Anyone who writes even one fine poem is a fine poet—it is that hard to do. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) is clearly the greatest English-language poet of WWI—and probably the greatest of any war. His poetry before the war was juvenile and inconsequential, but the war filled him with pity for the conditions in which his fellow soldiers were called to serve, and with outrage at the insanity of war, itself. It gave him both his subject and the passion to make others see it as he saw it. The result is a handful of fine poems, two of them very great. He died in the last week before the armistice and no one can say what he might have done if he had lived. He would, perhaps, have never reached these poetic heights again, but his friend and fellow poet, Edmund Blunden, believed that his passion for those who have no real voice in society would have made him a continuing force in English literature.
Unfortunately, many poets who have assiduously played the public role of “the poet” have achieved greater fame while accomplishing less. Some of them have received acclaim because of their influence, no matter how meretricious it might have been, some because they were skilled at manipulating the critics and the press, and some because they were, themselves, good press. Owen did what he was called to do: he cared for his men, anguished for them, and poured out his feelings in wonderfully crafted poems in which the poetic devices serve the needs of expression so naturally that there isn’t the slightest hint of artifice.
In December of 1916 he was sent to France. In January of 1917 he was sent to the Western Front. And in November of 1918 he was killed in battle. He was twenty-five. Most of his best work was written in less than one year’s time and under the most appalling conditions that can be imagined.
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way close-narrow,
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray spray-clumps
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp tramp-homeless
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant mock-here, make
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
This is extremely moving. It is impossible to say what the total losses in WWI were, but 10 million killed and 20 million wounded is a reasonable estimate. The poem describes soldiers marching to the trains—covered with garlands of flowers given to them by patriotic women, singing to put a good face on what was a dangerous responsibility, and joking about the flowers as if they were going out on a date—but few of them would come back alive or whole.
Because of the circumstances in which Owens’ poems were written, it isn’t possible to date most of them. He left several slightly different manuscript forms in the hands of friends and members of his family, and he was not able to make the final editorial decisions he would have made if he had lived. One curious thing about this poem is the stanza form, which consists of five lines, the first, third, and fourth being iambic pentameter, and the second and fifth being dimeter. (An iamb is a two-syllable poetic foot with the rhythm [dih-DAH]. Iambic pentameter [penta-five, meter-measure] denotes a line consisting of five iambic feet [dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH][dih-DAH].) The pentameter lines all rhyme here, as do the dimeter lines, so we have the rhyme scheme: ABAAB. (A rhyme scheme is made by assigning A to the first rhyme sound, B to the next, etc. We can combine the line-length in feet with the rhyme scheme into a convenient shorthand notation this way: iambic A5B2AA5B2.)
The first stanza begins with “close, darkening lanes,” and ends with a simile likening the flower-bedecked breasts of the soldiers to those of corpses in coffins. In earlier drafts of the present poem, he had “cattle shed” instead of “siding shed” in the second line, and that may have been intended to play upon the same image we find in the first line of “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?” Suggestions like this cannot be claimed with any certainty, but it’s not unlikely that Owen was drawing on a fount of images that were very real for him. There is a nice oxymoron, a two-word paradox, in “grimly gay,” which emphasizes the uneasy reality of “putting on a brave face,” for the men know the risks and can see no end in sight.
The second stanza characterizes the human observers of the send-off with “dull,” “casual,” and “staring hard.” And then, we switch to the apparatus of the railroad yard. The signals are “unmoved” but they “nodded,” and a lamp “winked.” The mechanics of sending people off to war has become a numbing routine, and the same sort of imagery is used for both the humans and the equipment. This is written in two sentences, one for each part, and it seems to me that the second part must begin with four strong stresses, a complete change in the rhythm: [THEN, UN][-MOVED, SIG][-nals NOD][-ded AND][a LAMP]. Since the signals are said to “nod,” the word “unmoved” must suggest the mechanical absence of emotion. This is the moment of departure, and it is ominous.
In the third stanza, their departure is compared with that of “wrongs hushed-up,” a kind of secret burial, as if there is a sense of shame in sending them off to the unjust and unending war. And the fourth stanza poses the question: how many will return in wild celebration with pealing bells? The answer in the final lines is in stark contrast to that jubilant image, and the movement of the poem slows dramatically: “A few, a few, too few for drums and yells.” “A few, a few, too few” is brilliant, both in the economy of expression—which drives home the point that there will be few to survive—and in the way in which these words measure out the line as if it were a dirge. A lesser poet would have used a phrase instead of repeating the words—perhaps, “merely a few, too few for . . . .” There are no bells, and the returning soldiers’ homecoming is “silent”; the village wells are “still”; and the small hamlets to which they return are remote, “up half-known roads.” They will return as secretly as they were sent off, like wrongs hushed-up.
Owens is famed for his use of assonance, a type of rhyme involving the repetition of vowel sounds, but there is little of it in this poem. There is alliteration–repetition of consonant sounds–in “sang” and “siding-shed” and in “grimly gay” in the first stanza; in “stood staring” and “miss” and “unmoved” in the second; and in “mock” and “meant” in the third; and “beatings” and “bells” and “silent” and “still.” (But “still” and “village,” with repetition of the “ih” sound, is an example of assonance.)
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” is one of the world’s great sonnets. It best regarded as a variant of the Italian sonnet form (ABBA ABBA CDE CDE), although it is written in iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CDCD EFF EGG. At a glance you might think that this is really a variant of the English sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) with an unusual third quatrain, but as you will see, there is a definite volta, a rhetorical “turn,” between the eighth and the ninth lines. Thus, it is divided into a real octave (group of eight lines) and a sestet (group of six lines) in the form characteristic of the Italian sonnet, and the sestet is also divided into two tercets (three-line stanzas) as one would expect.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? passing bells—
Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out the hasty orisons. orisons–prayers
No mockeries now for them; no prayers or bells, mockeries—derisive
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. shires—British counties
What candles can be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; pall—cloth spread
over a coffin
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Conventional funeral ceremonies involve church bells, prayers, candles, a pall over the coffin, and flowers. In the octave, it is the anger of the guns, the rattle of the rifles, and the wailing of the shells that commemorate the soldiers’ deaths. This is the reality: prayers and bells are merely mockeries—hollow shows. In the sestet the soldiers’ deaths are commemorated by genuine signs of grief and loss: the tears of friends (the “holy glimmers of good-byes”), the pallor of the girls who loved them, and the “tenderness of patient minds,” that of their parents. Finally, there is a wonderfully effective image, the drawing down of the blinds in the evening at the homes of the people who have lost a son (or sons!): closure, exclusion, and growing darkness, all brought magically together. I can’t think of any other image in English poetry that is so delicate, subtle, complex, and effective.
One must remember that in these wars bodies were not identified and shipped home as tidily as we now expect. In WWI, “The Great War,” many of the dead lay in the no-man’s land between the lines, blown apart by artillery and shredded by the machine guns that met every sally. Soldiers lived with the smell of putrefaction, death was always imminent, and almost all hope of an end to the horror was gone. This situation led to a distrust of the social and political structures which made it possible, and which continued it, and which even led some people to repudiate all conventional notions of culture. (Dada was one result.) That is why the prayers and bells are “mockeries.” The old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes is simply not true. Owens, in fact, had lost his faith when he worked among the poor in Oxfordshire before the war.
The alliteration of “rapid” and “rattle” is effective, and (t) sounds dominate the first quatrain (group of four lines) with “cattle,” “stuttering,” “rapid,” “rattle,” and “patter,” together with the plosive (explosive) (p) and (b) sounds in “passing,” “bells,” and “patter,” the plosive (d) sound in “die,”and the plosive (g) sound in “anger” and “guns.” These, punch out the words angrily. “Stuttering rifles rapid rattle” may be onomatopoeic, but I think this is secondary to the emotional context the words create when spoken, which is called “expressive mime.” (“Onomatopoeia” is the use of words whose sounds suggest the sounds being referred to, as in Tennyson’s “the murmur of innumerable bees.”) The same sort of thing can be said about the second quatrain with its continuant nasals (m, n) and liquids (l) in “mockeries,” “now,” “them,” “mourning,” “demented,” “bells,” “shrill,” “wailing,” “shells,”and “calling.” Here we also have the plosives in “prayers” and “bells.” The sestet becomes progressively slower, but it remains knitted together with the alliteration of “glimmers” and “good-byes,” “pallor and palls,” and “dusk” and drawing-down.” Because this all fits the context so well, it doesn’t call attention to itself.
“Dulce et Decorum Est” is brutal and shocking in its imagery, but this serves a purpose, for at the end Owen takes aim squarely at the romantic notions of war, and the beginning lines set this up by describing what war is really like. It is extremely effective.
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 disappointed shells 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, panes—gas-masks
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. green—chlorine
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 Dulce, etc.—It is sweet and
Pro patria mori. fitting to die for the Father-land.
There is little to explain here. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, often with an extra, unstressed syllable at the end. C. Day Lewis follows a manuscript in which the last line of the first verse-paragraph is “Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.” In another draft, Owen had “Of gas-shells dropping softly behind,” and this is often chosen by editors—but shells that fall behind would be shells that missed their target, and that conflicts with the following line. Moreover, I am always troubled by the rhythm. The line I have chosen actually came from an even earlier draft. I think it is the best—and Owen might have returned to it if he had lived. “Hanging face” in the last verse-paragraph is an expression that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare: it is an understatement here, since it merely means “distressed,” but Owens is probably using it as a play on words to suggest the face of someone being hanged.
I suspect that this poem combines many memories into a single horrific picture. Chlorine gas was the first poison gas used in warfare, and that accounts for the “green sea” and “drowning” imagery, which is very effective. Chlorine is, of course, terribly corrosive, and the descriptions of the gargling blood and the “froth-corrupted lungs” is probably based on Owens’ own observation, either at the front or from his own time in the hospital among patients who had been gassed. It is not “dulce” (sweet) to die in such a way, as the Latin tag would have it. The short trimeter (three-foot) line at the end is like three blows of a hammer, far more effective than a full pentameter line would have been.
“Inspection” is one of several poems in which Owen expresses his feeling that God seems to show little concern about the unceasing destruction of war. (In one of them, the voice in the poem dreams that Jesus destroys all of the machines of war, but that God is vexed at this and has Michael repair them.)
“You! What d’you mean by this?” I rapped
“You dare come on parade like this?”
“Please, sir, it’s—-“ “’Old yer mouth,” the sergeant snapped.
“I takes ‘is name, sir?”—“Please, and then dismiss.”
Some days “confined to camp” he got,
For being “dirty on parade.”
He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot
Was blood, his own. “Well, blood is dirt,” I said.
“Blood’s dirt,” he laughed, looking away
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
“The world is washing out its stains,” he said.
“It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.”
Owen wrote several poems in British dialects, and the use of dialect for the sergeant creates a class distinction that describes the way things often were. This poem is set in camp, far back from the front, and everyone was expected to be spic and span for parade. The Officer in the poem is probably not Owen, for first-person narratives in poems and prose are seldom autobiographical. He has a soldier confined to camp, which means that he can’t go into town, a rather severe penalty for someone who has been to the front and is supposed to be having rest and recreation. The cause for this was some blood stains on his haversack (as we know from another draft). The allusion to Macbeth in “damnèd spot” should bring the rest of the line to mind, “Out, out . . . .”
The poem’s form is very interesting. It is made up of quatrains rhyming A4B4A5B5, the third and fourth stanzas are joined together into an octet, connected by the fact that they are parts of a single, continued speech, and also by the fact that the last rhyme-sound of the third is the first rhyme-sound of the fourth: “said” and “red.” Terminal assonance is used in the sixth and eighth lines, where “parade” is rhymed with “said.” Although this is still clearly Owen’s voice, it is very much like the poems of his friend Siegfried Sassoon in its bitter, incisive, irony.
“Arms and the Boy” is not only a great poem; it also exhibits Owen’s use of slant rhyme (approximate rhyme/off rhyme) more clearly than any other. Almost everyone who comments on Owen’s poems talks about assonance and consonance, and most of them go on to say a word about its role in Welsh poetry—which is completely irrelevant because Owen was not Welsh and did not live in Wales. It seems clear that he discovered it for himself, and used it because he recognized its possibilities, and because he liked it. In this poem there is no true rhyme, and its place is mostly taken by assonance and by consonance (the use of different vowel sounds in the same framework of consonant sounds). The advantage of slant rhyme to the poet is the fact that it is less prominent than true rhyme like “came” and “same”—assonance, like “came” and “take,” being much less so, and full consonance, like “blade” and “blood,” only a little less so.
Arms and the Boy
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
This is written in four quatrains of iambic pentameter. The first six rhymes in this poem are full consonance (in which the consonant framework is exact), and the last six are consonance. (Another draft had “bullet heads” instead of “bullet leads.”) And it is interesting to note that he says “grief and death” in line eight, rather than “death and grief,” surely because the strong assonance of “grief” and “teeth” would be much closer to true rhyme, and he did not want that). He has chosen the more muted form for the last six lines. The rhymes of the last two lines, especially “heels” and “curls,” draw less attention to themselves as “rhyme” than any of the others.
Alliteration knits together the lines, just as it does in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “Boy,” “bayonet-blade,” “Blood” and “Blue”; “malice,” and “madman’s”; “famishing“ and “flesh,” “blind, “ “blunt” and “bullet”; etc. Assonance is also prominent throughout: “steel” and “keen”; “hunger” and “blood”; “malice,” “madman,” and “flash”; “teeth” and “seem”; “laughing” and “apple”; etc.
The imagery and diction are very inventive, but perfectly suited to what Owen says. Malice is blue. Madness is seen as a flash. The blade is thin in its hunger, in its famishing. The boys teeth seem [made] for laughing, and the laughter is around an apple, two images combined into one, both expressing carefree youth. He has no claws [like a cat], no talons at his heel [like a fighting cock], and no antlers [like a deer]. He is not made to fight, but he can be seduced: let him try [test] the keenness of the blade; let him stroke the bullet-leads.
Note Many of Owen’s poems are widely anthologized. I like “The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen” which was edited by C. Day Lewis. It contains a useful introduction by Lewis and a short biography by Edmund Blunden, as well as juvenilia, notes on variations in the drafts, and photographic copies of various drafts of “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which are fascinating. It was copyrighted in 1963 by Chatto and Windus, Ltd. and is published (at a very reasonable price) by New Directions Paperbook, (NDP210).