Posts Tagged ‘Exposure’

On a century of Owen’s poetry

December 3, 2020

This month offers another opportunity to write about one of my favourite poets, and still the war poet par excellence, in my opinion, as we reach the centenary of the first publication of his poetry – posthumous, of course.

In a sense, of course, Wilfred Owen’s reputation is frozen in time because of his untimely death in the final days of the Great War: he left behind his personal story of bravery at the front, his struggle with shell-shock and his time at Craiglockhart. There he met and was encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon, and out of it all came the small volume which is his complete poems. There is no more: would he have gone on to greater things had he survived the war, or would he have faded into obscurity, his best work written in his twenties?

Can you remember when you first encountered his verse, and the effect it had on you? Two poems stand out for me, at school when preparing for my O Levels: the explanation of how the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth works, and the sheer horror of the images in Dulce et Decorum Est. They were the two poems everyone knew in those long-gone days, the 1960s, when interest in the Great War was re-awakened by the fiftieth anniversary.

These two poems re-appeared when I was teaching, in anthologies of poetry devised by examination boards to meet various arcane criteria, and later on A Level English Literature offered a unit on Literature and the First World War and there was the opportunity to read much more widely. For me, the Owen poem I have always found most effective and most powerful in the classroom is Disabled (you can read my analysis of it here).

Disabled is about a boy who lied and said he was nineteen in order to join up. You are talking about the age of many of the (male) students in the classes I taught. Subtly, the implications of his horrendous injuries are made clear, and it’s the fact that his age is the age of awakening sexuality which shocks most: you don’t actually need to say anything…

Or you can consider Mental Cases, which has as much of the graphic detail as does Dulce et Decorum Est, but with the added nightmare quality of mental derangement, insanity on top of physical injury. And in the latter poem, the man dies, whereas the men in the former poem survive and have to live with their visions.

There are many other Great War poets, as powerful in their use of graphic detail or in their ability to make the reader think: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney to name several. What makes Owen stand out above the others? for he does, I am convinced. His bravery, his youth and his own tragic end are part of it. His astonishing use of the poetical power and expressive possibilities of the English language must not be overlooked: just read Exposure aloud, slowly and carefully. His stance on the war itself is also important. He was not unpatriotic or anti-British; he did not shirk his duty. He did not merely seek to horrify his readers through descriptions of atrocity. Like Sassoon, he wants his readers to feel very uncomfortable: Owen is writing, as he put it himself, about ‘the pity of war’. His poems say to his readers: these things are going on, these men are suffering and dying, in your name. Implied are such questions as ‘Why?’, ‘Do you approve?’, ‘Now that you know, what will you say?’.

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.

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)…

Wilfred Owen

September 19, 2013

the cellarDSC_0154Today I carried out the last duty I’d set myself as an English teacher (ret’d) when I finally visited Owen’s grave. It’s in a godforsaken village in northeastern France – Ors, on the Sambre Canal, where he was killed a week before the end of the First World War as he and his men attempted to build a bridge across the canal. He is buried in a military annexe in the local communal cemetery; all bar one of the men buried there were killed on the same day; there are two VCs among them. It’s all very ordinary, just like the dozens of other war cemeteries in this part of France. I looked at the canal: how you’d build a bridge across it under gunfire beats me. Pat Barker imagines it graphically in the final volume of her trilogy, The Ghost Road.

A couple of miles away is the Maison Forestiere, which is the house from the cellar of which Owen wrote his last letter to his mother. It’s been turned into what I can best call a poetry installation: painted white, inside in darkness Owen’s poems are projected onto glass panels and read aloud (some of them) by Kenneth Branagh. Some have been translated into French and read aloud, too: finally French readers are meeting Owen’s poems and France realises that she has one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets buried here.

Listening to the poems was moving; there were the usual well-known ones, some early fragments and some I hadn’t met before. The translations into French were interesting: sometimes the translator had succeeded in capturing some of the alliteration, assonance and especially half-rhyme that characterise Owen’s greatest work (Exposure, Strange Meeting) but very often s/he hadn’t, for it was impossible, and somehow this underlined for me just how good his poetry is.

The cellar is empty, cleaned out and is the same space where Owen wrote his last letter: you can sit there and hear it, in English and French, and be still with your thoughts.

It’s a fitting memorial, I felt, and worth a detour, as Michelin puts it. There are details on the tourism website of Le Cateau Cambresis, the nearest large town.

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