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 …
The Dial April 16, 1964