Notes on Owen's Poems from the Set Anthology



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Stanza 1


Stanza 1 opens with Owen apparently propounding his opinion that the fighting man is better off having no sympathetic imagination, ("fleers" = mocks).

Lines 4 & 5's horrifying image

Or makes their feet

Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers

echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 -

They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls… (The German breakthrough of March 1918 when the British Army "had its back to the wall" being pushed back some 40 miles from St.Quentin to Villers Bretonneux. How easily then might an excess of imagination play havoc with men's nerves.


Lines 7 - 8 have

But they are troops who fade, not flowers

For poets' tearful fooling:

The troops are those who matter, those same heroes of whom Owen tells us in his Preface, English Poetry "is not yet fit to speak"; the same men who are thought of merely as " gaps for filling" (9), men "who might have fought longer" (10-11), bitter words that lead to an end-of-stanza dying fall like that in EXPOSURE ("But nothing happens")

……but no one bothers.

Stanza 2


And some cease feeling (12)

Well, some do. For the rest,

The tease and doubt of shelling (15)

means the grim reality of wondering who'll cop it next. It's

Chance's strange arithmetic (16)

Not mathematical probability that operates here, yet even that

"comes simpler" (17) than gauging the final reckoning, for how can that be quantified?

Stanza 3


The word "happy" crops up again. If to lose one's imagination (19) implies having had one in the first place, battle seems an unlikely occasion for its surrender. Owen suggests that with imagination "lost", physical burdens may be unavoidable but that the men's "spirit drags no pack" (21), that "having seen all things red" (23) spilled blood no longer has power to derange. Hearts remain unaffected, small-drawn" (27). Having seen men die "in some scorching cautery of battle" (28) minds are thenceforth immunised against further hauntings.

We may think, tell that to the Mental Cases.


Stanza 4


The expression "soldier home" (31) must mean repatriate not one who has not gone out. How then can he be "with not a notion" of the business of war. Who is the lad "whose mind was never trained" (34)? Trained in what? In sensibility?

Now comes the turning point. So far it has all been about our Happy Warrior. Suddenly in mid-stanza pronouns change from "they" to "we" and Owen slips quietly into another gear. We don't sing, we "march taciturn". (37), we who are fully conscious of the dusk and

The long, forlorn, relentless trend

From larger day to huger night. (38-9),

we for whom insensibility is not an option.

Stanza 5


Stanza 5 continues in the first person (we) (40-3) but then reverts to third (he, his). Seemingly Owen is arguing a dichotomy between us (the wise) whose thoughts of guilt

……..besmirch

Blood over all our soul, (40-1)

and the insensible ones, "not vital overmuch" (44), not even "mortal overmuch". (45) not sad, proud, curious. In other words, not much anything really. If this comes from losing imagination it's hard to see where happiness comes in. Perhaps after all we should not see the two states as polarised. Does the clue come in lines 42-3?

How should we see our task

But through his blunt and lashless eyes?

How, asks Owen, can we poets do our job properly and rationally without curbing our imagination? Against this, without a measure of sensibility, mind and spirit die. So what's the solution?

Stanza 6


In stanza 6 Owen seems to confute the arguments he started out with, that the soldier should abandon feeling in the interests of keeping sane.

Dullness best solves

The tease and doubt of shelling he'd written in stanza 1 while in stanza 6 we read

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns (50)

Can Owen have it both ways? Well, yes if we see the irony in that first quotation, see it not as advice but as a wry observation. The tone of the last stanza suggests that the kind of happiness achieved through suppressing feeling is achieved only at a price.

By choice they made themselves immune

To pity………..(54-5)

we're told. So does he condemn them? No, for he understands why they choose thus. He's told us in (42-3) that the poet must look at these issues through the soldiers' eyes. Yet to discard pity or whatever hurts or gives cause for lament, to whatever shares "the eternal reciprocity of tears" (and I take the "whatever" to mean an entity or quality beyond ourselves) diminishes us all.

Whether "eternal" simply signifies "timeless" or as containing a spiritual dimension is up to us to decide.

