A Shakespearean sonnet in iambic pentameter with its conventional archaisms, the standard 8 - 6 line division and the usual 4 - 4 sub-division of the octet. But, unusually, the sestet is without the final couplet, and having regard for what the poem is saying, the lines more logically divide not 4-4/4-2 but 5-3/3-3.
For Wilfred Owen, January 1913, the date of ON MY SONG's initial draft, was an unhappy month. On the 4th he informed his mother that the Vicar's (of Dunsden) presence 'sat heavy on my soul…. Murder will out, and I have murdered my false creed….Escape from this hotbed of religion I now long for…. To leave Dunsden will mean a terrible bust-up…' But within a week, leave Dunsden he did, his health and his career plans in tatters.
A count of first-person pronouns in ON MY SONGS affirms its subjective viewpoint. Altogether there are eleven of 'I','me', 'mine','my' plus one 'his' that refers to Owen himself. Such self-regard may slide into self-pity. What rescues it from that is suggested in the first words of lines 6, 9, and 12. After 'Though' in line 1 we get 'Yet', 'Tis then' and 'One night', signalling changes of mood. Owen is having a dialogue with himself.
Lines 1 - 5.
In an earlier poem (FULL SPRINGS OF THOUGHT) Owen had dwelt on and communed with the spirits of Thomas Gray, Shelley, Arnold and Tennyson. Now, similarly, he recalls occasions when 'unseen poets'
'Have answered me as if they know my woe' (2)
tailoring their thoughts to match
'….my own soul's cry; easing the flow
Of my dumb tears with language sweet as sobs' (4-5)
(Was 'sobs' a rhyme of convenience? - 'throbs' in line 7)
Lines 6 - 8
Consolation? Not quite. Apparently these 'unseen poets' have their limitations. Their 'hoards of thought' don't always connect
The reader might think that to seek consolation through his own verse was better not described in such mawkish tones as 'low croonings of a motherless child' (10). However, the last three lines redeem all.
'One night if thou shouldst lie in this Sick Room,
Dreading the Dark thou darest not illume,
Listen; my voice may haply lend thee ease.' (12-14)
Surely we have here an early hint of what would come to be, for Wilfred Owen, a fixed purpose - to rank others above himself and to speak for those unable to speak for themselves.
Later he would see the dread on the faces of his comrades, 'more terrible than terror' as he said in his end-of-1917 letter home. 'It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it I think I must go back and be with them.'
ON MY SONGS was a prophetic title after all.
We know that it was drafted early in 1918 and revised during the following summer. What we don't know for certain is its meaning, for its message is cryptic, bound up with Wilfred's sexuality and his association with gay literary figures such as Robert Ross and Charles Scott Moncrieff who, along with Sassoon, were doing much to forward Wilfred's career as a poet. Fortunately, if meaning is obscure, other elements within it are not.
Forget the nature and identity of the two ghosts who haunt Shadwell Stair in London's dock area. They are anonymous and irrelevant. What is more important is the sensory impression we get of that particular area.
In stanza 1, those 'wharves by the water-house' lead us into a world of trading ships and adventure on the high seas. That the slaughter house should be 'cavernous' suggests not just immensity but terror. 'Water-house' … 'slaughter-house' may be rhymes of convenience but the coming together of the life-giving and the life-ending is grimly ironic.
Stanza 2. Firm cool flesh and tumultuous eyes. The appearance of ghost number one illustrates not just the ghost but also his surroundings through the second part of the simile:
Owen describes both the light on the water and the complementary movement of time and river current in what becomes a single effective metaphor.
Stanza3. The romantic vision continues. 'A purple street-arc' (9) contrasts with the moons and lamps, after which comes not a visual but a sound image:
'Dolorously the shipping clanks' (11)
The onomatopoeic 'clanks' reminds us that this is a world of heavy work; 'dolorously (doloroso)' a world often of sorrows, trials and suffering. The Thames is first and foremost a working river, and this is underlined in
Stanza 4. The stars may wane (13) and dawn creep up (14) which is pretty enough, but still
'….the crowing sirens blare' (15)
so balancing the fancy-led poetic language with a reminder of the fuller picture.
It is a concise and illuminating picture drawn by one who liked the East End of London and the dock area. The West End meant much less to Wilfred Owen. Only once does he venture into metaphorical language about the capital's more fashionable parts when he describes on 21 October 1915 Tavistock Square as 'wadded with fog; skeletons of dismal trees behind the palings; but the usual perversion of ghostly aristocracy.'
The following year (23 August 1916) he was writing:
'The dawn broke as I crossed the Bridge (Waterloo) and the Dome and the East End showed so purply against the orange infinite East that in my worship there was no more care of trains, adjutants or wars.'
And what delight he shows in the famous passage of 11 June 1915 when he tells us he was seized with desire to return to the Mile End Road and Whitechapel, that 'tired of the West End' he craved the East End's ugliness. 'Ugliness! I never saw so much beauty…….'
Further west was for getting to be known in the right circles and helping along his ambitions, but London's soul was to be found elsewhere as Wilfred Owen poet was quick to recognise.