Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part VI

An Occasional Series — Previous Installments:   I   II   III   IV   V

Wilfred Owen: The News of All the Nations

One of Wilfred Owen’s gifts was the ability to turn from the overwhelming horror of the moment and look beyond the nightmare of the Western Front to higher things. A great inspiration for him was the comeradeship of men in the trenches. The idealism of 1914 was gone, bitter anger and resignation had set in, and still these men were fierce in their devotion to their “mates”. The war was viewed as a monstrous insanity; yet each man would kill — and die — for the man next to him in the line.

Owen contemplates this devotion in the following sonnet (an “identity disc” is what we would call “dog tags”):
    Sonnet to my Friend
(With an Identity Disc)
If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There seeking a long sanctuary at last, —
Or if I onetime hoped to hide its shame,
— Shame of success, and sorrow of defeats, —
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That shade always the quiet place of Keats,
Now rather thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed.
Let my inscription be this soldier’s disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But may thy heart-beat kiss it, night and day,
Until the name grow blurred and fade away.
Owen is looking here to the larger world, and does not seem to think it likely that he will survive to re-enter it. As it turned out, of course, his name was indeed unsurpassed among the poets of the Great War, though it was unknown in his own lifetime.

The larger world — the world that soldiers visited on leave, that they hoped one day to rejoin, that seemed so strange and irrelevant to the hell they lived in — was to be changed forever by the Great War. People went about their routines, children went to school, business was transacted, fortunes were made and lost, but an age had ended and a new one was about to begin.

There are intimations of this ominous new time in the following poem:
    Six o’clock in Princes Street
In twos and threes, they have not far to roam,
      Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;
Those seek no further than their quiet home,
      Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.
Neither should I go fooling over clouds,
      Following gleams unsafe, untrue,
And tiring after beauty through star-crowds,
      Dared I go side by side with you;
Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
      Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
      And all their sorrows in your face.
When the war ended, the “news of all the nations” continued. Revolution, social chaos, financial ruin, dictatorship, and, of course, another war — these were the shape of things to come.

The next post in this series will return to some of the other war poets.


Loldemort said...

Pardon me if I just haven't found the location, but nowhere in your discussion of Owen or his poetry do you seem to have mentioned the fact that he was homosexual. I am sure this is simply an oversight, and that you're not simply trying to write it out of history. It does seem to me however quite impossible to fully appreciate Owen's sensibility without understanding that it is grounded on his love, and instinctive sympathy for, his men.

hank_F_M said...


This is a great series. Keep it up!


Dymphna said...

It does seem to me however quite impossible to fully appreciate Owen's sensibility without understanding that it is grounded on his love, and instinctive sympathy for, his men.

And what does his sexual orientation have to do with his love or sympathy for his men? Are you saying that only homosexuals can love their fellow soldiers? At best such a remark is ignorant of the bonds that develop among those who have fought in war. At worst it arrogates to homosexuals a "special" depth of experience that heterosexuals cannot have.

Take your pick: ignorant or arrogant. Add to that the fact that your view of Owen's work is ananchronistic. He would probably find your claim that his aesthetic sensibility depended on his homosexuality to be limiting. Provincial, actually.

Widen your world view, son.

Baron Bodissey said...

Loldemoort -- I'm aware of the assertion that Owen was a homosexual. Two questions naturally arise:

1. Was he homosexual? It does not seem to be well-attested, certainly less so than Walt Whitman's case. Maybe there is correspondence that documents it, but I haven't seen it. Many people draw the conclusion from poems such as "To My Friend", ignoring the fact that such florid declarations of affection between men were rather common in Victorian England, even when the men involved were not homosexuals. The common culture had not been so thoroughly sexualized and filled with prurience as it is today, so that such expressions would not be freighted with the significance that they have now. To view them through the prism of sexuality is to engage in yet another form of "Presentism".

2. Does it matter? I don't think so. An analogy would be to assert that a heterosexual doctor would care more, or in some more profound fashion, for his female patients than for his male patients. That just doesn't wash.

One of the (to me) unfortunate characteristics of modernity is the tendency to suffuse everything with the political issue du jour, in this case the expression of human sexuality. There was a time when people did not hold sex in the high regard in which it is held today, and ascribed more importance to other ideals.

Freud began to change all that, and now his views are modernist dogma. To assert otherwise is considered "denial" or "repression".

But there will come a time when our preoccupations, like those of the Victorians, will seem quaint and archaic and absurd. If only I could live that long!

Loldemort said...

On the contrary, I think that although much of human experience overlaps, the world, and human life, is also full of "special" depths that can't fully be shared. At best we can feel an empathy with each other. I don't think it's at all arrogant to claim that; indeed, it's trivially true. I'm afraid, from your reaction, I think that you are perhaps trying to write that side of Owen out of history! You pose a false dichotomy of course: if there is a particular, essentially homosexual tenderness, to Owen's work to which, in my opinion, it owes much of its beauty, then it does not follow that heterosexuals can't appreciate that: of course, they can, imaginatively, inasmuch as homosexual experience is universal they will, of course, be able to follow it. If they wish to. It's just that I wouldn't expect any of them to actually write that way themselves. Oh, and that last paragraph of yours is just silly.

Loldemort said...

