first came across Anthem For Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est in the fourth form at school, in the late 1960s, long before I met any other poetry from that time. So what is it that makes Owen stand out, and is he better than the others?

His own tragic story adds poignancy to his legacy; certainly he was not the only poet to be killed in the war, but the story of his death in battle only a week before the Armistice, and the receipt of the dreaded telegram by his parents in Shrewsbury on Armistice day as the rest of the townsfolk celebrated the end of four and a half years of insanity cannot fail to move us. He died a hero, and he died young; who know what he may have become had he survived? There is a chilling moment near the end of the film O What a Lovely War, which I also met in the late 1960s when it was first released: we encounter the last soldier to die in the war. He is asked, ‘Are you the last?’ and a shot is heard. The shock is our realisation that someonehad to be be last one, and the horror of being killed at 10.59am, just before the armistice takes effect, is more chilling than any of the other deaths…why?

He suffered alongside his men; letters home attest to that, and he suffered shell-shock and was treated at the well-known hospital for officers at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who encouraged a fellow-poet to give words to his experiences. The building is still there, now part of the Napier University campus, and there is a small exhibition well worth a visit if you are passing. I feel a connection with Owen because he spent his last weeks before his return to France attached to the enormous army camp on the outskirts of Ripon, where I used to live and teach. He rented a room in a small cottage in the city and made the last revisions to his poems while there. I was present at the inauguration of a memorial plaque at the cottage about twenty years ago. I also have family connections with Shrewsbury, where Owen grew up. His name appears on the enormous memorial tablet of the Manchester Regiment in the Abbey Church there, and there is an austere modern sculpture in the grounds commemorating his death on the Sambre Canal near Ors on 4 November, 1918.

And of course, I have visited the battlefields where he fought, the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau where he spent his last days, now converted into a splendid museum and installation of his poetry, the French having recognised his greatness too. The municipal graveyard in Ors houses a section of Commonwealth war graves, almost all of them killed on the same day as Owen. A place to reflect and remember.

Owen’s time at the front, at Craiglockhart and at his death on the Sambre Canal is movingly imagined in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

And Owen the poet: what of his work? He gives words to the incomprehensible, the inexpressible, which our more fortunate generations have not had to experience. We cannot tell if he exaggerated for effect; we can feel his anger, at the way he felt the suffering of the men at the front was not understood by those at home, the fact that the agonies and deaths and mutilations were unnecessary. And yet he never shied from his duty, never protested publicly in the way that Sassoon did, for instance. The power of his poetry resides both in his choice of words to express his feelings, and his stunning use of the English language in ways he made his own: I’m thinking particularly of his muted use of rhyme, half-rhyme and part-rhyme, and assonance and alliteration in lesser-known poems such as Exposure, for example, which puts across the sense of forlornness and being forgotten while doing one’s duty, and in Strange Meeting, among others. The Great War produced an immense and varied wealth of literature, poetry in particular, and I cannot imagine that Owen’s powerful voice will ever be forgotten.

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Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time

October 22, 2018

I’d just finished the last of my current series of posts on various poems from the First World War which have spoken to me lately, when this timely article appeared on my laptop; I’ve linked to it for the new poem by Carol Ann Duffy which will obviously be copyrighted, so I don’t reproduce it here. I think it’s a marvellous response from our time to a century ago.

I’ve always felt an affinity with Duffy: I’ve always admired her poetry and taught it whenever I could at school – which was most years – and she and I are of an age. After I’d graduated I discovered that she and I had been students in the English Literature department at the University of Liverpool at exactly the same time; our paths had never crossed because she had read English & Philosophy and I’d read English & French…

The post of Poet Laureate had always seemed to me uniquely British and utterly redundant until she took up the post. She hasn’t produced fawning drivel for state occasions and self-important people as other laureates did: she did what in my mind a poet ought to do, which is react in a personal way to public events and commemorations so as to offer the people of the nation an opportunity to pause and think about the subject in a new way. This she also does with the centenary of the 1918 armistice which is fast approaching.

Her poem is a sonnet, as were many of the best-known poems from the war-poets, but it’s a twenty-first century sonnet: there are the fourteen lines and there is the rhythm of the sonnet but none of the traditional structure of the Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet: she offers us the concept and its potential for a certain kind of reflection and meaning, as she has done many times previously in similar poems.

The title brings together the idea of a wound as a lasting scar as well as a physical injury and links it with the passage of time, perhaps reminding us of the idea of time healing all wounds, except that she will go on to develop her idea that this has not happened.

Read the poem aloud in your head and savour the sonorous beauty of Duffy’s use of language and imagery: that lapidary opening half-line, for starters, and the linking of time and tide in that line. Death’s birthing-place is wonderfully compact, the linked images of birthing, nursing and hatching so much more effective as a threesome. Listen to the power of those alliterated bs as the men sail off to France or Flanders, and the end of God as so many men lost their faith during the slaughter.

