On the 4th of November 1918, a week before Armistice Day and little over a month after his return to service after a long convalescence for shell shock, Wilfred Owen was killed by a shot to the head near the village of Joncourt in Picardy, northern France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, something he had always sought to validate his work as a war poet, exposing the realities of trench warfare to a country for whom the glamour of warfare as a proving-ground for patriotism and masculinity was all-pervasive.
Owen had been playing with poetry for years before the war, enthusiastically reading the work of the Romantics, particularly John Keats. After a narrow failure to gain the scholarship he needed to enter the University of London he became a lay assistant at a vicarage near Reading, where he became disillusioned with the church’s emphasis on ceremony and its inability to help those in need. In war time, he suffered two traumatic events that haunted him for the rest of his life. His work is determinedly unsensational, straight-talking and angry.
His best-known work is probably “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, with its stark detailing of a man dying from a gas attack and famous last lines, but perhaps his best is “Strange Meeting”, another poem that relies on its simplicity to do its work. The poet falls into an unknown and ancient pit, and encounters another soldier. Their talk is full of healing, natural things, until the brute force of the last paragraph and its falling end. The scene is a small and temporary place of emotional safety that still cannot keep away the fighting outside.
It seemed that out of the 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.
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 fears 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 the 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.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has 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 spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with 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 . . .”
We love poetry at Calm Your Beans. Tell us your favourites in the comments section or on facebook and perhaps we will feature them in future weeks.