Posts Tagged ‘Wilfred Owen’

August favourites #2: War Poem

August 2, 2018

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

There’s a full-length post and the text of the poem here.

Again, I have met so many war poems – lyrical, angry, satirical, in your face, you name it – and I always come back to this one of Owen’s, which seems to me to encapsulate so much. At nineteen, one is immortal; to be immortal and reduced to the state of Owen’s character is too bitter and cruel to contemplate. In the poem he sums up forever, for me, the utter pointlessness and waste of war, in a world where old and shrivelled men compel younger and fitter ones who haven’t had the chance to enjoy life yet, to be maimed and killed, and sentence their families to years of sadness and irretrievable loss.

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Charles Hamilton Sorley: When you see millions

June 20, 2018
When you see millions of the mouthless dead 
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, 
Say not soft things as other men have said, 
That you'll remember. For you need not so. 
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know 
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? 
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. 
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. 
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, 
Yet many a better one has died before.' 
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you 
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, 
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. 
Great death has made all his for evermore. 

A grim Petrarchan sonnet, this one. The alliteration in the open line shocks, with the enormous number, as well as the idea that the dead cannot speak; pale suggests ghostliness, too. Say not soft things: are these the whispered words of condolence, uttered out of embarrassment? Things hints at the speaker lost for what is appropriate to say in the circumstances, rather like the man in Owen’s Disabled who thanks the boy and enquires about his soul… Or is there a hint of the colloquial meaning of soft, as stupid? The poem will carry both. And anyway, the words you utter are for you, not those who are dead, and that is the point the poet is now going to hammer home: it’s too late now for you to do or say anything that will do any good or make any difference: this is the entire force of the octave.

They do not need praise; they are unable to distinguish it from curse; neither do they need tears, or honour – perhaps reminding us of Falstaff’s famous speech about honour in Henry IV Part 2: honour is just a word. Notice too, how Sorley has the dead first mouthless, then deaf and finally blind too; there is a sense of helplessness as well as being beyond help: it is easy to be dead. This was surely very true in the Great War.

Things shift slightly in the sestet: at first they are still a mass, indistinguishable, a crowd, until the hearer spots one that s/he loved heretofore. This is always the way to make the reader think, to narrow down and personalise, and explains why so many of the most memorable poems that came out of that war are focused on the fate of a single individual: look at any of Sassoon‘s or Owen’s most well-known and well-liked poems. It is a spook. Those four monosyllables, with added effect from their place at the start of the line, bring us up short, as perhaps also does the unexpected word spook – a ghost, a spirit, something that shocks or frightens. Though the hearer recognises the dead man, at the same time, it is not the person he knew. And the final line, all monosyllables until the final word, hammers the message home: death is final and forever. Sorley uses the caesura very effectively four times in the poem, too: a pause for thought after a brief sentence at the beginning of a line.

Re-reading this poem as I write this post, I’m struck at how many of the words are monosyllables, emphasising to me the simplicity and the finality of its message.

Siegfried Sassoon: Glory of Women

June 2, 2018

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.

You can’t believe that British troops “retire”

When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.

   O German mother dreaming by the fire,

   While you are knitting socks to send your son

   His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

A Petrarchan sonnet – oh the irony! – written to women about their attitudes towards menfolk at the front. The alliteration of heroes, home seems to set the tone: the man has to have done something worth talking about to validate himself; what about the mentionable place? Are you allowed to say what part of the front he’s been fighting on, or is it the other kind of mentionable? You can tell your neighbours your husband was wounded in the arm, but every part of the body is equally vulnerable, and talking about emasculation isn’t quite so easy…

There’s a softness in the sounds: worship, chivalry that nudges us towards the superficial, and the idea of redeems seems to legitimise what’s going on: it’s worthwhile, a balance, a pay-off.

