Books 9307-wilfred-owen

Published on September 8th, 2013 | by Alexander Moorhouse


Book Review: The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

War Poetry

I can’t be sure about where you come from, but ask any Canadian about the crossroads between World War I and poetry and their mind should be drawn back to grade school days reciting:


In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Not bad by way of placing you where the poems action happens, but the opening lines are worth reading solely because they force you to go, simultaneously, when the guns were firing and when the soiled fields were simply “marked” by the dead. Which happens to be a fine choice of style because the next few lines are as follows:

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Haunting, and sad, to say the least. But after invoking the dead, McCrae turns what could have been a repudiation of war into a mongering and propagandized tool to further tally the body count:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Lines from the poem actually were printed on posters in order to attract, by way of guilt, young men and women to sign up for the war, or to purchase bonds in support of the effort. It is in this way that the poem fails morally, and doubly so since the last thing the young men at Ypres probably would have wanted was for their brothers and friends back home to join them under the larks. But I wouldn’t have known to say any of this as a kiddie in school, and if my teachers were telling me that reciting these lines every November was the epitome of good taste how would I have known otherwise? At least the ritual instilled in me a sense that poetry didn’t always have to be effeminate, and could deal with serious, if not bloody, subjects.

“If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders…”

But then what of the admonition? If my teachers weren’t going to do it, who’d educate me about the evils and sorrow of war? In the preface to Wilfred Owen’s collected poems he writes, “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Not a bad start, but rarely are people introduced to authors by reading prefaces and the first time an Owen poem came to me it was by way of ear and not by eyes. I was watching a conversation between journalist Christopher Hitchens and Dr. Laurie Patton when Hitchens broke off to recite Owen’s masterpiece “Ducle et decorum est”, which you can, and should, watch here:

That poem broke all previous notions I had of war, and the way in which language can be used to persuade or condemn or ridicule. It also made me question exactly which side of the war-peace fence my educators had actually been on, or had they just not put much thought into it? In any case, Wilfred Owen’s poems are divided into war, much of which he wrote in the 13 month period as he was stationed in the front line, and then everything else. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is one of the better ones and was originally titled “Anthem for Dead Youth”, but doomed sounds better and gives the poem an ominous quality. The stylized change also helps Owen to avoid falling into the distasteful trap of demagoguery that McCrae evidently lept for. The poem is right in simply mourning the pointlessness of the deaths, and then allow the reader to draw his or her own political and ethical conclusions – not to have them forced upon him by the author. Besides, it really shouldn’t be to hard to decipher Owen’s opinion when the poem opens thus:

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.

Wilfred Owen's handwritten draft of Dulce et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen’s handwritten draft of Dulce et Decorum Est

But for all the hatred and trauma he suffered in the throes of war, Owen didn’t take a pacifists stance. In a poem simply titled “Sonnet” Owen describes seeing a new piece of artillery being brought, with much labour, onto the battlefield in order to “Spend our resentment, cannon, –yea, disburse / Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.”. He then goes on to curse the cannon for its dark purpose, but realizes their need of its power to destroy their enemies. The brand new horrors that emerged for humanity to struggle against only decades after Owen’s death probably couldn’t have been imagined by him, ironic in way since the war he was fighting in 1918 either impregnated Europe with totalitarianism or gave birth to it, but his position would have been something like George Orwell’s response to a pacifist which was published in the London Tribune on the 18th of June, 1943:

I’m not a fan for “fighting on the beaches”,

And still less for that “breezy uplands” stuff,

I seldom listen-in to Churchill’s speeches,

But I’d far sooner hear that kind of guff

Than your remark, a year or so ago,

That if the Nazi’s came you’d knuckle under

And peaceably “accept the status quo.”

Maybe you would! But I’ve a right to wonder

Which will sound better in the days to come,

“Blood, toil and sweat” or “Kiss the Nazi’s bum.”

Funny and sarcastic for a guy that was so gruff. But for all the bleakness and cheerlessness, Owen also wrote about love and music. At times he almost echoes Augie March’s thought, “What use was war without also love?” (A question, incidentally, Christopher Hitchens mused may have been the manliest sentiment ever penned.) Anyway, poems like “Storm” and “To Eros” show us that Owen writes as a great-grandfather of homosexual literature, and that the dawn attack on November 4th, 1918, which killed Owen, broke faith in more ways than one with English literary culture. The redemption of his story, if there is one at all, is the fact that in the summer of 1917 Owen met the poet Siegfried Sassoon who then introduced him to Oscar Wilde’s Canadian lover Robbie Ross. Through Ross, Owen met H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and a host of other prominent writers that many literary inclined people wouldn’t mind attending a party with.

Unfortunately, the relative obscurity of Wilfred Owen and his work continued until the sixties, when the moral space for an argument over the benefits of war was re-established, and during his own lifetime he only saw five of his poems published. Which makes the rest of his preface rather prophetic when he writes, “If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders…” Well that right there is a better dismissal of McCrae than I could have ever made.

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