Inspection

Owen's war poetry has blood as a recurring and ambiguous symbol of sacrifice: of the sacrifice demanded of and offered up by the fighting soldier and also of Christ's sacrifice for man's redemption.

Blood, sacrifice, guilt are at the heart of INSPECTION.

Owen wrote it in August/September 1917 at Craiglockhart and later listed it under "inhumanity in War". Sassoon's influence is strong (read the latter's STAND-TO, GOOD FRIDAY MORNING). The diction is largely colloquial, the tone matter-of-fact and tinged with bitterness. It assumes an analogy between a military parade and the Last Judgement and between the Army High Command and God.

INSPECTION has a cast of three - officer, sergeant and presumably, private soldier. Stanza 1 in which the men are on parade, is characterised by formal, stylised dialogue between all three, stanza 2 an informal conversation between officer and private, while stanza 3 comprises an apologia or short homily by the man who has been punished for having a dirty uniform. As the poem moves forward, the officer experiences a diminution of status from, first, being in command to, second, conversing on more or less equal terms to, finally, being given a sharp lesson. Meanwhile, the soldier, after being at the receiving end, finishes up firmly in charge.

A heavy beat at the start of line 1 promises drama to come. Then from line 5 the tension abates leading to a more reflective tone in the third stanza. The onomatopoeic "rapped" and "snapped" add to the initial feeling of menace. Fairly constant rhyme and rhythm aid the poem's mostly conversational style.

The MACBETH reference ("damned spot") in stanza 2 is charged with irony. In Lady Macbeth's case the blood is dirt, the dirt of guilt; in the soldier's case it clearly isn't, though the officer doesn't realise this and his naïve remark prepares the way for his instruction to come.

Stanza 3 reveals the soldier as the poem's truth-teller. He looks "far off" to where he was wounded, and is far-seeing too in being able to grasp what Owen later describes in STRANGE MEETING as "truths that lie too deep for taint". "The world is washing out its stains," he says, believing of course that it's doing nothing of the kind. Material stains, these may be erased easily enough; but as Lady Macbeth finds, the stains of guilt cannot be disposed of by physical means.

The soldier's laugh is hollow, his stance cynical, although the full extent of his cynicism may not be as clear as it seems. The army is his immediate target for all its preoccupation with the superficial, but the army is the world in microcosm, a world that has not even begun to wash out its figurative stains, a world only faintly aware, if aware at all, of what the expiation of guilt entails.

But when we're duly whitewashed, being dead,

The race will bear Field Marshal God's inspection.

Who or what is being satirised here in these final, stunning lines? Certainly the army, a clear target for its inappropriate practices, and warmongers, militant clergy and so on whose call for others to be sacrificed and therefore "whitewashed" carries its own stain.

But Field Marshal God? There's scorn in that, also some sadness. An army commander who thinks he's God and a God turned army commander all in one. If they're indistinguishable where do we find God on His own and blood's sacramental significance? Who now will take out stains that matter?

Sometimes Owen stands back from his subject, as in SPRING OFFENSIVE. In INSPECTION he places himself at the centre of the action. He can be recognised as the officer in stanza 1, conscious of his rank and of the importance of maintaining discipline. We see him also in the second stanza, perhaps slightly unhappy on reflection about the man's punishment and seeking him out for a quiet chat, man to man.

But whose is the viewpoint in stanza 3? The young soldier's yes, who had been treated unfairly, a young man of evident education and a philosophical bent.

What charge is he making? That those who run the show have got it badly wrong. It's a serious charge and because he's been harshly dealt with he feels strongly about it. However, if we assume that Owen himself is sharing the truth-teller's role, then Owen's angle will be a little different.

For Owen is part of the system that is being called to account, a part of that world that needs to wash out its stains, a party to the guilt and conscious of the fact. Unlikely that once flung into the maelstrom of war he would have retained his faith intact, yet I do believe that he was still able to hold on to certain truths which God's church on earth (Field Marshal God as he accused the Church of seeing Him) appeared largely to have forgotten.

INSPECTION leaves both private soldier and officer in rueful mood. It may have left its poet with more cause for ruefulness than either.



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