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Wilfred Owen – A Poet Who Wrote the Great War’s Epitaph Even as It Was Writing His

The death of the First World War’s ablest poet was thus a testimony to its monumental absurdity.

“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

Wilfred Owen wrote these lines in May 1918. The end of World War One was still in the future. The poet had come home from the Front some months previously, grievously injured, but had by then recovered some of his strength. He was to return to the Front at the end of August.

Meanwhile, Owen was deployed at the Northern Command’s Military Stores at Ripon. It had occurred to him to try and put together his first book of poems, a project he hoped to complete early 1919. After all, the War was losing steam, as everybody seemed to know by then, and its end could not be far away. These were poems Owen had written during his 15 months of military service – 15 months lived in trenches, amidst slush, smoke, rain, lice and hunger, with the smell of death a constant companion.

While working at the Ripon Stores, the poet wrote the first draft of a preface to his book as well, an unfinished foreword that yet spelt out in the clearest possible terms what his book was not going to be about: it was not, he said, to be about bravery or heroism in war, or about glory or honour; it would be futile to look in its lines for death-defying courage. He went on to say that ‘above all’, he was ‘not concerned with poetry’. That astonishing statement was followed by the two sentences in parentheses that I started this piece with.

But, for then, the book had to be shelved. Owen returned to the Front, in the north of France. Germany was then in retreat everywhere, and  the fighting was getting even more desperate, more brutal. On the morning of November 4, by the side of the Sambre-Oise Canal outside the village of Ors, where a German battalion had dug in its heels, a fierce battle ensued as some units of the 2nd Manchester Battalion pressed forward, trying to tease the Germans out of their positions.

One of the platoons was led by Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen.

That sunny November morning, under a cloudless sky, beside a line of poplars, Owen fell to German machine gun fire. He was 25. Exactly a week later, on November 11, 1918, the Great War came to an end. As all the bells in all the prayer-houses all over England tolled that morning in celebration of the Allies’ victory, the news of Wilfred Owen’s death reached his mother.

That church bells could toll to mark the death of men of his generation was a belief that had abandoned Owen well before his passing. This loss of faith, the aridity of this hopelessness, was memorably captured in a poem that he wrote in September/October 1917:

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? 

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs –

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells,

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

‘What candles may be held to speed them all?’ Owen goes on to ask later in the same poem, one that he – with withering scorn – calls Anthem for Doomed Youth, the ‘celebration’ of a generation that never had a future. The use of the word ‘anthem’, with its frequent association with patriotic passion and religious fervour, is note-worthy here.

Wilfred Owen’s passage through the Great War was a troubled moral journey. He had been an ardent believer since his early childhood, his faith in a harmonious world order tying him by a seemingly unbreakable cord to a benevolent god. At the young age of 18, he had volunteered to apprentice with a clergyman in Dunsden as the cleric’s secretary. He gave Bible lessons to poor villagers, led them at prayers, and offered them what help he could in their hour of distress.

Even as late as in May, 1917 – when he had already grasped the enormity of the war’s horrors – his letters to his mother were steeped in an unquestioning, almost a contented, acceptance of the principles of Christian morality:

“I am more and more a Christian …Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bulled, be outraged, be killed: but do not kill.”

Words such as these do not come out of blind, unreasoning faith, for they point to a highly evolved moral sense. And yet, Wilfred had  joined military service as a volunteer, impelled to this choice by a sense of duty, of pride in “the greatest and best of all countries” that was England. He had also loved poetry ever since he was a child, reading the great English 19th-century romantics over and over again, as his mother recalled, and as his own poetry, the early more than the more mature work, provides copious testimony of. That is why the seismic changes in Owen’s moral-intellectual universe recorded in his later poems come across so dramatically to his reader.

Indeed, the world where poems like the Anthem for Doomed Youth or the unforgettable Dulce et Decorum est (written in April/May 1918) belong, lies at the antipodes to the world Owen had started his life’s journey from, the world of The Ballad of Peace and War, which claims, blithely, that:

O meet it is and passing sweet

To live in peace with others,

But sweeter still and far more meet

To die in war for brothers.

Dulce et… is indeed the perfect foil to this early Ballad, and Owen quite clearly intended it to be so. It was with bitter irony that he was re-visiting in Dulce et... the illusions of his early years about the great and noble business of ‘patriotic’ wars. Defeated in battle and dead beat, a regiment wades aimlessly through slush, mud and corpse-heaps when it is caught in a deadly gas attack by the enemy. The poem is about these men who are condemned to die the most violent death imaginable:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,   

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,   

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues –

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Uninterrupted for two thousand years, Horace’s ode, Dulce et Decorum est, has been waved around by sundry war-mongers all over Europe as a flag around which to rally  gullible citizens in ‘defence of the holy fatherland’.  ‘It is right and beautiful to die for one’s own country’ is an idea that has been sanctified and put on the high pedestal in every country in the most outrageously cynical manner. The line is found inscribed on war memorials, on walls of military training schools, even on the lapels of soldiers’ uniforms. It is upon this ‘Old Lie’ that Owen pours his scorn in this poem that burnt itself into the conscience of a whole generation.

But, had the war’s macabre dance of death begun to affect the young poet in some other manner, too, subtly but surely? Wilfred’s letters to his mother, to whom he was always greatly attached, are unlikely to shed much light on the question, because the son always tried hard not to hurt his mother’s sensibilities. An answer, however, may be gleaned from Owen’s response – by way of a poem, Apologia pro Poemate Meo, or ‘Why I Write Poetry’ – to Robert Graves’s solicitous advice to him, upon reading some of Owen’s ‘dark’ poems: “For god’s sake cheer up and write more optimistically – the war is not ended yet but a poet should have a spirit above wars.” Owen’s reply to Graves’s gentle admonition is as astounding as it is disquieting:

Merry it was to laugh there –

Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.

