Notes on Owen's Poems from the Set Anthology




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Stanza 1


Immediately the landscape comes into view. "Shade" is nature in beneficent mood. "Last hill" though? Last before -what?

(Line 2) The troops, shaded, are also "eased".

(3) Bodily contact implies comradeship and trust and matches the sense of well-being. However, the break at (4) signals a mood change, and "a last hill" (1) takes on new significance. Some men stand, unable to sleep like the rest.

(5-6) "The stark blank sky" reveals nature suddenly less benevolent. That "last hill" may be their last. They stand on a metaphysical precipice, catching a glimpse of last things.

(7-8) "Marvelling" perhaps not just what lies at their feet but within themselves. Nature shows a smiling face again, the "long grass swirled" in the "May breeze" and Owen gives us that lovely Keatsian sound image "murmurous with wasp and midge". The whole stanza ebbs and flows between nature's grace on one hand and her disfavour on the other.

(9-10) A remarkable simile illustrates nature's healing power. "Oozed" - another onomatopoeic word straight from Keats.

(11-12) The soul grows sharp when healing stops and capricious nature signals menace.

Stanza 2


More of a piece. Pastoral, idyllic. Calm before storm but pathos too with Gospel-like image of the brambles (Christ's crown of thorns). Did Owen intend a link with the victims of war? The simile "like sorrowing arms" is almost beatific, like the "distressful hands" in STRANGE MEETING. "Blessed with gold" fits too. This image is supposed to have originated on an occasion when the Owen family returned across the fields from church one Sunday evening before the war. Wilfred, noticing the luminous effect of buttercup petals on brother Harold's boots, announced piously, "Harold's boots are blessed with gold."

(18) "They breathe like trees unstirred." The sense of man and nature in communion is strong in this stanza.


Stanza 3


(19) That "little word" of command, and the "May breeze" becomes " a cold gust".

(20-1) With the introduction of the soul, a spiritual dimension to the poem is confirmed.

(22-3) Minimal fuss or gesture mark the onset of attack. No longer the bringer of summer's balms, the sun is "like a friend with whom their love is done."

(25) The "O" in "O larger shone that smile against the sun" suggests an act of real significance. In war, men, as well as spurning their fellow creatures, also reject nature.

"whose bounty these have spurned". In war, man and nature share a flawed relationship.

Stanza 4


(27 The start of military action. Owen says in a letter of 14th May 1917:-

"The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you."

Outlaws would take to the heather to hid. No hiding in this heather and no cure from the heather either.

(29-30) The sun having been turned against, in retaliation "the whole sky burned with fury against them" (Ruskin's Pathetic Fallacy).

(30-1) "Earth set sudden cups in thousands for their blood" might suggest the Eucharist, ("This is my blood of the New Testament….."). though cups must surely be a metaphor for shell craters? War as a travesty of religious sacrament?

(31-2) That "green slope", earlier an aspect of nature's grace, now "chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space" and what therefore? Promised eternity? threatened extinction?


Stanza 5


Heaven and hell in contraposition.

(33) "A last hill" (1) now "that last high place". A place in the topographical sense or, historically, as a place of sacrifice?

(34-5) "Hell's upsurge" seems to suggest a hell below as well as on the surface, just as

(36) "this world's verge" might imply the existence of some non-physical region on the other side.

(37) The stanza ends with perhaps the most problematical line of all. "Some say……" Some say but don't? It is possible that…… or a wry expression of assent?

Stanza 6


The survivors are about to put the final question.

(40-2) The Hell of war and an infernal hell seem indistinguishable. War is the Devil's game and they have taken him on at his own game, winning by dint of "superhuman inhumanities". Which is puzzling if "superhuman" cannot be reconciled with "inhumanities".

And what are we to make of an action that yields both "long famous glories and immemorial shames? "Crawling slowly back" reminds us of those who "creep back, silent" in the SEND OFF; the "cool peaceful air" of the healing water of "village wells". nature once more restorative of bruised bodies and minds. Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought? There seems to be troubling issues here that are unresolved and unresolvable. One problem we face is not knowing how Owen's religious thought was developing as the war went on. Did we know that, much that is unclear about SPRING OFFENSIVE might become clearer.

(Early on the morning of 14th April 1917, Owen's battalion, the 2nd Manchesters left Savy Wood with orders to attack a trench on the west side of St.Quentin, part of the British and French armies Spring Offensive against the Hindenburg Line. In order to reach the "Start Line" for this attack, the battalion took a circuitous route involving a halt in the shade of a valley before receiving further orders to move on. Leaving the valley they reached a ridge and racing down the other side were immediately exposed to artillery fire from the Germans in St. Quentin, suffering some casualties. At 2.30 p.m. they commenced an attack on the final objective charging up a slope only to find that the Germans had fled as they reached the trench. That evening, Owen was in the party of Manchesters which went back to Savy Wood for a rest.



