The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
The First World War was a great, prolonged, stupid battering war, won in the end by Haig and Foch (with the help of course of the American reinforcements) by a kind of animal toughness, insensitivity, and obstinacy. A beautiful landscape was smashed into mud. People dug themselves into long trenches, and when they were not killing each other lived, in their mud dug-outs, in a kind of stuffy, cosy, troglodyte domesticity. The Austrians put out a feeler for an end in 1917, and a brave liberal English conservative, Lord Lansdowne, put out a similar feeler in England. Nothing came of this; there was obstinate, uneducated hysteria on the English home-front. The war carried on. The Germans in the end retreated, but in good order; their armies were not surrounded and destroyed, there was no fighting on their home territory. The French had had to suppress large-scale mutinies in their armies against the wastefulness and pointlessness of the whole thing. The English poets who fought in that war and survived it, on the Western Front—Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Read—carried away from it, if not actual shell-shock with a disability pension—as Graves did—a trauma, a haunting ghost, which they managed to lay about ten years after the Armistice in 1918 by memorable prose war memoirs: Good-Bye to All That, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Undertones of War, In Retreat. Ford Madox Ford, tougher or shallower, an impressionist artist even in the midst of danger, brought out his striking series of war novels earlier.
Graves, the best English poet to serve in that war (I think so, in spite of the extraordinary power of the best of Owen’s poems), has suppressed from his collected works all his war poems—including an extraordinary one about being thought for twenty-four hours to be dead and going to Hades and being permitted by Persephone to come back again—and Blunden’s war poems are not his best; and Read’s best war poem was written retrospectively some years after it was all over. If the war had ended in 1917, the Dual Monarchy would have remained as a strong buffer state, cosmopolitanly combining many cultures, between the European Easts and Wests; it would not have been broken into many tiny successor-states, each immediately vulnerable to invasion or subversion in a new war; Russia would have become a liberal-democratic monarchy or republic, on the English or French models; the Germans might not have experienced inflation and starvation and acquired a thirst for revanche. Good poets, like Wilfred Owen, might be still alive. But the sinister, deep, obstinate stupidity of human government and human popular feeling pushed the thing to a point where it killed or broke the nerves of many fine poets, and, after Versailles, laid out the European chess-board in a middle position much more suitable, after a nerve-racked interim of twenty years or so—what Robert Graves called “the long week-end”—for an end-game of a much more disastrous sort. The First World War in fact is a monument to human courage, to human stupidity and obstinacy: and to the disastrous, widespread human distaste for any sort of rational compromise. Human intelligence, and the human lust for mobility, had more play in the Second World War; and it seems to have left behind it, after twenty years, a condition of patiently exasperated stalemate which is the most that the ordinary man (hoping that he, and his habits of life, and his children, and their hopes for life, may survive for a time) can rationally expect from international politics. Night by night, with the help of sleeping tablets perhaps, we are swayed to disturbed slumber as on a hammock by the sway of the Balance of Terror.
Yeats saw no poetry in all this obstinate courage and stupidity, or even in the pity it evoked; he left Wilfred Owen out of The Oxford Book of Modern English Verse because he thought “passive suffering” not a proper theme for poetry. In “Easter, 1916,” and its companion poems he got great poetry out of sixteen men being arrested, tried and shot after a potty, and petty, but romantically interesting, nationalist rebellion in Dublin; hundreds and thousands of patient, dumb, obstinate good soldiers dying in the mud and the barbed wire of the Western Front, sometimes smashed by their own covering artillery, did not emotionally interest him. One can gather also from his letters that he had a contempt for Wilfred Owen’s poetic technique. C. Day Lewis’s introduction to this new, scholarly, inclusive edition of Owen’s poems makes it clear that Owen, coming from a just marginally cultivated, lower-middle-class English family, dominated by a Calvinist mother, painfully self-conscious, embarrassingly obsessed by an adolescent adoration for Keats, shy and distant with women and given to a homo-erotic (not homosexual) adoration of brave, handsome, and gifted men like Sassoon, was not in his earlier years of poetry-writing the sort of person one would have expected to become a great poet. He sounds sometimes almost like E.M. Forster’s Leonard Bast: earnestly pursuing culture, and honestly worrying why it doesn’t give him what it is expected to give: as in these early undated notes, given to Mr. Day Lewis by Owen’s surviving brother, the painter Mr. Harold Owen:
Why have so many poets courted death?
Dissatisfaction when visiting some spot of literary or historical association.
The impossibility of seeing the departed hero. Uncertainty of changes in buildings, and landscape.
Mental fatigue accompanying prolonged gazing at objects of art, painting, sculpture.
Same with beauties of Nature—omnipotent sense of transience and temporality.
Perversity of my nature—when alone, a lovely sight makes me long for someone else to enjoy it with me: with some equisite [sic] scene or sound (nightingale) or solemn place….around me, a companion annoys me with lack of feeling, Solemnity, sympathy (yea perception) of my emotion.
When I am reading or studying, I long to be out, up and doing, When out, on holidays, I feel time wasted and crave for a book.
All this is very much Leonard Bast, with his pathos and honesty: with his hitting on the wrong word (in number three of the above notes “omnipotent” should surely be “omnipresent”), and his little stale, old-fashioned literary flourishes (“yea perception”). According to Mr. Day Lewis, Owen’s letters to his mother were always very selfconsciously sympathy-eliciting, his letters to his younger siblings pompously facetious. His prose to the last, perhaps, had the fidgetiness of somebody not adjusted to any ordinary social milieu, breathless, blurting, or (as in a letter to Sassoon when both were at the Craig-Lockhart hospital for shell-shock cases) coyly intrusive. The real wonder is that out of this wriggly self-consciousness, and out of such unpromising lush, coy, derivative beginnings as a poet, so many deeply memorable, universally relevant, plangently impersonal poems should have come. It may be that the authority which was forced on Owen as an officer, his discovery of his own resource and courage, the forcing, by authority, of an impersonal diffusion of his homo-erotic feelings, transferred mysteriously a similar authority, resource, courage, diffused impersonal sympathy to his poems.
I am left wondering still by Mr. Day Lewis’s edition, which includes a number of hitherto unpublished juvenilia and variant versions of more mature poems, of how much in the great poems was a kind of divine luck and how much was a genuinely maturing skill. In a poem called S.I.W., meaning Self-Inflicted Wound, the crucial passage in the British Museum draft is this:
…One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident?—Rifles go off….
Not senoped. No. (Later they found the English ball.)
But Mr. Day Lewis prints in his footnotes a much shorter and simpler version of the poem in conventional rhyming quatrains (“a MS. formerly in the possession of the late Miss Vera Hewland, which is believed to have been destroyed after her death”), in which the equivalent passage is this:
And misses teased the hunger of his brain. His eyes grew scorched with winching, and his hand Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, like sand
From sandbags that have stood three years of rain.
The first passage quoted here is more “organic,” in Sir Herbert Read’s sense, corresponds more in its jerkiness to an actual succession of feelings and perceptions; one is perhaps a little too much aware of the jerkiness; and I am not sure that the more conventional passage, in spite of its Tennysonian movement, is not actually a more skillful and distanced piece of writing. Owen is still, after forty years, a poet hard to judge objectively, because one is still so morally awed by his courage and pity, and so profoundly shocked and distressed by his subject-matter. Mr. Day Lewis rightly points out that only in his use of consonantal end-rhymes (gained/ground: tall/toil) is Owen in any sense a technical innovator, and that it is doubtful whether he had any technical policy in often, in this kind of consonance, following a low-pitched vowel with a higher one: “Poets,” says Mr. Day Lewis, “when they have such urgent things to say as Owen had, seldom attend so consciously to musical detail; the harmonies of the poem, and its discords, are prompted by the meaning rather than imposed upon it.” It seems to me that a much greater poet than Owen, Yeats, had “urgent things to say” in “Easter, 1916 and attended throughout “consciously to musical detail.” Furthermore it seems to me that even in Owen’s greatest poems one can be aware from time to time of a regrettable technical clumsiness, or lack of sureness of taste:
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
The repetition of the syllable or semantic unit “swift,” the half-comic effect of the double-syllable consonance, “tigress,” “progress,” the triteness of the simile, and yet its slight ineptness—it is gazelles that are proverbially swift, but a chime for “progress” was needed—and, above all, the bit of stale Boer War slang, with its odd jaunty effect, “trek,” all strike me as unfortunate. Owen wrote, inspired by stress, some “great poems” but was not, in himself, and without that pressure on him, “a great poet.” Yeats was beastly about him, but Yeats was a “great poet,” and one sees what Yeats meant.