The latter half of the poem is quieter, calmer as Duffy acknowledges the intention behind the men’s sacrifice – love you gave your world for – even thought that was not the actuality. And then come the lessons not learned, reinforced as she moves into the present tense: we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice: war continues unabated a century later; the futility of it all.

There are a couple of clever echoes of earlier poems, I think: to Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est in Poetry gargling in its own blood, and to Philip Larkin’s fiftieth anniversary poem MCMXIV in the town squares silent, awaiting their cenotaphs.

I know that this is an instant reaction, but I think this is a very fine poem and a worthy commemoration of those times; I think Duffy balances the horrific waste with the good intentions and reminds us that it’s our – contemporary – responsibility that nothing has changed.

Rupert Brooke: Peace

October 21, 2018

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

For me, Brooke typifies the gung-ho attitudes of so many at the outbreak of the Great War. It’s easy to be critical more than a century later, for hindsight is a wonderful thing; it takes an effort of the twenty-first century mind to imagine both the innocence and the patriotism of those distant days. So why the welcoming of the war? A country relatively speaking at peace for the best part of a century, apart from the Crimean War and various minor skirmishes in the Middle East, South Africa and India? Pride in what Great Britain had achieved with its Empire that painted a quarter of the globe red on world maps? Public school ethos? A pride in a homogeneous nation, in the days before refugees and mass migration? Possibly a combination of all of those things…

I don’t think I have been deliberately picking out poems which are Petrarchan sonnets in this recent series of posts on poetry of the Great War, but it is striking how many poets used this form, which is most often associated with love poetry.

I always found it useful in my teaching to approach a poem in three stages: what is the poet saying? how is the poet saying it? how successful is the poet in saying it? You can see a progression in terms of reader involvement there, gradually more demanding, moving from the simple ‘story’ if you like, to poetic technique and then personal response.

So: thanks to God for offering the youth of the nation something real to do, something that surpasses the trivial and everyday, the mundane. And the worst that can happen to you is to be killed… unlike in The Soldier, the d-word is used, and capitalised too, but here it’s still a distant and rather vague experience. For me, Brooke creates a similar feeling to Herbert Asquith in The Volunteer. We are still light-years away from the horrors of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The form is that of a love poem, which surely is significant, particularly as towards the end of the octave Brooke will mock love itself as inferior to the coming experience of war, which is more concrete, more masculine, perhaps. There is a sense of thrill in the first quatrain, perhaps like the realisation that one is in love, then a sense of something new and refreshing in the second, after a long period of tedium reflected in the long vowel sounds in old, cold, weary, dreary. I do find love described as a little emptiness rather disturbing, and the glibness – to me – of the entire sestet is shocking, revealing a total lack of awareness of the actual effect of modern weaponry and warfare.

Evaluating, I think Brooke is successful in saying what he wanted to say, but I am too far from his time and his attitudes to be able to get inside what he actually means, and if I were to choose a word to sum up his poem, I think unpleasant would fit the bill…

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

Poetry: Wilfred Owen

December 14, 2014

Perhaps one is pre-disposed to warm to Wilfred Owen‘s poetry by his own tragic story: killed in action a mere week before the Armistice (but then, when you get to thinking about this, it is even crueller to realise that someone had to be the last person killed) and his parents receiving the telegram a week later, whilst everyone around finally celebrated the end…

Owen’s poetry has survived, and will, for a number of reasons. He writes about war in ways which others – equally effectively – do not: his best poems, it has always seemed to me, are especially powerful because they personalise the dreadfulness of war by zeroing in on a single individual and his fate: the blinded soldier in The Sentry, the dying man in Dulce et Decorum Est, or, most powerfully for me, the survivor in Disabled. When he focuses in close-up on the horrors, he comes from an unusual angle – the survivors in Mental Cases are unforgettable, and again, these are survivors. And in some way, these poems are filmic: a series of shots, from different angles, they link in for me with the grainy old monochrome newsreel shots of a century ago.

Owen is also capable of great cleverness in developing an idea, almost in the metaphysical sense of ‘wit’. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is my favourite example of this: the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice develops gradually, becoming subtly more and more warped and surreal as the location and the language mutates, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the trenches of Flanders, and then blasphemous as the clever men of Europe defy God’s final command to show mercy.

But what is specifically poetic about Owen? Briefly and powerfully he draws us as far as we (safely at home) can be drawn into the horrors and shows us, through visual imagery and through his use of language, as much as we can ever know. The strangeness, the eeriness he creates through his subtle and persistent use of half-rhyme in poems such as Exposure and Strange Meeting are meant to haunt us, creating places we can see and feel and yet never understand, feelings we can imagine, perhaps, but never really know. Perhaps that is his greatest achievement: he takes us as close as we can be taken to the world he lived and died in, and in a way that no other poet of his time manages to do so forcefully.

And: if you are familiar with Owen’s poetry, next time you read Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, look out for how many very carefully and subtly woven-in back-references there are to Owen’s poems (and Sassoon’s too)…

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