Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

1963; 184 pages. Genre : Poetry. New Author?: Yes. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
Wilfred Owen was a decorated (Military Cross) British officer in World War 1. The horrors of trench warfare turned him into a conscientious objector, but he continued to serve in the British army. After being blown into the air by a mortar and landing in the remains of a fellow officer, he developed the stress disorder "shell shock", and was transferred back to England to convalesce.
He was a blossoming poet who wrote about the horrors of war, so in 1918, he returned to active service in France because he felt it was necessary to be able to write accurately about the warfare. His life was tragically cut short at age 25, when he was shot in the head and killed exactly one week before the war ended. It is said that his mother received the news of his death as the church bells were being rung to proclaim the Armistice. You can read the Wikipedia article about him here.
What's To Like...
TCPoWO is broken into three parts : 32 "War Poems"; 22 "Other Poems and Fragments"; and 25 "Minor Poems and Juvenilia".
He is most famous for his War Poems, which vividly portray the mood of the soldiers in the WW1 trenches. His topics are things like poison gas, spring offensives, SIW (self-inflicted wounds), freezing in the winter, and of course, death. He lost his belief in God during the war, and developed a contempt for those who prospered from such conflict. In the introduction, C. Lewis writes, "we shall not fully understand the poetry of protest written by Owen, Sassoon and others, unless we realize how great was the gulf between the fighting man and the civilian at home, and between the front-line soldier and the brass-hat. To the soldier, those on the other side of the barbed wire were fellow sufferers; he felt less hostility towards them than towards the men and women who were profiting by the war, sheltered from it, or willfully ignorant of its realities."
Besides the message, his poems are interesting for the various styles and structures he used. He was a master of word and meter. He used a number of rhyming schemes, including half-rhymes, and the rarely-seen consonantal end-rhymes. This latter device (rhyming words like "grained & ground" and "tall & toil") is what caused me to seek out his poems.
Kewl New Words...
Execrable : deplorable; in very poor condition. Oblation : the act of offering something, such as worship. Glozed : glazed over. Infrangibly : unbreakably. Verger : a church official who keeps order during the service. Serried : crowded together. Malison : a curse. Hecatomb : a large sacrifice to a deity. Acropole : the French word for 'Acropolis'.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
(It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country)
"Dulce Et Decorum Est" is the title of what is probably Owen's most famous poem, and he calls that phrase simply "The old Lie". His War Poems are powerful works (a few excerpts are given below), and will set you smack dab in the muddy, bloody World War One trenches.
The other two sections are good, but less spectacular. Owen greatly admired John Keats, and he has a tendency at times to get Miltonesquely flowery with his poetry. The Juvenilia section are from his early, pre-war days; and are, unsurprisingly, uneven. But they show him experimenting with style and structure, and some are quite interesting.
The War Poems are 10 Stars. The rest are 7 Stars. We'll average them out and give The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen 8½ stars. One mourns for the loss of his life at such an early age, and we can only wonder how many memorable poems were lost because he didn't live to a ripe old age.
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."
(from Dulce Et Decorum Est)
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
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting stressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile, I knew we stood in Hell.
(from Strange Meeting, and a fine example of consonantal rhyme)
Has your soul sipped
Of the sweetness of all sweets?
Has it well supped
But yet hungers and sweats?
I have been witness
Of a strange sweetness,
All fancy surpassing
Past all supposing.
Passing the rays
Of the rubies of morning,
Of the soft rise
Of the moon; or the meaning
Known to the rose
Of her mystery and mourning.
(from Has Your Soul Sipped?)


Julie said...

Very sad and I also find myself thinking on how many memorable poems were lost because he didn't live to a ripe old age. Powerful poetry!

Hamilcar Barca said...

we tend to think all war veterans are gung-ho, my-country-right-or-wrong guys. they aren't.

what impressed me about Wilfred Owen was that, despite being a conscientious objector, he didn't shy away from what he perceived to be his patriotic duty. he didn't have to go back to France. but he did.