Storm

We may search in vain for a context to this poem, manuscript-dated October 1916. During the first eighteen days of that month Wilfred Owen was in camp at Oswestry, then being posted to Southport. At Oswestry he had his mother staying nearby and had no occasion to write to her, while after the 18th all the correspondence we have are two brief postcards from Southport and one from Birkenhead.

A hybrid of a sonnet with its rhyme scheme a mixture of the Petrarchian and the Shakespearean, its meaning seems to be an interlacing of the naturalistic and the metaphorical.

This is Owen at his loftiest and most poetic, the voice highly charged and the syntax drawing attention to itself. 'So must I tempt…' (5), 'And happier were I….'(9). 'Glorious will shine….' (10), 'What matter if…..'(12). Unusually the verb 'consume' is used intransitively.

Whose face is referred to in line 1 we don't know, only its effect on Owen himself, for this we can be sure is a very personal poem in which sexual passion and the poetic imagination are mysteriously joined. That effect, of a face '….charged with beauty as a cloud/ With glimmering lightning' (1-2) we can take to be hazardous mentally and physically - also alluring.

'When it shadowed me

I shook, and was uneasy as a tree

That draws the brilliant danger, tremulous, bowed.' (2-4)

'Tremulous, bowed' acknowledges submission to and the attraction of a force fearful like lightning in its potency. Uncommonly the sonnet's octave breaks here, perhaps in order to emphasise the change from negative to positive reaction to this overwhelming experience.

'So must I tempt that face to loose its lightning' (5)

Then at line 6, 'Great gods' who 'will laugh above' shows that notwithstanding his determination, like Hardy's Tess he's being made a plaything. No matter, he thinks, and the octave ends with the unequivocal promise to himself,

'I shall be bright with their unearthly brightening.' (8)

The sestet opens seemingly with a paradox, two conflicting statements linked by virtue of a semi-colon,

'And happier were it if my sap consume;

Glorious will shine the opening of my heart' (9-10)

So, will it be surrender or liberation?

'The land shall freshen that was under gloom;' (11)

we read, and with the storm's end will come not just nature's calm but the kind of calm that comes with resolution and a reconciliation of the supposed paradox. What if other men draw back in fear or women 'hide their faces'

'At those hilarious thunders of my fall' (14)?

Here Owen has turned the word 'fall' with its negative connotations into a ring of triumph, a gesture of defiance.

A poem may not always connect with the everyday life in which it is born, but did something occur during Owen's daily routine to produce this rather resounding statement of intent? That we shall never know.


Strange Meeting

The speaker escapes from battle and proceeds down a long tunnel through ancient granite formations. Along his way he hears the groan of sleepers, either dead or too full of thoughts to get up. As he looks at them one leaps up; the soldier has recognized him and moves his hands as if to bless him. Because of the soldier's "dead smile" the speaker knows that he is in Hell.

On the face of the "vision" the speaker sees a thousand fears, but the blood, guns, or moans of above did not reach into their subterranean retreat. The speaker tells the soldier that there is no reason to mourn, and he replies that there is –it is the "undone years" and the "hopelessness". The soldier says his hope is the same as the speaker's; he also tells him he once went hunting for beauty in the world, but that beauty made a mockery of time. He knows the truth of what he did, which is "the pity of war, the pity war distilled", but now he can never share it.

The soldier/vision continues, saying men will go on with what is left to them, or they will die as well. They will not break their ranks even though "nations trek from progress". He used to have courage and wisdom. He would wash the blood from the wheels of chariots. He wanted to pour his spirit out, but not in war.

Finally, he says to the speaker that "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," and that he knew him in the dark. It was yesterday that the speaker "jabbed and killed" him, and now it is time to sleep.

"Strange Meeting" is one of Wilfred Owen's most famous, and most enigmatic, poems. It was published posthumously in 1919 in Edith Sitwell's anthology Wheels: an Anthology of Verse and a year later in Siegfried Sassoon's 1920 collection of Owen's poems. T.S. Eliot referred to "Strange Meeting" as a "technical achievement of great originality" and "one of the most moving pieces of verse inspired by the war." That war, of course, is WWI –the central element in all the poems in Owen's relatively small oeuvre. The poet Ted Hughes noted in his writings on this poem that "few poets can ever have written with such urgent, defined, practical purpose."