BB, it is known that he was a friend of Siegfried Sassoon of course, also knew Robbie Ross, Osbert Sitwell, and Charles Scott Moncrieff. Also, as wikipedia puts it, "surviving letters show quite clearly that he was in love with Sassoon". Still, I find it extraordinary that you think that someone's homosexuality is something that needs to be "proven", like some kind of criminal guilt. For my part, if someone tends to write poetry about blushing maidens, icy ladies or voluptuous vamps, I'll start with the assumption that they are heterosexual, to be modified later if need be. Similarly, when I read in Owen's poetry about men's bodies, the beauty in their eyes, and so on ad libitum, I assume that he is homosexual, to be modified later if need be.

I also think that your allusion to "prurience" is revealing of a certain ... mentality. It is, in fact, not prurient, or in any way demeaning of them, to assume or imagine that someone is homosexual.

With regard to the charges of "anachronism" and "presentism", well that argument always makes me smile! Just because a word was invented in Europe in the early twentieth century doesn't mean to say that the phenomenon it describes didn't exist at other times and other places. People in the early 20th century were not essentially different from those of the present day, even though the language in which they expressed their thoughts may have differed. When I hear that there were no homosexuals in the Great War, or in Renaissance Florence, or among Native Americans before the advent of the Europeans, I am reminded of the communist Chinese affirmation that there are "no homosexuals in China". I'm sorry, it's simply silly. Also, I think you are both defining homosexuality as simply a particular kind of sex, which is a mistake that heterosexuals make constantly.

BB, no I'm not saying that Owen looked after his men more efficiently, or led them more valorously, because he felt about them the way he did; I am saying that his sense of the waste of those young mens' lives, as it is expressed in his poetry as the vanishing of much that is beautiful and wonderful from the world -- that is a homosexual sensibility, and a damn fine one! And it deserves to be named as such.

Baron Bodissey said...

Loldemort -- several points.

I don't require "proof" of anything. You asserted as a fact something (Owen's homosexuality) which is not historically demonstrable. It's a distinct possibility, but must remain a hypothesis.

If, after my death, historians were researching my life, they might well conclude that I am a homosexual. The evidence? In the 1970s I shared a bed with a known homosexual, was his roommate for years, and had other known homosexuals for friends. The facts? My best friend from college later realized that he was gay, and came out (and remained my best friend). I happen to like gay men for some reason; they tend to be charming and witty people. But if my best friend were to survive to be interviewed by the future historians, he would assure them that I am most emphatically heterosexual.

So I know from experience that making inferences based on scanty evidence is dodgy at best.

I am not denying the existence of homosexuality in 1916, nor making any assertion about how widespread it was. But cultural attitudes have changed enormously since then, and the widespread prurience that preoccupies us nowadays was not a preoccupation in 1916. They simply did not attach the same importance to sexual matters that we do.

That's why I say that the issue doesn't matter. To put it in a blunt and vulgar matter, I don't care where or into whom a man puts his johnson, as long as it is into a consenting adult.

I don't think my sexual orientation is relevant to my poetic sensibilities, and I don't think it was relevant to those of Owen. I admire Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens greatly, and the fact that one was gay and the other straight does not have anything to do with the power of their poetry.

Great poetry touches on the eternal, which does not concern itself with sexual proclivities.

Having said all this, I am closing my part in this discussion.

Dymphna said...

I'm afraid, from your reaction, I think that you are perhaps trying to write that side of Owen out of history!

That's your inference loldemort, not anything I said or even implied. Take what you need,or make it up as you go along.

This tiresome argument reminds me of the Catholic ghetto of literature. "Was he/she Catholic? Well, if so, then it must be worth reading, and let's just look at all the ways his/her Catholicism penetrated his/her writing." Flannery O'Connor is the frequent subject of this kind of literary criticism. Yawn...lay head on desk until earnest lecturer is finished.

Not politics,not gender, not religion or nationality can make a good writer one bit better. These are accidental qualities, not essential ones.

One of the best song-writers that I know personally happens to be gay but it doesn't have much to do with his beautiful songs. In fact, when he's obvious about it, the songs don't work as well. They strain to make their point.

This is also why so much 'religious' literature is holy stuff, but bad writing. Ditto the attempts at political novels or poetry.

My guess is that Owens would be annoyed at the pigeon hole. He was a writer. Period.

Loldemort said...

I am somewhat reassured by what you've both said. Perhaps we might leave it at that. I am glad that you enjoy Owen's poetry, anyway.

Rick Moran said...

I love Owens for the same reasons you do...His words evoke the loneliness and horror of the battlefield.

One of the books that had a profound influence on me was Grave's "Goodbye to all that." They both illustrate what Europe really lost in the great war - the soul of an entire generation of youth, sacrified on the altar of untrammeled nationalism and hubris.

They were all so much better than the idiots who sent them.

Baron Bodissey said...

Graves and Sassoon and the others who made it to Armistice Day must have felt survivors' guilt. I know there was at least one of them (can't remember which) who thought Owen was the best of them. In my opinion he certainly was, though there were several others whom I also admire.

Tet68 said...

To me it hardly seems fair to consider Owen's sexuality as the
basis for his empathy with the
men under his command.
Certainly his homosexuality as a product of the public school system of the time can not be looked at in the same terms as "gayness" is looked at today. "More presentism" I suppose although that is rather a new term to me.
The interface between enlisted and lower ranking officers was much
closer during the First World War,
although in any conflict men sharing the same privation and danger are apt to develop bonds of
affection. The Regimental system of the time also created a relationship between the men, their officers and the unit they belonged to.

In any event, Owen's sensitivity
to death, and the pity of war are
not the result of his sexuality
but of his education, which allowed
him to express it in the fashion
he did.
I love the war poets, I only wish
Saki had lived long enough to write more.