Posts Tagged ‘Ivor Gurney’

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?’.

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