by Thomas Larson
Among the youngest and most soul-haunted poets who endured trench warfare during the First World War was Wilfred Owen—a British lieutenant, who died in France in 1918, one week before the Armistice. He was twenty-five. Owen was raised by an evangelical Anglican mother with whom he was abnormally close. She placed her provincial son into the service of a vicar—visiting the poor and sick, which Owen loathed—until he escaped and went to France in 1913. There, his faith began to unravel, declaring to her that “I have murdered my false creed.” War afoot, he returned to England and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles, a British military order, rising quickly to officer. His fighting ability was tragically competent.
In April 1917, assigned a squad at the front, a shell exploded two yards from his head and he was severely concussed. Sent home, confused and shaky, he recuperated by writing. As his biographers note, the war was good for his poetry. His front-forged verse found its edge. He wrote brutal elegies for the lads he commanded and saw shot and with whom, as spirits, he communed. Dozens of men dead, their “unburiable bodies” lay as “expressionless lumps.” Freed from the horrors of gas and bombardment, “their spirit drags no pack, / Their old wounds, save with cold, cannot more ache.”
Such men were, in part, entranced by a three-hundred-year tradition of English Poetry, from Spenser to Sassoon, in which British boys were enchanted by the Romantic concept of the soul—whose life and death was given to love, honor, faith, courage, even the finicky rewards of verse.
While young, we’re all bent by an unrequited love, that swoon which John Keats described as “sweet unrest,” his “soul” yearning for “intoxication.” Such magnetism (opposite or same sex) often possesses spiritual devotion, the one-night stand having little of the hearkening for which the devotional lover yearns. The spirit, with its own ghostlike being, may rule the body and overtake the mind. Especially with poets. If war, not love, is the context, the dying/dead soldier becomes a shadow character, stuck in an idealized state and personifying pure intransigence. Something like this Owen believed.
In a 1913, prewar letter to his sister, Owen is reevaluating his Anglican faith. He writes that he is happy she believes in “spiritual matters” and declares “the finest Christian spirits are those who have direct communication with Powers Unseen, and who are consequently independent of what man can do unto them, either for evil or for good.” Within a few years, those “Powers Unseen”—a kind of powerlessness before God or fate—become his constant foe and companion in the trenches. His verbal imagination will be his “direct communication.” Owen reenacts gas attacks after which the dead soldiers, like the murdered Father-King who haunts Hamlet, bedevil him. They mortar across battlefield and land inside his poems. Their boot-addled spirits, English and German boys, limey and Hun, arise as dead narrators with whom Owen has transcendent dialogue.
Once he is leading a platoon in France, Owen puts his witnessing gift to work. In one poem, “Has Your Soul Sipped?” he notes a “Smile,” “Faint and exceeding small, / On a boy’s murdered mouth. // Though from his throat / The life-tide leaps / There was no threat / On his lips.” The piece begins in typical Owenian irony: “Has your soul sipped / Of the sweetness of all sweets?” The poet’s special vision sees not only what most cannot (the boy is smiling because he’s happy he’s dead) but also a light in the darkness death has brought. This is a land where strewn about are remnants of murdered boys, “Smiling at God.”
Among his creepiest inventions is “The Show.” After dying, a soldier “looked down from a vague height, with Death, / As unremembering how I rose or why.” He sees the battlefield he left behind, “pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues.” Though he says his height is “vague,” it’s actually quite high, for he sees the troops’ movement below as if they’re worms inching along. Opposing sides crawl toward each other, the gray string attacks the brown string; the grays “ate them and were eaten.” In the midst of this vision the acrid smell of war hits him: He’s pushed toward meaning. But the odor and view are overpowering: “I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.” Death falls with him, too. And then, on the ground, Death picks up a worm and reveals the illusion. Death “Showed me its feet, the feet of many men, / And the fresh severed head of it, my head.” How grotesque is the moment of death, how cinematic Owen is in rendering it, how cleverly the “I” of this one dead man discovers his dead “I.”
In other poems, a zombie state befogs many in Owen’s battle-benumbed squad. In “A Terre,” a blinded infantryman imagines, for the reader, his “soul’s a little grief, grappling your chest, / To climb your throat on sobs.” His final wish is this haunting directive: “Carry my crying spirit till it’s weaned / To do without what blood remained these wounds.” Owen half-locks the couplet on the pararhyme of weaned and wounds, suggesting the dead body feeds off the blood, vampirish, until the blood’s gone out. The exsanguinating body of the undead plagues Owen and other infantrymen as well as nourishes the spirit’s awareness of what it has lost.
Owen’s most brilliant bit of eyes wide shut is “Strange Meeting,” in which he enters a tunnel, sees “sleepers” who are “too fast in thought or death to be bestirred,” and realizes he’s entered Hell, a place where the fighting has stopped and “no guns thumped.” There he meets a soldier, a Hun, “With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,” who in a long soliloquy reveals “the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled.” We think the dead man’s warning will revisit their ethnic differences, perhaps a homily about “the cess of war.” But it’s not. It’s about combatants sharing an identical fate. In the last five lines, the “strange friend” reminds Owen of their connection:
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”