Category Archives: Wilfred Owen

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Wilfred Owen)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The parable of the old man and the young’ by Wilfred Owen

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 a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

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

This poem retells the story of Abraham and his son, Isaac. At the beginning of the poem, you could almost believe that it is going to be a conventional telling of the story, because it sounds just like the Bible translation. It is not until you read the description of Abram’s preparations of “fire and iron” that it becomes clear that this is a different version of the old parable. Owen creates a clear depiction of the particular war in which he was fighting, with the “belts and straps”, and the “parapets and trenches”.

In the original story from the bible, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son for Him. Abraham goes to do this, preparing an altar and a knife, but at the last minute, God tells him to stop. God tells Abraham to sacrifice a Ram instead. Abraham is relieved and sacrifices the Ram in the place of his son, and Isaac lives.

In this poem, Wilfred Owen has changed Abraham into a symbol of the politicians of Europe, sending the young men to die in their millions during the First World War. It is a recurring theme in much of the poetry from the Great War — the horror and disgust that the soldiers and soldier-poets felt at the reality of old, rich men sending the young masses to the trenches be slaughtered. Siegfried Sassoon (fellow poet and friend of Wilfred Owen) describes similar disgust for the ignorant men who sent the masses to their deaths in his poem Base Details:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say–“I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die–in bed.

I wanted to post Sassoon’s poem here because I think that it is interesting to see the difference between Sassoon’s tone and Owen’s. You can feel the anger in Base Details — but Sassoon has channelled his anger into a satirical piece that uses irony to mock what he called “callous complacence” (in his letter, A soldier’s declaration, which was read out to the House of Commons in 1917).

In both Sassoon’s and Owen’s poems there is a strong sense of the futility of the slaughter of the soldiers, but I am personally more drawn to Owen’s poem because I prefer the tragic tone rather than the satire of Sassoon…

Owen’s contempt for the politicians is clear in ‘The parable of the old man and the young’ as he talks about the “Ram of Pride”. The angel in the poem asks Abram to sacrifice his Pride instead of his son, but Abram “would not so”. Here you can see the disgust that Owen has for the politicians and perhaps for civilians too, like Sassoon. How can we not have contempt for one who would sacrifice his son (and “half the seed of Europe”) rather than his Pride?

I love the way that Owen has separated the final two lines of the poem, because it sets them apart and emphasises their importance and tragedy:

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

There is, to me, a real sense of powerlessness in these lines; even God could not stop Abram from killing his son and the sons of Europe. That phrase “half the seed of Europe” delivers such a sense of waste. The description of Abram as “the old man” is very evocative, I think, of a miserly creature — it is a description that has very negative connotations. Isaac, however, is an innocent victim, like the soldiers.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Greater Love’ by Wilfred Owen

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead! Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce Love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft, —
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft, —
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot,
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

It is Remembrance Day today and therefore appropriate for me to write about a war poem. When I was considering my blog for today there was no question in my mind of which poet I would choose. Wilfred Owen is probably the best known war poet in the English-speaking world. He might also be my favourite poet. Ever.

So, what do I think is so special about Owen’s poetry? The tragedy of their source — the youth of the poet, his tragic death just days before the Armistice. Their strength — their quiet power, the echoing effects of rhyme and rhythm. Their compassion, indignation, defiance; their strange, delicate beauty…

I could go on. But the reason I have chosen to write about Wilfred Owen is not just because of the greatness of his poetry. No, the reason I want to write about Wilfred Owen today is because I think he embodies everything that Remembrance Day is about: tragedy, the pity of war, the indignation of an innocent generation slaughtered, and the heroism — the ‘Greater Love’ — that war has necessitated in so many people since there were Kings to send them into battle.

Whenever I have read about Wilfred Owen I have always felt a deep connection to him and a deep sympathy — mostly because of how ‘ordinary’ he was before the war. As a boy, all he ever wanted was to be a poet. He started to write verse as a child. He went to France as a young man and taught at a school in Bordeaux for two years, during which time he continued to work on his poetic skills. He was a perfectly unexceptional man in many ways, and his poetry was apparently unexceptional too. Photographs of him show a gentle face. Then the war came and Owen enlisted in 1915. To me there is something so touching about this obviously very sensitive man, this aspiring poet being swept up in that war, a war which was to be a catalyst for his greatness, but also the cause of his death.

Owen broke down and was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, shell-shocked like so many after his first experience of trench warfare. There he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, who helped him to find his voice and encouraged him to write about the war. And then all of that great, booming poetry poured out of him. He went back to the Front only to die on November 4th 1918. But Owen was no coward — he was brave — he even won the military cross. It is as though finding his poetic voice gave him a furious strength, almost a fearlessness. In one of his letters to his mother he wrote “I fought like an angel”. And then he was killed. For me there is no answer to such a tragedy. And when I read Owen’s poems I find there is no answer to give to them either. He makes that war so real for me, and words falter and fail to describe what I feel.

Wilfred Owen’s poetry has become the voice of every soldier from the First World War, and every war since. And what a voice. He speaks for soldiers who would never otherwise be heard — the dead, their voices snuffed out by bullets or shells, and the survivors whose voices were invalidated by ‘shell-shock’ or, as we know it now, post traumatic stress. His poetry is not about pacifism or the rightness or wrongness of war. Today is not about that either. Today celebrates not the war but the heroes of wars — the dead and the maimed. Wilfred Owen speaks for them all. He insures that they are always remembered.

I do not want to do any kind of analysis of the poem posted above, I just want to say one thing about it. In it, Wilfred Owen gives a response to senseless slaughter that most of us could surely only respond to with silence or madness. He makes the dead heroes. Better yet, he sanctifies their death; he transforms their blood into tender kisses, he makes their love “pure”, he uses biblical language for them (“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” is from the Gospel of John.) In the trenches, in war, he says, “God seems not to care”. But the poem is not about God’s abandonment. That is irrelevant today; it is the soldiers who transcend the evil of war and attain Christ-like status in our eyes. And that is where they belong today.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh