Notes on Owen's Poems from the Set Anthology




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Sonnet: On seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action


Begun when? It is thought July 1917 and revised, probably, the following year. A conventional sonnet, having a fairly regular beat, the rhythm slightly disturbed by the mixture of starting-off iambs and trochees. Conventional also in content? A message that captures the mood of the times? Consider the first eight lines, the octet.

They consist of four unrhymed couplets, all in imperative mood. " Be…..lifted up", "Sway steep….", "Reach at that….", "Speed our resentment….."

War needs to be prepared for - "…..for years rehearse" (3) in order to bring about just vengeance on "Arrogance which needs thy harm" (5) by means of, for example, this Great Gun which destroys with metaphorical curses and uttered imprecations: sound images to mark the stridency that the waging of war entails.

These eight lines reflect the ambience of a mighty war machine geared up to resist the aggression of a hostile power, i.e. Germany. The "long black arm" (1) of the gun, the imprecations that are "huge" (4), the "blasting" charm (4) all convey the force with which arrogance is to be beaten down, and the "shapes of flame" (8) into which the nation's wealth is poured.

There is the spiritual aspect also. The lifting of the gun, "towering towards Heaven" (2), like the elevation of the Host, proclaims divine sanction for a just war dedicated to the destruction of the enemy "before its sins grow worse" (6); and to the sacrifice of a nation's men --"our breaths in storm" (8) in this same righteous cause.

Fine. But there's one thing wrong. It does not sound like Owen, does it?

Where else in the poetry or the letters do we find militarism forcibly expressed like this? True he could write

The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,

Is over all the width of Europe whirled

(Nineteen-fourteen)

But that was then. He didn't write in that mode once he'd seen something of war and had begun to think. It didn't take him long to reject the notion that God was in France fighting on the side of the Allies. On the contrary, "Christ is literally in no man's land", he'd decided by May 1917 which was before, in all likelihood, he'd composed this particular sonnet; certainly before he came under Sassoon's influence. Cursing the Hun and preaching vengeance wasn't Owen's style. His imprecations were not directed against those he was fighting but those who, for whatever purpose, had arranged things that way.

To read lines 9-14, the sestet, is to realise that the preceding 1-8 are heavy with irony.

Yet, for men's sakes………..

But not withdrawn……….. (9-11)

"Yet". After the uncompromising assertiveness, qualification, a let-out clause. For whose men's sakes must this great gun (symbol surely for the whole mass of armaments) not be decommissioned once the war is over ("thy spoilure done")? Britain's? Germany's? Without being too positive at this stage, it is tempting to infer men on both or every side. "Malison" (9), French, mal, bad, hardly suggests total approval. "Innocent of enmity" can surely be classed as a good thing.

Already we sense a change of tone, a hint of softness, but then,

Be not withdrawn, dark arm…..(11)

Why, if its effects are evil, not withdraw it? Because it should be kept I readiness? That's possible especially when we read on.

Safe to the bosom of our prosperity (12)

Hang on to it then. We may need to protect our commercial interests.

However, after these seeming twists and turns, in the final couplet Owen declares himself openly.

But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,

May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!. (13-14)

With "spell" we are back to "blasting charm" (4). National prestige sustained by weight of arms has seduced, has cast its spell over mankind down the ages; an illusion Owen explodes in that final devastating line. Only now, when all that can be said on the other side has been said, can the overturn be complete.

Unlike the main body of Owen's war poetry, the "Artillery" sonnet reverts to the language of the past, is consciously poetical, uses such archaisms as "spoilure" and "malison" and Biblical "thee's, thou's and thy's, and personifies this "piece of heavy artillery" in elevated terms.

One last irony. Why, in an essentially anti-war poem, are we left at the end with a picture of God Himself cast in revengeful terms, straight out of the Old Testament?



Spring Offensive

Wilfred Owen's letter home dated 25th April 1917:-

Immediately after I sent my last letter…..we were rushed up into the line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our "A" Company led the attack and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets.

By September 1918 the above had evolved into, arguably, a poetic masterpiece on different (though connected) levels of meaning.

An account of the action, its prologue and aftermath, and the men involved in it.

Events within the context of the natural world.

Events on a supernatural plane.

The six stanzas reflect phases of the offensive:

(1) Scene set. (2) Pause before attack. (3) Tension. (4) Attack. (5) Casualties. (6) Survivors.
Summary

Some of the men halt in the shade of a hill, eating and resting on whatever they can in a careless sleep. Others, though, stand and stare at the blank sky and realize that they have arrived at the end of the world. They watch the May breeze swirling the grass dotted with wasps and flies. Summer has infiltrated their blood like a drug but all they can focus on is the line of grass and the strange sparkling of the sky.

They stand there and look at the field for a long time, and think of the valley beyond full of buttercups and clinging brambles which affixed themselves to their shoes and would not yield. The men stand and breathe until, as a chilling wind, they get the word at which point their bodies and spirits tense up for battle.

It is not a bugle cry or a flag being raised or "clamorous haste" –just a lifting of their heads and their eyes flaring up as if they were looking at a friend with whom the love has been lost. The men rise up and climb over the hill, racing together across the field. Suddenly the sky is on fire against them and little "cups / Opened in thousand for their blood". The green fields seem infinite.

Those who are running and leaping to avoid bullets or face the hot "fury of hell's upsurge" or fall beyond the verge may have been swooped up by God, some say. Those who rush into hell are "outfiending all its fiends and flames" with their own inhuman behavior and their glories and shames. They crawl back out into the cool peaceful air. The speaker wonders why they do not speak of their comrades that "went under".

This poem is one of Owen's most famous works. It features a ten-syllable line with a mixed iambic-trochaic meter as well as irregular rhymes interspersed with couplets. There are juxtapositions between silence and noise, inaction and action, life and death, and peace and war. The tone is measured and solemn. Unlike, say, DULCE ET DECORUM EST in which Owen is personally involved, here he distances himself to achieve objectivity.

The poem begins in a quiet mood, with some soldiers reclining and sleeping while others stand still, restless on this "last hill" and looking out to the horizon. There is a sense of stillness, calm before the storm. Nature is gentle and beneficent here, with the grass swirling in the breeze and the sun warming their bones and oozing into their veins to bring respite from pain. The stillness lasts for hours, and the speaker muses on buttercups and brambles. Anecdotally, this scene is said to have originated from a memory of Owen's; the Owen family was returning from church one Sunday evening before the war and Wilfred saw the buttercup petals on his bother Harold's boots, commenting "Harold's boots are blessed with gold." The men are lulled into calmness in their pastoral scene –they "breathe like trees unstirred".

Even in the first two stanzas, however, there are hints that all is not well. Owen foreshadows the doom that is to come with the fact that this is "the last hill" and that some men cannot sleep. There is a sense of watchfulness and waiting. This waiting comes to an end when the "May breeze" becomes a "cold gust" and the men hear "the little word" that alerts them to the imminent battle. This is not a battle tinged with glory and heraldry, for no instruments, flags, songs, or outburst occur. The battle comes upon them quietly but swiftly; their repose is short-lived. Owen is a master at creating a mood of tension here. The stanza ends with an ominous and bitter comparison of the sun's inability to prevent the coming clash to a friend with whom the love has been lost. This is also a rejection of Nature herself, for men cannot embrace Nature as well as participate in something so directly contradictory to her.

In the fourth stanza the battle comes down on the men with fury as they race up the hill and across the field –the "whole sky burned / With fury against them". Nature's "green slopes" are now chasms and infinite space. The men are bleeding now, with "soft sudden cups / Opened in thousands for their blood". It is a strange image, and one that writer Kenneth Simcox for the Wilfred Owen Association likens possibly to the Eucharist.

In the fifth stanza Owen ventures into more poetic imagery as he depicts the men leaping over "swift unseen bullets" and perhaps being swooped up by God to heaven as they fall over the brink. The inclusion of the phrase "some say" is ambiguous; it could be wry, or it could be musing.

In the final stanza Owen depicts the hell that the soldiers are rushing into. This hell can be literal in that it refers to the enemy's trenches, or it may also be the figurative hell of the underworld. The soldiers there are even more terrible and glorious than the fiends already there, with their "superhuman inhumanities". Finally, the soldiers emerge back into the "peaceful air" but their mouths are silent. They do not speak of their comrades who "went under". Simcox wonders, "Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity of war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought?"

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