Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part IV

An Occasional Series — Previous Installments:   I    II    III    

Wilfred Owen: The Ram of Pride

Of all the promising young lives cut short by the carnage on the Western Front in the Great War, none was more promising or more tragically snuffed out than that of Wilfred Owen. His poetic abilities were considerable, and came to full flower in the appalling conditions of the trenches. He was scarcely out of childhood when he took up arms in 1914, and was killed by a sniper in 1918 at the age of 25, just a week before the armistice, when the war was all but over. He spent his entire adult life as a soldier in the war, and his poetry is a reflection of it.

He is best known for bitter and angry poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est”, but his work displayed a wide range of topics, moods, and styles. Sometimes his verse was traditionally florid and romantic, a throwback to the previous century; at other times it was spare and modern. But his were poems of grace and power, and English poetry is worse off for having been denied his maturity.

When confronted with the monstrosity that was the Great War, the natural reaction was to rage against God. Owen uses a specific scriptural parable in the following poem, reversing the outcome of the narrative in order to have Abraham acting against his God:
    Parable of the Old Man and the Young
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 stretchèd 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 of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
What other explanation could be found, except for pride, that would compel the nations of Europe to continue the senseless slaughter?

The soldier at the front tended to identify with Christ, with the innocent suffering and death of the Messiah. Taking a different tack with “Soldier’s Dream”, Owen presents Christ as acting in opposition to God, in order to show mercy to the soldiers:
    Soldier’s Dream
I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted bayonet with His tears.
And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, nor even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.
Both these poems project outrage at a war that could not be explained except as “the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.” If such was the will of God, how else to respond except with a defiance of God?

Wilfred Owen’s poetry is too large a topic to be covered in a single post; there will be more on him later.


neo-neocon said...

For anyone interested in the topic of WWI and literature, there could be no better book to read than Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory." He has a wonderful discussion of Owen and so many others of that tragic generation. I think that the message of Owen's work ("My subject is war, and the pity of war") is so powerful that it's easy to forget how innovative he was poetically, too--at least in some of his work, especially in his use of near rhyme (see "Strange Meeting" for a good example).

Baron Bodissey said...

neo -- yes, I read and very much appreciated Fussell's book. It helped formed my recent ideas about the Great War.

But I was not totally satisfied with his approach to Great War poetry. His was the point of view of the modern aesthete, and his emphases -- "Ladslove" and all that -- did not, in my opinion, do justice to poets like Owen on their own terms.

I went to high school in England in the '60s and took my A-level exams there. One of our A-level English Lit topics was Wilfred Owen, and for two years I studied the "Collected Works" (edited by Blunden), read all the textual variants, fragments, and notes, memorized about half the major poems, and generally immersed myself in Wilfred Owen. Naturally I came to the conclusion that his poetry was of immense importance to the 20th century.

Many interwar poets (including Blunden, Sassoon, and Reed) agreed, and helped ensure that Owen's name would be known, even though he published none of his work in his own lifetime.

"Strange Meeting" is one of the most important poems, as is "A Terre" (and one of its variants, "Wild With All Regrets"). But "S.I.W." is probably the most important -- it is too large and difficult a topic to treat in these posts, but I recommend it to all readers.

The near-rhyme (in which the consonants remain the same, but the vowel changes) was also known as "pararhyme". Owen did not invent it, but he gave it a prominence it had not previously known.

wildiris said...

Not all of our younger generations have forgotten their past. In line with the topic of these post is the lyrics for the song "1916" by MotorHead.
16 years old when I went to war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero,
And I marched and I fought and I bled and I died,
And I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time that a year in the line,
Is a long enough life for a soldier,
We all volunteered, and we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history's pages,
And we brawled and we fought and we whored 'til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun, we were food for the gun,
And that's what you are when you're soldiers,

I heard my friend cry, and he sank to his knees,
Coughing blood as he screamed for his mother,
And I fell by his side, and that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other,
And I lay in the mud and the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother and she never came,
Though it wasn't my fault and I wasn't to blame,
The day not half over and ten thousand slain,
And now there's nobody remembers our names,
And that's how it is for a soldier.

Gryffilion said...

I found the Motorhead song on Rhapsody last night. It's good; very moving, with lyrics that I (probably unfairly) wouldn't expect from a speed metal band. It's very slow and stately--as a memorial should be.