The poem is renowned for its technical innovation, particularly the pararhyme, so named by Edmund Bluson in regards to Owen's use of assonant endings. A pararhyme is a slant, or partial rhyme in which the words have similar consonants before and after unlike vowels –escaped and scooped, groined and grained, hair and hour. Almost all the end lines in this poem are pararhyme; the last line is a notable exception. Critics have noted how this rhyme scheme adds to the melancholy, subterranean, and bleak atmosphere of the poem.

In terms of the meaning of the poem, it describes a soldier's descent into Hell where he meets a dead enemy soldier who labels himself the man the speaker killed. The dead man talks about the horror of war and the inability for anyone but those involved in fighting to grasp the essential truth of the experience. There is more than meets the eye, however, and many critics believe that the man in hell is the soldier's "Other", or his double. A man's encounter with his double is a common trope in Romantic literature; it is seen in Shelley, Dickens, and Yeats for example. The critic Dominic Hibbard notes that the poem is not supposed to be about "presenting war as a merely internal, psychological conflict –but neither is it concerned with the immediate divisions suggested by 'German' and 'conscript [initially what Owen had the dead man calling himself] or 'British' and 'volunteer'." The dead man is the Other, but he is independent. Another critic reads the poem as a dream vision, with the soldier descending into his mind and encountering his poetic self. It is a mythological and psychological journey. Finally, Elliot B. Gose, Jr. writes that "the Other...represents the narrator's unconscious, his primal self from which he has been alienated by war."

There are a few influences on the writing of the poem. The critic Dominic Hibbard notes Dante's similar pitying recognition of the tortured faces in Hell, the underworld of Landor's Gebir, and, of course, Keats and Shelley. Owens was an ardent admirer of both Romantic poets, whose The Fall of Hyperion and The Revolt of Islam, respectively, were no doubt instructive to Owen as he composed his own work. The Fall of Hyperionfeatures the goddess of memory revealing her dying but immortal face and her blank eyes, allowing the poet to grasp her monumental knowledge of wars and heroes past. The emphasis in Owen's work on truth and dreams also resonates of Keats.

The title of the poem, however, may be taken from Shelley's work: "And one whose spear had pierced me, leaned beside, / With quivering lips and humid eyes; -and all / Seemed like some brothers on a journey wide / Gone forth, whom now strange meeting did befall / In a strange land." In The Revolt of Islam, Laon tells his soldiers not to avenge themselves on the enemy who has massacred their camp but to ask them to throw down their arms and embrace their shared humanity. The two sides gather together in the "strange meeting".


In lines 1 - 3 Owen sets the scene. Holes, caverns, tunnels - these form a recurring image in his mind and find their way into the poems. "Titanic Wars" imply not just Owen's war but conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale. At the outset we are made to realise that past and present interfuse as, later in the poem, will the future also. This is Owen reaching out to an altogether new dimension.
Lines 4 - 10. "Encumbered" by their uniform and kit but also they carry with them the burden of suffering. "Sleepers". More ambiguity here, for although one man springs up and lifts his hands his smile is dead while others are "fast in thought or death….." So often in this poem we find ourselves on the edge of certainty. The two men had already shared one terrible, intimate moment - the moment of killing. Now comes recognition. "Piteous" - not pitying of course but calling for pity which explains why ambiguity attaches to why the distressful hands are lifted.
Lines 11 - 13. Those "thousand pains" are the legacy of war inflicted in life not after-life. In this hell there is relief, "no blood", "no guns thumped or….made moan". War - hell. In what relation to each other do they stand?
Line 14. The narrator introduces their one-sided dialogue with a paradox - "strange friend".
Lines 15 -29. Whereupon there ensues a homily on the true purpose of poetry. Whatever hopelessness of the "undone years" it is a purpose they both share.

Whatever hope is yours Was my life also; A shared purpose. A shared identity also? Is the doppelganger theory valid here? Yes or no the "hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world" corresponds to Owen's high-sounding quest for beauty and truth which in former days he believed he had inherited from Keats and Shelley but which was really a substitute for thought and experiences he had not yet undergone. A continuation along these lines might have achieved something but not what was to be the core of his short life's work: The pity of war, the pity distilled.

Distilled. The pure essence. Pity without any emotional by-products. Meanwhile the poet-prophet faces a probable future when a world shattered by war is accepted as the norm and endures a further regression into "this retreating world" - a frightening, and accurate, prediction of events.

