P. 1
Wilfred Owen the Bitter and Outrageous Reality of Wwi

Wilfred Owen the Bitter and Outrageous Reality of Wwi

4.25

|Views: 3,299|Likes:
Published by duneden_1985
The First World War, also known at that time as The Great War (on account of the fact that it was the first conflict involving countries from all over the globe), marked a watershed in the positive perception that most people had of ‘war’. The gruesome reality brought to light by those taking part in the armed conflict led many people to wise up to the fact that dying in a war was no longer a dulce et decorum (sweet and noble) idea, as they had been persuaded to believe by those at the helm. The nature of the war was such that not even literature could remain insensitive to the deep emotional distress experienced by so many people worldwide. This is the reason why so many English poets decided to take on the role of soldiers, in order to endow their poetry with a ‘first person taste’ of someone actively involved in the armed conflict. The term war poet, which came into currency during World War I, may be applied to all those English poets who fought in the Western front, and who wrote about their experiences of war. Most of these poets died during the war, most famously Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) and Charles Sorley (1895-1915). Of all the previous poets, there is no doubt that only Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen have achieved legendary fame. The reason for such literary significance lies in both their premature death (Brooke: 28; Owen: 25) and in their deeply moving and emotive first person accounts of the experiences of war. There are, however, clear differences between both poets, at least as far as their approach to war is concerned. While Rubert Brooke’s poetry is imbued with a sense of patriotism and idealism, Wilfred Owen’s poetry oozes pessimism about the terrible carnage he was witnessing while fighting in the Western front. This might be explained by reference to the fact that Rupert Brooke died when the war was still in its early stages, and so morale amongst soldiers was very high, whereas Wilfred Owen had the grisly chance of being confronted with the gruesome reality that lies beneath the heoric notion of war. Probably due to the great doses of realism included in Owen’s poetry, I have decided to focus the present essay on Wilfred Owen’s life and poetry. In order to fulfil this purpose, first of all I will present the historical backdrop against which Wilfred Owen’s literary career developed (WWI). Then, I will provide a biographical account which, in a way, will lead to the final section of this paper, devoted to a literary analysis of the two most well-known poems by Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est, and Strange Meeting.
The First World War, also known at that time as The Great War (on account of the fact that it was the first conflict involving countries from all over the globe), marked a watershed in the positive perception that most people had of ‘war’. The gruesome reality brought to light by those taking part in the armed conflict led many people to wise up to the fact that dying in a war was no longer a dulce et decorum (sweet and noble) idea, as they had been persuaded to believe by those at the helm. The nature of the war was such that not even literature could remain insensitive to the deep emotional distress experienced by so many people worldwide. This is the reason why so many English poets decided to take on the role of soldiers, in order to endow their poetry with a ‘first person taste’ of someone actively involved in the armed conflict. The term war poet, which came into currency during World War I, may be applied to all those English poets who fought in the Western front, and who wrote about their experiences of war. Most of these poets died during the war, most famously Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) and Charles Sorley (1895-1915). Of all the previous poets, there is no doubt that only Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen have achieved legendary fame. The reason for such literary significance lies in both their premature death (Brooke: 28; Owen: 25) and in their deeply moving and emotive first person accounts of the experiences of war. There are, however, clear differences between both poets, at least as far as their approach to war is concerned. While Rubert Brooke’s poetry is imbued with a sense of patriotism and idealism, Wilfred Owen’s poetry oozes pessimism about the terrible carnage he was witnessing while fighting in the Western front. This might be explained by reference to the fact that Rupert Brooke died when the war was still in its early stages, and so morale amongst soldiers was very high, whereas Wilfred Owen had the grisly chance of being confronted with the gruesome reality that lies beneath the heoric notion of war. Probably due to the great doses of realism included in Owen’s poetry, I have decided to focus the present essay on Wilfred Owen’s life and poetry. In order to fulfil this purpose, first of all I will present the historical backdrop against which Wilfred Owen’s literary career developed (WWI). Then, I will provide a biographical account which, in a way, will lead to the final section of this paper, devoted to a literary analysis of the two most well-known poems by Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est, and Strange Meeting.

More info:

Categories:Types, School Work
Published by: duneden_1985 on Aug 21, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

Availability:

Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less

09/06/2012

pdf

text

original

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs.

decorum) reality of WWI

WILFRED OWEN: THE BITTER (VS. DULCE) AND OUTRAGEOUS (VS. DECORUM) REALITY OF WWI

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro

“Textos y Contextos en Inglés” Máster en Inglés como Vehículo de Comunicación Intercultural

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI

TABLE OF CO TE TS

1. Introduction ..............................................................................................3 2. Historical background: The Great War (1914-1918)...............................3 3. Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) ..............................................5 4. Literary appreciation of Owen’s two most famous poems ......................9 4.1 Dulce et Decorum Est.............................................................................9 4.2 Strange Meeting....................................................................................10 5. Conclusion..............................................................................................12 List of references…………………………………….................................13

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

2

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs.decorum) reality of WWI Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI
1. I TRODUCTIO The First World War, also known at that time as The Great War (on account of the fact that it was the first conflict involving countries from all over the globe), marked a watershed in the positive perception that most people had of ‘war’. The gruesome reality brought to light by those taking part in the armed conflict led many people to wise up to the fact that dying in a war was no longer a dulce et decorum (sweet and noble) idea, as they had been persuaded to believe by those at the helm. The nature of the war was such that not even literature could remain insensitive to the deep emotional distress experienced by so many people worldwide. This is the reason why so many English poets decided to take on the role of soldiers, in order to endow their poetry with a ‘first person taste’ of someone actively involved in the armed conflict. The term war poet, which came into currency during World War I, may be applied to all those English poets who fought in the Western front, and who wrote about their experiences of war. Most of these poets died during the war, most famously Rupert Brooke (18871915), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) and Charles Sorley (1895-1915). Of all the previous poets, there is no doubt that only Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen have achieved legendary fame. The reason for such literary significance lies in both their premature death (Brooke: 28; Owen: 25) and in their deeply moving and emotive first person accounts of the experiences of war. There are, however, clear differences between both poets, at least as far as their approach to war is concerned. While Rubert Brooke’s poetry is imbued with a sense of patriotism and idealism, Wilfred Owen’s poetry oozes pessimism about the terrible carnage he was witnessing while fighting in the Western front. This might be explained by reference to the fact that Rupert Brooke died when the war was still in its early stages, and so morale amongst soldiers was very high, whereas Wilfred Owen had the grisly chance of being confronted with the gruesome reality that lies beneath the heoric notion of war. Probably due to the great doses of realism included in Owen’s poetry, I have decided to focus the present essay on Wilfred Owen’s life and poetry. In order to fulfil this purpose, first of all I will present the historical backdrop against which Wilfred Owen’s literary career developed (WWI). Then, I will provide a biographical account which, in a way, will lead to the final section of this paper, devoted to a literary analysis of the two most well-known poems by Wilfred Owen: Dulce et Decorum Est, and Strange Meeting. 2. HISTORICAL BACKGROU D: THE GREAT WAR (1914-1918) When The Great War broke out, everyone still associated warfare with glorious cavalry charges and the noble pursuit of heroic ideals. Nevertheless, as years went by, such initial enthusiasm turned into widespread pessimism, triggered by the huge death toll resulting from the wholesale slaughter of millions of human beings. Consequently, WWI may well be regarded as the first man-made catastrophe of the 20th century (a forerunner of WWII). The event that sparked off the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a young Serbian nationalist in 1914. Shortly afterwards, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, immediately forcing the neighbouring nations
Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

3

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI (namely, Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France) to take sides with either country. This episode brought about the formation of two major alliances: The Entente Powers and The Central Powers. The Entente Powers initially consisted of France, the United Kingdom and Russia. Numerous other states joined these allies, most notably Italy in April 1915, and the United States in April 1917. The Central Powers, so named because of their central location on the European continent, initially consisted of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but later on were joined by The Ottoman Empire (October 1914) and Bulgaria (1915). By the end of the war, only The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and the Scandinavian nations remained officially neutral among the European countries. WWI was fought along two main fronts that broadly encircled the European continent: The Western Front (including such countries as France, Belgium...) and The Eastern Front (Russia...) On the Western Front, between Germany and France, armies on both sides dug networks of trenches and built fortifications to defend their positions. On the Eastern Front, the vast eastern plains and limited rail network prevented a trench warfare stalemate, though the scale of the conflict was just as large as on the Western Front. Even though initially most people firmly believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and that all the war heroes would return home soon with shiny new badges pinned to their chests, as years went by, it became crystal clear that WWI would stretch into a long and deadly struggle. The war came to an end four years later, in the late fall of 1918, after the member countries of the Central Powers signed armistice agreements one by one. Germany was the last, signing its armistice on November 11, 1918. As a result of these agreements, Austria-Hungary was broken up into several smaller countries, and Germany was severely punished with huge economic reparations, territorial losses, and strict limits on its rights to develop militarily. As regards military strategy and weaponry, it should be pointed out that World War I marked the first use of chemical weapons (specifically, poison gas) and the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky. The former constitutes the subject matter of one of Owen’s most famous poems: “Dulce et Decorum Est”. This poem describes a poison gas attack on a group of weary soldiers, whose only chance of survival lies in the gas masks they are fumbling for. Unfortunately, one of the soldiers cannot get his gas helmet on in time, as a result of which, he suffers an agonizingly slow death (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”) Concerning England’s war experience, let me say that initially the official authorities fostered a sense of national pride intended to spur the nation’s youth on to join the military ranks voluntarily. It was not until 1916 that everyone was compelled to join the army, right after the introduction of compulsory military service. Hence, most of the soldiers who joined the army in the first two years of the war were volunteers. Among the thousands of volunteers who took part in the armed conflict, it is necessary to refer to a particular volunteer regiment of the British Army, The Artists’ Rifles. Most of the I World War poets included in poetry anthologies fought in this military regiment (one of the most notable members of this unit was Wilfred Owen). During WWI, poetry became a powerful means of either bolstering the morale of British soldiers (especially, at the beginning of the war) or opening British eyes to the horrors of war. Rupert Brooke clearly represents the former case, in the sense that his poetry draws on the highly patriotic and spirited feeling typical of the early stages of the war. The British interest in poetry heightened right after Rupert Brooke’s premature death in Greece. The official authorities somehow took advantage of his death in order to increase the sense of patriotic enthusiasm that would lead more British youngsters to
Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

4

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI join the conflict. Together with Brooke’s poems, there were many other British poets who also made use of their poetry in order to encourage the nation’s youth to join the army; among these poets, it is worth mentioning Thomas Hardy (Men who March Away) and Rudyard Kipling. England’s initial heroic enthusiasm little by little turned into pessimism, a feeling reflected in the poems written by those soldier poets who suddenly became aware of the human tragedy underlying the seemingly sweet and heroic experience of war. The clearest representative of such change of perspective is certainly Wilfred Owen, whose poetry shows the blood-curdling reality of an utterly pointless war. The turning point in the change of public attitudes towards the war was marked by two decisive battles: the Battle of Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres. In the Battle of Somme, the British and French forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25 mile (40 km) front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. Only on 1st July 1916, 12,000 soldiers of 60,000 died. The Third Battle of Ypres (July 1917) was one of the major battles of World War I, fought by British, Australian, and Canadian soldiers against the German army near Ypres in Belgium. The terrible ordeal most soldiers went through in the battlefield, by and large, took its toll on their mental health. WWI soldiers usually suffered from a mental disorder, known at that time as shell shock (nowadays called combat stress reaction) This term is used to categorize a range of behaviours resulting from the stress of battle. The most common symptoms are fatigue, slower reaction times and disconnection from one’s surroundings. When a soldier was diagnosed with shell shock, he was immediately sent to a mental hospital for psychological treatment. Wilfred Owen spent some time in one of these hospitals, namely Craiglockhart War Hospital (Edinburgh) As we shall see in the following section, while staying there, Owen produced his most famous war poems. It was also at that time that he developed a style which was less ‘Keatsian’ and more ‘realistic and war-conscious’, thanks to the artistic guidance of another war poet: Siegfried Sassoon. 3. WILFRED EDWARD SALTER OWE (1893-1918) Wilfred Owen is regarded by many as the greatest writer of war poetry in the English language. His shocking, realistic war poetry stems from the physical, moral and psychological trauma that his intense personal experience as a soldier in WWI caused him. In this sense, as mentioned above, Owen’s poetry stands in stark contrast to the confidently patriotic verse written by another war poet, Rupert Brooke. Owen was born the eldest of four children at Plas Wilmot, a house near Oswestry in Shropshire on 18 March 1893. Two years later, Owen’s grandfather, the financial mainstay of the family, died almost bankrupt, forcing the family to move into rented accommodation in Birkenhead. Owen first attended school in Birkenhead (Birkenhead Institute), but in 1910 the family moved to Shrewsbury, where he continued his studies at Shrewsbury Technical School. Owen displayed a keen interest in the arts from an early age, reading voraciously anything he could get his hands on. It has been claimed that he wrote his first poems when he was only 17. Owen’s ‘teenage’ poems were highly influenced by Keats, as well as by the Bible. The latter influence may be understood if we take into account his mother’s endeavour to inculcate her son with the Anglican dogma from an early age. Shortly after leaving school in 1911, Owen passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship. Intending to retake the entrance exams, Owen began to work as a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden and as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School. After failing his
Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

5

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI university scholarship again, Owen decided to leave England to teach English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux (France), where he worked from 1913-1915. When WWI broke out (while he was in France), Owen remained somewhat indifferent to what was going on. Yet, eventually, he began to feel guilty of his inactivity, particularly as he read copies of The Daily Mail, which his mother sent him from England. Pressured by the war propaganda circulating in those days, he returned to England and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles on 21st October 1915. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp, in Essex, where he enjoyed the impression he made on people as he walked about in public wearing his soldier’s uniform. On 4th June 1916 Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, where he underwent further training before crossing to France on 29th December 1916. Wilfred Owen spent the last day of 1916 in a tent in France joining the Second Manchesters. Delighted though he was at his new role as a soldier, Owen was soon confronted with the horrors of war, since almost immediately he found himself in the thick of the action. After only a few days in the front line, Owen wrote to his mother: “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell. I have not been at the front. I have been in front of it”1 At the beginning of January 1917, Owen was ordered to occupy two captured German dugouts with his men. They held their position (a muddy and flooded hole) for fifty hours, whilst under heavy bombardment. In one of the letters to his mother, Owen describes such terrible ordeal in the following words: “Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life...I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now rising slowly above my knees. In the Platoon on my left, the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing”2. Emerging intact from this incident, Owen continued to fight with the Manchesters, but soon afterwards he had his second ‘war’ accident, this time a serious one. In March, Owen fell through a shell-hole into a cellar and was trapped in the dark for three days, suffering from nausea and concussion (‘temporary loss of consciousness caused by a blow to the head’) He spent a fortnight in hospital before rejoining his regiment and becoming involved in fierce fighting at St Quentin. In late April, as he slept during an artillery barrage, a shell went off a few yards from him, leaving him unhurt but killing some of his closest friends. Owen had survived so many brushes with death that his mental health started to wobble. On May 1st, he was seen by his Commanding Officer to be behaving srangely, as a result of which he was immediately referred to the Batallion Medical Officer, who found Owen to be shaky and with a confused memory. He was eventually diagnosed as having neurasthenia (shell shock) and was sent back to England, and then to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. It was thanks to the latter event that Wilfred Owen became a true war poet. Had Owen not arrived at the hospital at that time, one wonders what might have happened to his literary career, for it was here that he met the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. This meeting seems to have been the real start of Owen’s career as a mature and genuine poet. Sassoon, who already had a reputation as a poet, agreed to look over Owen’s poems. He advised Owen to no longer draw on his former Keatsian style, and instead, make use of a more ironic and colloquial style. Owen’s two most famous poems (Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth) show direct results of

1 2

As cited in: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owena.html As cited in: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWowen.htm

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

6

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI Sassoon’s influence. Sassoon not only became Owen’s artistic guide and counselor, but also introduced him to other important literary figures, such as Robert Graves, Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells. While in hospital, Owen also contributed to, and became the editor of “The Hydra”, the hospital magazine. It thus becomes clear that the months Owen spent in Craiglockhart War Hospital certainly constitute his most creative period. Owen’s stay in Craiglockhart marked a turning point in his literary career, not only due to his new acquaintance with Siegfried Sassoon, but also due to his greater consciousness of the agonies of the war. Owen became bitterly enraged at the senseless slaughter of human beings on the battlefield, as well as at the inability of anyone (especially, the church) to stop it. To Owen’s annoyance at the pointlessness of war, we must add a moral conflict between his deeply rooted Christian beliefs and his role as a soldier and patriot; his role as a soldier and patriot demanded one thing: as a Christian, another. Nevertheless, the strong foundations of his religious beliefs were gradually shaken by the idea of a God who “seems not to care”3 about the suffering of His ‘children’, a God who “slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one”4. Consequently, we may well say that Owen was somehow renouncing his former religious beliefs, in favour of his role as a soldier, but a soldier who cared about “the pity of War” 5. Such loss of moral values is illustrated in the following lines taken from “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”:
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.

In April 1918, Owen decided to return to the front line. On 26th August, he was declared fit for front line action and instructed to embark for France. Deep down, Owen felt that he was going to die, but he did not care: “I know I shall be killed. But it’s the only place I can make my protest from”6. Owen rejoined his old unit, the 2nd Manchesters, at La Neuville near Amiens on 15th September. On 1st October, Owen’s brigade went into action near the villages of Joncourt and Sequehart, six miles north of St Quentin. At first, the Germans were driven back, but they made repeated counterattacks. Eventually, Owen was able to capture a German machine gun, with which he managed to drive away the enemy. For this brave deed, Owen was recommended for the Military Cross, although the medal was not awarded until after his death. At that moment, it was clear that Wilfred Owen was no longer the merciful Christian who had enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles not so long ago; he was now a soldier, and as such, he was part of a fighting brotherhood in which killing the enemy was a must. Owen believed the war was bound to end soon. The Germans were in full retreat, and the British soldiers were cheerily welcomed by the French. After all the hardship he had gone through, for the first time he was really enjoying himself being part of a group of soldiers. Only a couple of days before the end of the war, Owen wrote a letter to his mother in which he expresses his delight at the speculation that the war would soon be

3 4

Taken from one of Owen’s poems: “Greater Love”. Taken from one of Owen’s poems: “The Parable of The Old Man and The Young”. 5 Taken from the preface Owen sketched out for a planned volume of poems (published posthumously), and cited in: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owena.html 6 Taken from a letter written to his brother in 1918, and cited in: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owena.html

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

7

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI over. The letter was written right after he and his fellow soldiers took refuge from German shelling in the cellar of a destroyed house.
(...) 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 am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround us here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read 7 these line.

Wilfred was ready for his final action, both in the war and in life. There were now no crucial military objectives, but Owen and his fellow soldiers still had to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal, just south of the village of Ors. The Germans held the east bank, and were well defended with machine guns. On the morning of 4th November, the Royal Engineers attempted to build a bridge out of wire-linked wooden planks so that Owen’s brigade could cross and destroy the enemy. All the soldiers who moved forward were either killed or wounded. Wilfred Owen, standing at the water’s edge, was encouraging his men when he was hit and killed; just one week before the end of the war. Seven days later, church bells rang throughout England in celebration of the end of WWI. As they were ringing in Shrewsbury, Owen’s parents, Susan and Tom, received the telegram announcing their son’s death. Wilfred Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. There are memorials to Owen at Gailly, Ors, Oswestry and Shrewsbury. At the time of his death, hardly anyone had heard of this remarkable young poet, and just five of his poems had been published (in The Hydra). But within a few years, thanks to the patronage of Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had become an important literary figure whose deeply moving poetry was highly acclaimed. Two years after his friend’s death, Sassoon arranged for the publication of his Collected Poems (1920) Finally, let me present two conflicting views on Wilfred Owen’s poetry, the first one praising Owen’s deeply moving literary style, and the second one downplaying Owen’s significance as a WWI poet. Unsurprisingly, the former view comes from someone who held Owen in high steem, that is, Siegfried Sassoon. On the other hand, the second view comes from someone who apparently did not know Owen, but who is beyond all doubt one of the greatest poets of the English language, i.e. W.B. Yeats.
(...) the velvety quality of his voice, which suggested the Keatsian richness of his artistry with words. It wasn’t a vibrating voice. It had the fluid texture of soft consonants and murmurous music. (...) Sounds and colours, in his verse, were mulled and modulated to a subdued magnificence of sensuous harmonies (...) But I like to believe that when with me he was at his best, and I can remember no shadow of unhappiness or misunderstanding between us... (Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 1945:62, as cited in Hibberd 1981: 80-81) (...) My Anthology8 continues to sell & the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper (...) He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick (...) There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him.

7 8

As cited in: http://www.rjgeib.com/heroes/owen/owen.html Yeats was the editor of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936)

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

8

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI
(Letters on Poetry from W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley 1940:113, as cited in Hibberd 1981: 80)

Be that as it may, we would all agree that of all the poets who deserve to be called WWI poets, Wilfred Owen is by far the most realistic, in the sense that he is the one who comes closest to a true account of the horrors of any war. For this reason, Owen becomes a kind of visionary whose poetry attempts to warn us about the barbarism implicit in any armed conflict:
Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.
(Taken from the preface Owen sketched out for a planned volume of poems published posthumously, and cited in: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owena.html)

4. LITERARY APPRECIATIO OF OWE ’S TWO MOST FAMOUS POEMS 4.1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST 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. 8 October 1917 - March, 1918 On the whole, “Dulce et Decorum Est" is a poem trying to make us aware of the pointlessness of war. Wilfred Owen named his poem after a well known Latin saying
Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

9

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI (taken from an ode by Horace), for which he had a great disgust: Dulce et Decorum Est pro Patria Mori (‘it is sweet and right to die for your country’). The words were often quoted at the start of the First World War, with the aim of enticing the nation’s youth into joining the army. The poem is built around three powerful and disturbing images. We find the first one in the opening stanza: a group of soldiers plodding their way across the muddy field in an attempt to return to the relative safety of the trenches. The reason for such description lies in Owen’s concern with helping the reader picture what life in the trenches was really like; he wants us to see the detail (“coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge”) and reality of dying in such a gloomy place. The words Owen uses to describe the condition of the men obviously go hand in hand with the murky atmosphere surrounding them: “limped”, “blind”, “asleep”, “blood-shod”9... After the image of the soldiers moving through ‘no man’s land’ in the first stanza, the second image (found in the second stanza) is far more dramatic. The very first words of the stanza draw our attention to a dangerous situation requiring urgent action on the part of the soldiers. Putting on your gas mask on time was the only possible way of surviving a gas attack; otherwise, you would choke and subsequently die. The poet manages to get his mask on, but one of the fellow soldiers is not so fortunate, for he accidentally drops his gas mask, and “drowns” in the sea of thick smoke. After the sudden activity of the men, the last two lines of this stanza change the pace of the poem. Almost dreamily, the poet becomes an ‘unwilling’ witness to this soldier’s agonizing death. As the thick green smoke washes over the men, the poet uses a striking simile of the sea to describe gas (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning”). The ‘dream-like’ quality of this stanza leads the reader to the highly disturbing image found in the last stanza. In the third stanza, the poet provides a harrowing description of the soldier’s last moments in the wagon where he has been flung. It is worth noticing the dehumanizing depiction of the soldier’s last attempts to breathe the life that is slipping through his fingers: “His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin...Obscene as cancer, bittter as the cud”10. It is no wonder that the last stanza of the poem is so disturbingly real, bearing in mind Owen’s criticism of and disgust at the popular Latin saying. In the last three lines of the poem, the poet suggests that there is neither nobility in war, nor honour in fighting for your country. Instead, there is tragedy, futility and waste of human life. 4.2 STRA GE MEETI G It seemed that out of battle I escaped Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped Through granites which titanic wars had groined. Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
9

Oddly enough, the word ‘shod’, usually applied to horses, has been used here to refer to men. Owen was probably implying that these weary soldiers are no longer regarded as human beings with feelings and emotions, but as ‘cattle’ needed in order to fulfil the selfish ambitions of those at the helm. The same idea is explicitly stated in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” 10 The food that cows and similar animals bring back from the stomach into the mouth to chew again (see footpage note 9)

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

10

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared With piteous recognition in fixed eyes, Lifting distressful hands as if to bless. And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained; Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground, And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. "Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn." "None," said that other, "save the undone years, The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world, Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, But mocks the steady running of the hour, And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. And of my weeping something had been left, Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we have spoiled, Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress. None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress. Courage was mine, and I had mystery, Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: To miss the march of this retreating world Into vain citadels that are not walled. Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even with truths that lie too deep for taint. I would have poured my spirit without stint But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. Let us sleep now . . . ." Just like “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Strange Meeting” is also intended to make the reader face up to the callousness of war. This time, however, the poet takes us from the hell-like atmosphere that enshrouds the battlefield (life) to the afterlife in Hell (death). “Strange Meeting” deals with an ‘afterlife’ meeeting between two dead soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies, they find it possible to transcend the pointlessness of war in a shared awareness of “the truth untold”. To some extent, Strange Meeting seems to be a sequel of Dulce et Decorum Est, in the sense that the previous dying soldier, compared by Owen to a “devil’s sick of sin”, suddenly wises up to the fact that probably because of the crimes he committed while fighting in the war, his soul has been sent straight away down to hell: “And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, by his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell”. This, once again, points to the dehumanization of the soldier, mentioned in the commentary on
Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

