Today is a day to remember those lost in The Great War, and as Loretta Barnard explains, no-one described the horror like poet Wilfred Owen.
It’s incredible to think that a young man who had only four short poems published during his lifetime is now one of the most acclaimed anti-war poets of all time. It’s also sobering to discover that the works that make him one of poetry’s towering figures, were written in just 15 months or so.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) fancied himself a poet when he was a teenager. He tinkered with verse and had developed some fine technical skills, but he hadn’t mined the passion that ultimately defined him.
Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915. During active service in France, he suffered shell-shock and was treated at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.
It was Sassoon who pressed Owen to work his wartime experiences into his poems. Encouraged to find his own voice, he threw himself into his work.
Stark reality became a feature of his poems, along with enormous compassion for his fellow soldiers. He described the terrors, the depths of suffering, writing “My subject is war, and the pity of war.” His clear voice unequivocally exposed the inhumanity and futility of war. In fact, the title of one of his poems is Futility. A dead soldier is moved into the sun because the sun’s rays have always woken him before. Maybe they’ll wake him this last time. A futile gesture. A potent image.
Disabled is unspeakably sad. The returned soldier sits in his wheelchair summoning his memories – the days when he was a football champion, when he enjoyed the love of a girl, and when he signed up: “Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.”
He knows now that for the rest of his life, his interminable life, he needs to be looked after by “them.” The last two lines tear your heart out.
Dulce et Decorum Est uncovers the lie of dying for one’s country – there is no glory, no glory at all. Owen describes the horrible death from gas attacks, bitterly attacking those who send soldiers to a death from “froth-corrupted lungs”, from “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.”
In the pessimistic sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth, young soldiers are likened to passing cattle destined for slaughter. The title itself conveys a forceful message, with “anthem” suggesting something rousing and patriotic, but it’s juxtaposed with “doomed youth”. There’s also the starkness of pairing “doomed” with “youth”, because youth is thought of as a time of optimism, excitement and adventure. This is an elegy, make no mistake.
Owen’s use of alliteration – “rifles’ rapid rattle” – makes a tangible aural impact. A staccato effect if you will, conjuring the sounds of ceaseless gunfire.
His metaphors carry incredible weight – ponder the “demented choirs of wailing shells.” You can almost hear the bombs while you’re mulling over the use of the word “choirs,” to describe them being dropped. It’s exceptional poetry.
In Mental Cases, Owen clearly set out to shock readers. Don’t forget that shell-shock was a newly diagnosed condition at that time. Mental illness was certainly a subject to be avoided in polite society, but Owen charges in, painting a terrifying scene. Consider the opening lines:
“Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?”
We are shown the “men whose minds the Dead have ravaged,” the “carnage incomparable,” the “sloughs of flesh.” These are deeply disturbing images, so in-your-face that you have to take notice. This is his message – this is the price we pay for sending soldiers to fight.
In October 1918, Owen was awarded a Military Cross for bravery in combat. A matter of days later, on November 4, 1918 he was killed in action in France. He was 25 years old.
Just one week after that, on 11 November 1918, the Armistice was signed, officially ending World War I.
Wars. They keep having the bloody things. The futility, the utter futility.