Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part V

An Occasional Series — Previous Installments:   I    II    III    IV

Wilfred Owen: The Pity of War

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 conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful. — Wilfred Owen

The young men dropped into the crucible of the Western Front emerged from it transformed, if indeed they emerged from it at all. The horrors of the trenches were of such magnitude and scope that any aesthetic sensibility could not help but be altered.

Before the war took its toll on him, Wilfred Owen was a promising young poet, albeit one practicing unremarkable variations on conventional themes in traditional forms. Consider the following poem:
    My Shy Hand
My shy hand shades a hermitage apart, -
      O large enough for thee, and thy brief hours.
Life there is sweeter held than in God’s heart,
      Stiller than in the heavens of hollow flowers.
The wine is gladder there than in gold bowls.
      And Time shall not drain thence, nor trouble spill.
Sources between my fingers feed all souls,
      Where thou mayest cool thy lips, and draw thy fill.
Five cushions hath my hand, for reveries;
      And one deep pillow for thy brow’s fatigues;
Languor of June all winterlong, and ease
      For ever from the vain untravelled leagues.
This is a pleasing and competently executed effort, but one that would hardly have been noted if it were all that Owen had ever offered us. But, just a short while later, we have this, which could have been written by an entirely different poet:
    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 I 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
“Dulce et Decorum Est” (the Latin inscription means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”) is Owen’s best-known work, and one of his most powerful, condensing into a few lines all the horror and insanity of the Great War. It is widely viewed as the prototype of all anti-war verse, as if Owen were to be given an honorary posthumous membership in international ANSWER.

But to view Owen’s poetry in this light is to engage in “Presentism”, to apply the standards of the present to a past in which they are not appropriate. It is a failure to understand the context of the times. Modern Western culture is already so unthinkingly saturated with the sensibilities created by the Great War and its aftermath that it is difficult for us to reclaim even the ghost of that lost world of 1914.

The intelligent and thoughtful young men who were confronted with the monstrosity of the war at first reacted with horror and indignation. Later, as the horror became their daily routine, these were replaced with cynicism, bitterness, resignation, despair, and above all pity, both for themselves and for the comrades whose death and suffering confronted them daily. One of Owen’s late poems reflects these responses:
Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After the many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
And in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There was a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping...
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.
And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intrusive lead, like ants on track.
*          *          *
Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars;
— Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
And finished fields of autumns that are old...
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps tremulous, less cold
Than we who must awake, and waking, say Alas!
Concern for comrades, indignation at the futility of it all, disdain for those in world outside who cannot possibly understand: these are the typical responses of the wartime poet. Antiwar sentiment as an active political force did not emerge until well after the war, when Soviet backing and the political climate of the time channelled the revulsion for the war into pacifism.

But the men in the trenches of the Great War did not react to their situation as a political one. After all, unless you were a Socialist Revolutionary, the available political options of the day did not offer you any viable alternative, since all had led to the same inferno in the trenches.

To view the Great War poems politically is to diminish them; they were much more important than that.

My next post in this series will conclude the examination of Wilfred Owen’s poetry.


Baron Bodissey said...

You're right, but it's not just that -- modern political pacifism didn't exist yet; it was not created until the interwar period. There was no ideology of pacifism for the poets to line up with: they were treating the events they experienced with the inherited sensibilities of Victorian times.

The changeover to Modernism would take another decade or so.

Dymphna said...

don't you think it also took the lies and deceits of socialism to build up any kind of pacifistic baseline?

Baron Bodissey said...

No, I think it was more the promise of the imminent arrival of the secular Messianic age, the Socialist Kingdom of No-God, in which the lion would lie down with the lamb, and we will all Make War No More, etc., etc.

The Soviets encouraged this attitude in the capitalist West, since a lot of pacifistic fools lying down in front of their tanks were very useful for them.

A lot of otherwise intelligent people sincerely believed that the equality ushered in by Socialism would end the need for war, since wars were greedy capitalistic affairs. Their heirs today believe something similar; it's a meme that will not die.