For power was on us as we slashed bones bare

Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

To kill the enemy with the gun held steady, to cheerfully tear his flesh from the bone with a smart swipe of the sword – is not this the soldier’s final and dear aim in life? In his reply, Owen placed on record how differently he had come to look at life via the war, how he now found a new meaning in his soldier’s life. He spoke of how he perceived beauty ‘In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight’, or how he ‘heard music in the silentness of duty’ and ‘found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate’. He claimed he had seen God through ‘the mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled’, that he had dropped off fear ‘behind the barrage, dead as my platoon / And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear …’ In this enterprise of death, ‘war brought more glory to their eyes than blood / And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child’.

But, even more importantly, he had made fellowships ‘untold of happy lovers in old song’, the rugged fellowship that only comrades in a life-and-death battle can strike with one another. He no longer dreaded death, nor shrank from inflicting it on others, because he had found true friendship while in the line of fire, indeed only then.

In a letter to his mother written around the same time, this  theme of heart-warming comradeship returns emphatically: ‘ Of this I am certain: you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here’. With evident pleasure, he goes on thus: ‘It is a great life. I am …oblivious …of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells’. He tells his mother that the horrors of the war no longer managed to affect him. Apparently, the ‘conscientious objector with a very seared conscience’, as he saw himself sometime previously, had  been put back in possession of his ‘whole conscience’ again, somewhat perversely, if one were to look at this transformation from his original stand-point.                         

As baffling as we may find Owen’s transformed persona at first glance, it may not be so hard  to understand it. Wilfred was ill-suited to a soldier’s life in every possible way, not least by his moral or intellectual predilections. The call of duty on the one hand and his gigantic moral struggle with the realities of war on the other, inevitably bruised and scarred the young poet’s soul. He hated to be seen as a deserter, because it would not only hurt his pride but undermine his earnest desire to suffer with those who suffered the war’s monstrosities. This is why he detested the proclaimed pacifist, believing that the call to abjure all association with war when the war was already on was mere wish fulfilment.

Hence his view of himself as a conscientious objector, a man who with his eyes wide open participated in the war and denounced it from within, so to speak. He had also come to believe that only when he had personally proved himself in the war, as a fearless combatant, that he would be credible as a conscientious objector.

This lesson he taught himself in the months he spent at the Front, inside abominable trenches, or in the many hospitals he shuttled between after the trauma he suffered from a shell that had burst next to him, thrusting him many dozen feet up in the air.

Trench warfare in World War I was employed primarily on the Western Front. Credit: YouTube screengrab

The ghoulish experience of human bodies maimed and burnt and splintered, of all self-esteem vapourising with the blast from a deadly Howitzer gun, were all there with him, as were the misgivings of a devout Christian about his role in the atrocities. The terrible dilemma of these two irreconcilably opposed positions he sought to resolve by making himself into a hero in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his comrades. He plunged headlong into battle, calmly accepting the soldier’s daily chores, and fought with an exaggerated enthusiasm, a flair that was quite unlike him. He began to embark on increasingly impossible, often unnecessary, missions, daring death to do its worst, as his admiring comrades looked on.

On October 1, 1918, Owen slunk out of his trench to advance all alone on a nearby German position, disarmed the enemy and captured a machine gun which he then trained on the German forces, killing many. It was an act in complete defiance of all established combat procedure. For this act of phenomenal  bravery, he was awarded the Military Cross of Valour. Writing in triumph to his mother about this feat, Wilfred saw no reason to under-state his great joy: ‘I lost all my earthly faculties, and fought like an angel…I captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners… I only shot one with my revolver. My nerves are in perfect order’.

His excitement  is palpable here. In one of life’s great ironies, the man who had trusted God to do the right thing by every man, exulted as he felt he had killed like one of His ‘angels’. Even in the great flush of his excitement, however, he did not forget his mother’s sensibilities: he did not tell her about the many lives that he had taken, glossed over the details, mentioning in passing that he had shot one German with his revolver; the machine gun stayed in the background. 

But that was only when he was writing to his mother. Otherwise, by then, he seemed to have thrown all caution to the winds, revelling in his new-found freedom from the inner struggles that had so completely possessed him not long ago. Owen the soldier no longer had any use for care or moderation. The encounter of November 4, 1918, that killed him was an unnecessary, even avoidable, one. The Germans had all their escape routes cut off, and there was no way they would not surrender soon to the English army. When Owen stepped out in full view of the enemy, and urged his men to go forward and take the enemy post even as bullets were flying all around them, it looked to everybody like a desperate surge of adrenalin only. To eye-witnesses, he was plainly courting death. The death of the Great War’s ablest poet was thus a testimony to its monumental absurdity.

On home leave in April 1917, Wilfred had  told his younger brother: ‘I know I shall be killed (in the war). But that is the only place I can make my protest from’. Finally, the poet who, in his unfinished Preface to the book of poems he never saw published, had envisaged his role as that of warning his countrymen against the madness of war (‘All a poet can do today is warn’), ended up surrendering his soul to the same madness. His death was a complete negation of everything he had stood for in life, everything, indeed, that had made him what he was.

‘The poetry is in the pity’, Owen had written in his Preface. What he could not have known is that it was not through poetry, but only in its death that the pity of war could manifest itself fully.

Anjan Basu freelances as a literary critic, commentator and translator. As Day is Breaking is his  book of translations from the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Basu can be reached at [email protected]

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