And then the entire first quatrain is undermined by the monosyllabic half-line that hits you at the start of the fifth line. It’s a statement of fact, direct, linking home and front with you and us. What about that word shells? Another double meaning – the artillery munitions, obviously, as the womenfolk make their contribution to the war-effort, each side’s women making the weaponry that kills the other side’s menfolk, but what about man as an empty shell, unable to communicate or deal with his experiences in the lines? What is he to do with himself, and those feelings? But after that brief interruption we’re back to the jauntiness again – delight rhymes with fight, life in the trenches is mere dirt and danger, and the women are fondly thrilled. They hear tales; we’re linked to childhood, innocence and fairy tales. Fondly is a lovely word, the affectionate meaning married with the Yorkshire meaning foolish… We’re almost back in mediaeval times with ideas like ardour, and laurelled memories. Sassoon was frequently enraged by the attitudes of those back home who didn’t know or care to contemplate the reality of what he and his comrades were going through, and we can see this anger seeping through every line of the poem.

Things shift quite seriously as we move into the sestet. We’re with the military-speak now, the word retire in inverted commas because you never use the real r-word about your own side, of course, but Sassoon forces his home-front reader to face a little of the truth through the triple alliteration of hell’s…horror, trampling…terrible, blind…blood. There’s a half-rhyme, too in that last pair.

And then, for the final tercet, another camera angle: shift to Germany. Why? All in this together, mate? A lovely peaceful image, reinforced by the assonance German, mother, dreaming, behaving in exactly the same way as her British counterpart Sassoon has been excoriating, knitting socks for her son (how powerful are the simple tools of alliteration and assonance!) demolished by the utter brutality of the image in that final line.

Whilst Owen is often angry, there is a bitterness about Sassoon that bleeds through into his anger, a cynicism (perhaps?); anyway I can see why he threw his medal into the Mersey in disgust. There is a public side to war and warfare, to which all are party, and there is a quieter, darker, private aspect which, if we are fortunate, we do not have to share.

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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.

Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.

Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

August 11, 2017

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This is, to my mind, one of Owen’s more obscure, or at least less accessible poems today, especially for students, because hardly anyone goes to Sunday School any more or is familiar with the Old Testament bible stories that are (or used to be) part of our cultural background, if not more – the story of God’s testing of Abraham, ordering him to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a test of loyalty. Let’s leave aside as irrelevant to our purposes the kind of God that would put anyone through this kind of charade, and focus on what Owen does with the story, which would, of course, have been instantly familiar to all his readers.

You need to read the story in the King James Bible; that’s the version Owen would have known and the language and syntax of today’s Tesco translations won’t make half the connections you need. So go to Genesis chapter 22 and read the story first.

Notice how Owen has chosen to use archaic words to mimic the feel of the KJV: ‘clave‘, ‘spake‘, ‘builded‘, (and I can’t help reflecting on whether this deliberately echoes the words of Blake‘s Jerusalemand was Jerusalem builded here?‘ too, or whether it’s my notion. Either way, it doesn’t matter), ‘lo!’ and so on…

Then see how Owen follows the bible story only so far before it begins to warp, to unravel, to develop a mind of its own. There is no ‘fire and iron‘ in Genesis, but there was on the Western Front. Abram bound his son ready for sacrifice, but not with the ‘belts and straps‘ of a soldier’s uniform and kit; he built an altar, but no parapets and trenches: these details of war creep in, in an almost hallucinatory distortion of the original story.

In Genesis, when Abram has passed the test, the angel of the Lord does appear and save the boy; there is the ram caught in the thicket for a substitute sacrifice, which the dutiful Abram offers to God… but not this Abram, who flies against God’s command, kills his son anyway, and half the seed of Europe.

Subtle in its development, if not in its message, Owen calls the war and its effect on future generations into question, and suggests to the reader that it is morally wrong, not what God would have wanted. And yet, this did not stop him from serving his country or doing what he perceived to be his duty to his men, right up to the very end. It’s a simple poem from the perspective of language: no fancy assonance or half-rhyme, just a bitter twist on a story his readers would have been familiar with, and perhaps all the more shocking because Owen chose to meddle with a story from the Bible.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

August 10, 2017

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, 
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, 
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park 
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, 
Voices of play and pleasure after day, 
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. 

About this time Town used to swing so gay 
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees, 
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,- 
In the old times, before he threw away his knees. 
Now he will never feel again how slim 
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. 
All of them touch him like some queer disease. 

There was an artist silly for his face, 
For it was younger than his youth, last year. 
Now, he is old; his back will never brace; 
He’s lost his colour very far from here, 
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, 
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. 

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, 
After the matches, carried shoulder-high. 
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg, 
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why. 
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts, 
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, 
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts 
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg; 
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. 
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt, 
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears 
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts 
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; 
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; 
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. 
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. 

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. 
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits 
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul. 

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, 
And do what things the rules consider wise, 
And take whatever pity they may dole. 
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes 
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. 
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come 
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Whenever I had to teach a unit of First World War literature, either at GCSE or in the sixth form, I used to begin with this poem; it took me a few years to make it a fixed plan, as it were, but eventually I came to see just how perfect an introduction to the subject it was for them. You see, the hero of the poem is nineteen (perhaps younger), so younger than them, and at nineteen, everyone thinks they are immortal… And, at a certain moment in time, there was briefly a hit song connected with being a soldier in the Vietnam War, called ‘Nineteen’, which reinforced my point even further.

It is a brilliant poem: let’s look at some of the reasons why…

I like the way it’s structured: several sections, which you’d be hard put to call verses. Each one stands separate from the others, a separate moment of the day, train of thought, almost like a cameo, or a brief film-clip. Further continuity isn’t necessary for the poem’s effectiveness. In Blunden’s edition of the collected poems, they are separated from each other by a row of asterisks, accentuating the separation.

When you read – and you have to read aloud to receive the full effect of Owen’s mastery of the language and poetic technique – the alliterations and the pauses are striking. Notice the words which receive stress. Why is it a ‘wheeled‘ chair, not just a wheelchair? What does the chilling succinctness of ‘legless, sewn short at elbow‘ actually tell us of the extent of the boy’s injuries?

Time shifts into the second section; we are in his past, his memories, the impressionistic lamps ‘budded‘ in the ‘light blue trees‘. He remembers girls, as a teenage boy would. Owen’s hints at the world of sex and intimacy are subtle ‘slim| girls’ waists‘, ‘how warm their subtle hands‘; none of this excitement or pleasure for him ever again… will the boy die wondering?

Next, we are back with a narrator, perhaps. Certainly we’ve shifted from the memories of before the war. We’re told he was handsome; age and youth now contrasted, he has lost his colour: we are back to the ‘ghastly‘ grey of the first section briefly. He was a sporty type, which made him more attractive to girls, and in the key fourth section we learn about the turning point: drunk one day, he joins up, maybe to please a girl, maybe imagining the ceremonial uniform. Owen’s quite clear, he wasn’t thinking what signing up really meant. Again we have the chilling brevity, ‘Smiling they wrote his lie’: listen to how the stresses fall in that half-line, and how much detail is contained in those few words. We’re invited to reflect on what ‘fears| of Fear‘ might actually mean: is this something we can possibly understand?

The three lines of the fifth section are for me the saddest, and the bitterest in Owen’s poem; so short you can be past them without thinking full about the implications.’Some‘ cheered him. Who is that solemn man? a clergyman, obviously, which makes us reflect on preparation for death, perhaps. He thanks the boy – for what? That shocks me deeply. How does the boy respond to being thanked? And the priest enquires about his soul, because there’s not much body worth enquiring about…

Then there is the closing loneliness of the final section: he cannot do anything for himself, he is totally dependent on – or at the mercy of (whichever you like) others – all he can do is look, and think. And he is back with his thoughts about girls, women, the life he has lost.

Owen was committed to telling the truth of what he saw and knew about war. He doesn’t rub his readers’ noses in things quite as deliberately as Sassoon does, but his selection of details and his careful use of the wealth of our language means that no careful reader can escape his unspoken question: was it really worth it. I’d argue strongly that this is one of his very best poems.

 

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

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