Nick of Fiction & Ideas recently did a post about imagery in writing, which immediately brought to mind Wilfred Owen. I first encountered his poetry when I was in first-year English in university. Overall, it was a pretty uninspiring class, but Owen stood out. His poems were about World War I, in which he fought, and they’re powerfully evocative. He was killed seven days before the end of the war. His work is now in the public domain, so I thought I’d share my favourites here.
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-heads Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads. Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth, Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death. For this 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
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 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 Pro patria mori.* * Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's homeland – comes from the Roman poet Horace
Anthem for Doomed Youth What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may 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; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Owen’s poems were written after he was hospitalized and diagnosed with neurasthenia, also known as shell shock. It was at that time that he met Siegfried Sassoon, who was a major influence in his writing. The diagnosis of PTSD didn’t exist at the time, but shell shock was essentially the same thing.
Considering the poems along with the PTSD diagnosis, I wonder how much of a role flashbacks played in the vivid sensory element of his poetry. Was writing therapeutic? Dulce et Decorum Est has a particularly strong anti-war message; was it a statement about society’s complicity in traumatizing so men young men?
We humans like to kill each other. Wilfred Owen put words to the horror, but vast, vast numbers of people have been sent to die for their country (or other social group). It’s so stupid, yet we keep doing it. And we expect people who’ve been transplanted into the middle of hell to come back home and just be fine. It’s absurd that governments think it works that way.
It makes you wonder, is humanity essential good? Because when you look back in time, there’s a whole shit ton of ugly to go along with the beautiful.
Anyway, this isn’t really going anywhere. Just some thoughts and some powerful poetry.