Day Lewis attributes Owen’s flowering partly to the strange combination, in trench warfare, of constant danger with a sort of drab domesticity:
Such outer conditions—a stable background, a routine - governed outer life—have often proved fruitful for the inner lives of poets that we may well attribute the excellence of the First-War Poetry, compared with what was produced in the Second War—a war of movement—partly to the kind of existence these poets were leading: another reason could be, of course, that they were better poets.
A lot of the better English poets of the Second World War managed in one way or another, though of military age, to keep, like Day Lewis himself, out of the army. But one poet, killed at the age of twenty-four in tank-combat in Normandy, Keith Douglas, seems to me just as good a poet as Owen, Blunden, Sassoon, Graves, or any poet of the First World War, and technically a much more accomplished poet than any of these was in his youth. I have a vested interest in saying this, since I helped, with Sir John Waller, to edit and establish a correct text of Keith Douglas’s Collected Poems and also, in 1957, made him the subject of a British Academy Chatterton lecture. But I am glad to find my judgment of Douglas’s poems confirmed by Ted Hughes, the well-known English poet, half my age: he says this of Douglas’s language:
It is a language for the whole mind, at its most wakeful, and in all situations. A utility general-purpose style, as, for instance, Shakespeare’s was, that combines a colloquial prose readiness with poetic breadth, a ritual intensity and music of an exceedingly high order with clear direct feeling, and yet in the end is nothing but casual speech. This is an achievement for which we can be grateful.
This may seem to be pitching it pretty high. Douglas, unlike Owen, was a highly masculine creature, a natural combatant, and the poetry for him was not so much in the pity as in the awareness of the death waiting for him inside his own young strong handsome fighter’s body. Hughes writes:
This was the vision, the unifying generalization that shed the meaning and urgency into all his observations and particulars; not truth is beauty only, but truth kills everybody. The truth of a man is the doomed man in him or his dead body. Poem after poem circles this idea, as if his mind were tethered.
All that is wrong with this description is that it does not allow for Douglas’s chivalry and compunction, which went along with a sense of doom, and a gift of effective violence. Let me quote four stanzas, from one of Douglas’s very best poems, “Vergissmeinicht,” about returning Cairo-wards, in his tank, over the Western desert and coming on the dead body of the German soldier who had nearly stopped his tank with an .88 bullet on the advance west:
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi, Vergissmeinicht
in a copy book gothic script
We see him almost with content
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equip- ment
that’s hard and good when he’s de- cayed.
But she would weep to see to-day
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
The cool, distancing language there—“the swart flies,” “the paper eye,” the neat conceit, fusion, and division, in the last stanza—moves me, I find, in the end more profoundly than Owen’s more direct attacks on my pity. And Douglas’s frank self-pity, his awareness of a death that will rob him of greatness, moves me, too:
And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the ex- pedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collec- tors before.
There was something saintly, perhaps, a kind of hurt holiness, in Owen: hard, human fineness, and no saintliness at all, in Douglas. Yeats would have admired his techniques and liked his personality.
The Dial April 16, 1964