11

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI the previous poem. By participating in such senseless slaughter, the protagonists condemn themselves to an eternity of searing distress and regret, where not even “guns thumped”. One of the soldiers expresses his sorrow at and repentance for having been so eager to take part in the war (“I went hunting wild After the wildest beauty in the world”) , but he realizes that now, being dead, it is too late to feel sorry about the past. Time has gone by and there is nothing he can do to change the past: “But mocks the steady running of the hour”. Immediately aftewards, we come across a line that explicitly reminds us of Owens’s words in the preface to his planned volume of poems: “I mean the truth untold, The pity of war, the pity of war distilled”.What the poet suggests is that war is not an event one should be proud of (Dulce et Decorum Est pro Patria Mori), but something one should feel pity for. Nonetheless, one should feel pity not for the event as such, but for all the soldiers who lose their lives fighting for the territorial whims of those who, from the warmth and comfort of their homes, so eagerly encourage the youngsters to join the war. It seems to me that in these lines, the poet is implicitly raising a kind of rhetorical question , which could be paraphrased as follows: What is the point of being so enthusiastic about war, if nobody will remember your heroic deeds when you pass away?
The pity of war, the pity of war distilled. Now men will go content with what we have spoiled, Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress. None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Life will proceed as before the outbreak of the war, as “swift” as usual. Last but not least, let me say that the effectiveness of this poem lies not only in its content, but also, and more importantly, in Owen’s masterly use of pararhyme, which is no more than a type of rhyme in which the consonants in two words are the same, but the vowels are different: groined-groaned, hall-Hell, grained-ground, moan-mourn, years-yours, spoiled-spilled, mystery-mastery, war-were, friend-frowned. The harmonious repetition typical of pararhyme greatly enhances the dark and solemn tone with which the poet wants to endow this poem. 5. CO CLUSIO The reason why Wilfred Owen achieved instant fame after his death surely has to do with the fact that he was one of the few war poets who managed to adopt a compassionate attitude towards his fellow soldiers. The more Owen came to experience the terrible and gruesome reality of war, the more his indignation towards the warmongers increased, and so did his sympathy for the plight of the ordinary soldier. For this reason, unlike other war poets, such as Rupert Brooke, Owen’s poetry oozes a piercing sense of pessimism, which, in a way, mocks those who speak about the glory and the honour of the war from a safe distance. Finally, let me say that, as it will be clear by now, Wilfred Owen is a perfect example of those writers whose vital experiences (context) shine through their literary output (text)

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

12

Wilfred Owen: the bitter (vs. dulce) and outrageous (vs. decorum) reality of WWI

LIST OF REFERE CES
BBC SHROPSHIRE. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/shropshire/content/articles/2005/03/16/wilfred_owen.shtml [accessed 24 April 2008] HIBBERD, D. (ed.). 1981. Poetry of the First World War. London: Mcmillan. MEDINA CASADO, C. 2007. Poetas Ingleses del Siglo XX. Madrid: Síntesis. OXFORD UNIVERSITY COMPUTING SERVICES. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg/projects/jtap/tutorials/intro/owen/ [accessed 24 April 2008] RICH GEIBS UNIVERSE. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://www.rjgeib.com/heroes/owen/owen.html [accessed 24 April 2008] SPARTACUS EDUCATIONAL. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWowen.htm [accessed 24 April 2008] THE WAR POETRY WEB SITE. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owena.html [accessed 24 April 2008] WIKIPEDIA, THE FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA. 2008. Wilfred Owen. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_owen [accessed 24 April 2008] WIKIPEDIA, THE FREE ENCYCLOPEDIA. 2008. World War I. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wwi [accessed 24 April 2008] WORLD WAR I POETS ON THE BATTLEFIELD. 2008. The Wilfred Owen Association. Available from: http://www.1914-18.co.uk/owen/ [accessed 24 April 2008]

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro MIVCI

13

You're Reading a Free Preview

Download
scribd
/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->