Lines 30-39. Here the two strands - the aim and rationale of poetry and the predicted course of events come together in a movingly expressed blueprint for the cleansing of the human spirit. As poetry's disciple Owen is able to claim the courage, mystery, wisdom, mastery to combat the march from progress and finally when the retreat can go no further, "when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels", to bring life-giving water from "sweet wells" and reveal "truths that lie too deep for taint". To this end, says Owen, I would have poured my spirit without stint.


Line 40 - 44. "My friend". Such a contrast to the former bitterly ironic "my friend" of "Dulce et decorum est". The conjunction of "enemy" and "friend" is another paradox but without a sense of jarring. This final section brings a change of tone with nothing high-flown but plain, mostly one-syllable language, the simplicity of fulfilment. Paradoxically again, blindness is lifted in the tunnel's dark.

"I parried", says the man killed. "As if to bless", had said previously the man who killed him. STRANGE MEETING brings with it many entanglements that make a final judgement improbable, perhaps inappropriate.

Does "Let us sleep now….." suggest a work unfinished? Maybe. At least the important message is clear, that mankind must seek reconciliation and "the truth untold" embrace pity and the greater love.

The Dead Beat
One of the earliest of Owen's "war" poems (Craiglockhart August 1917 but revised at Ripon the following year), it was also among the first to be published after the war. It bears all the marks of Siegfried Sassoon's influence.

On 22nd August 1917, to his cousin Leslie Gunston, he confessed that having now met Sassoon twice he was determined to write "something in Sassoon's style, which I may as well send you." The next day he added, "He (Sassoon) was struck with THE DEAD-BEAT but pointed out that the facetious bit was out of keeping with the first and last stanzas. Thus the piece as a whole is no good." Whether that summing up was Sassoon's or Owen's isn't clear. However, the revised version, eliminating the "facetious bit", was certainly an improvement, and though not among his very best work, THE DEAD-BEAT remains an effective piece of brutal realism.

It describes one particular incident in dramatic form, and the attacking style and the colloquial diction place it very much in Sassoon's mode. A soldier whose mind and spirit have been broken as the result of war is suspected (and condemned) of malingering. Although not physically wounded, he dies, the victim of malicious and sinister forces.

Set in a front-line trench, the action is contained within four irregularly rhymed stanzas. Metrically the basic iambic pentameter is broken rhythmically by the use, first of multi-syllables, and second the caesura (a natural pause or breathing space within the line). The rather disjointed effect fits the disturbing nature of the theme.

Why is this unfortunate man dead beat? Despite recently having undergone a severe bombardment (16) -

"It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun." (14) says whoever among his persecutors has "a low voice". If true, it's not exposure to war that's destroyed him but perhaps news from home of -

"…….his brave young wife, getting her fun (12)

she being one of those women whom Owen disapproved of and dispraised. (Unfairly in most cases, we might think, for the men who fought were not the only ones who suffered; wives, girl friends, mothers in countless numbers had cause to weep.)

Whatever the reason for the man's condition, there's a puzzle here. Dead beat now, next day dead.

"That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray! (19) Mind gone we can understand. But body too. Without being wounded (16). The poem provides no certain answer.

Though sometimes quick to condemn, Owen is seldom slow to condemn himself as well as others (not only brave young wives but bold uncles too.) He blames himself, implicitly, in INSPECTION, and explicitly, in MENTAL CASES, and he does so here as the angle character whose viewpoint it is. "None of us could kick him to his feet" (3), "Just blinked at my revolver" (4), "We sent him down….." (15). It is a deliberate sharing of the guilt. There is no attempt to dissociate himself from the savage treatment that is being handed out.

Two images illustrate the contempt in which the Dead-Beat is held by those who sit in judgement: the dehumanising similes in line 2 -

Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat.

As in SPRING OFFENSIVESTRANGE MEETINGTHE SENTRY etc, Owen makes effective use of body imagery. Note the winks of the stretcher-bearers (17) and the "well-whiskied laugh" of the doctor (18), and before that the sinister smiles of the bold uncles. Smiles and laughs - such essentially innocent expressions of feeling. But not here!

Irony is at work of course, and there's a lot of that in THE DEAD-BEAT. Are those non-combatants who are safely out of the way "valiant" (10) as "bold" (11) or "brave" (12)? Not in Owen's book.

"It's not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun." (14). The Hun? If it's barbarians we're looking for we'll not find them here among the Germans. What remark more barbaric than the doctor's disgraceful malediction?

The stretcher-bearers wink, the Doc laughs. They find it amusing. These are supposedly the life-savers, men engaged in acts of mercy. The dreadful irony is that he who is dead beat through no fault of his own should be in conflict, not with the enemy he's been sent to fight, but with those who belong on his own side.

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