My subject is War and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity”–Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, beloved son, accomplished poet, and soldier of The Great War, was born 128 years ago, on March 18, 1893 in Oswestry, a Welsh border town, in the county of Shropshire. Readers of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael chronicles, or of her Welsh historical quartet (written under her real name of Edith Pargeter) will probably recognize the area. It’s beautiful country, not far from my own home stomping grounds, rich in history and mysteries of all sorts.
Athough both his parents came from families that had been, at one point, comfortably off, both sides had fallen on hard times, and there’s a sense, in some of the writings about Owen’s youth, and in his biography, that Wilfred, the oldest of four children, felt the sting of that comedown, as the family moved around Shropshire trying to better their circumstances. In 1911, Owen applied for a scholarship position at the University of London, but although scoring well enough for entrance, he failed to hit the mark for financial assistance, and so worked for a few years as an assistant to a local vicar in order to pay for his keep and towards his studies. He took classes in Botany, and subsequently, at the urging of one of his professors, turned his attentions to poetry and English literature. His first attempts at poetry of his own occurred shortly after, when he took a job as a tutor in France, and wrote a small, unpublished, book of poems titled “Minor Poems–In Minor Keys–By a Minor.” (I’ve not seen any of those poems, but many references cite it as an homage to the poetry of one of Owen’s literary heroes, John Keats.)
In 1915, Wilfred Owen returned to England and enlisted, and in June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. In December of that year he was sent to France. Six months later, he was seriously wounded and sent back to England to recuperate.
Owen’s first impressions of the war are, to judge by his letters to his mother, couched in an idealistic vein: “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France.” But this changed in short order, and he was soon writing about the parlous state of the roads, the enormous, outsize, kitbags that men had to carry for miles, and the terrible state of provisions, clothing, footwear, and armaments. Between January and June of 1917, Owen experienced the trauma that informed his later poetry. From the Poetry Foundation article on Owen’s life:
On January 12 occurred the march and attack of poison gas he later reported in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” They marched three miles over a shelled road and three more along a flooded trench, where those who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders, as well as some clothing and equipment, and move ahead on bleeding and freezing feet. They were under machine-gun fire, shelled by heavy explosives throughout the cold march, and were almost unconscious from fatigue when the poison-gas attack occurred.
Another incident that month, in which one of Owen’s men was blown from a ladder in their trench and blinded, forms the basis of “The Sentry.”
In February Owen attended an infantry school at Amiens. On March 19, he was hospitalized for a brain concussion suffered six nights earlier, when he fell into a 15-foot-deep shell hole while searching in the dark for a soldier overcome by fatigue. Blunden dates the writing of Owen’s sonnet “To [My] Friend–With an Identity Disc” to these few days in the hospital.
Throughout April the battalion suffered incredible physical privations caused by the record-breaking cold and snow and by the heavy shelling. For four days and nights Owen and his men remained in an open field in the snow, with no support forces arriving to relieve them and with no chance to change wet, frozen clothes or to sleep: “I kept alive on brandy, the fear of death, and the glorious prospect of the cathedral town just below us, glittering with the morning.”
Three weeks later on April 25 he continued to write his mother of the intense shelling: “For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out.”
One wet night during this time he was blown into the air while he slept. For the next several days he hid in a hole too small for his body, with the body of a friend, now dead, huddled in a similar hole opposite him, and less than six feet away. In these letters to his mother he directed his bitterness not at the enemy but at the people back in England “who might relieve us and will not.”
Finally, a respite, as Owen was shunted round a series of military hospitals in June of 1917, eventually being sent home to Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, the premiere treatment site for what was then known as neurasthenia, which came to be called “shell shock,” but which, in our contemporary parlance, is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Craiglockhart was, in the war years, known as Dottyville, “dotty” being British slang for someone who’s a bit round the bend.)
During his time at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote and published (in The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, for which Owen and Siegfried Sassoon–who was at Craiglockhart for an overlapping time–served as the Editors) the five poems on which his reputation began to stand.
In August 1918, when the doctors running Craiglockhart deemed Owen sufficiently “cured” of his neurasthenia, and in defiance of the efforts of many of his friends, who were trying to get him assigned to a desk job in London, Owen insisted on going back to France, and to the men he felt he’d left behind. I felt some surprise the first time I learned that as a young woman somewhere in the mid 1970s; but almost 50 years on, with some tempering by life and experience (my own and that of others), I feel none at all.
Only a few weeks after Owen’s redeployment, and exactly one week before Armistice Day, Wilfred Owen, who by then had been awarded the Military Cross for his part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Joncourt, was killed in action.
He was 25 years old.
So, what on earth, you’re probably wondering now, does William Butler Yeats have to do with any of this?
In the early 1930s, W.B. Yeats was assigned the task of selecting poetry for and editing, the 1936 edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (not a small undertaking). Notable, even among his often idiosyncratic choices of poetry to include or not, was his decision to exclude from the volume the poets of The Great War–Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Rosenberg–and their comrades who had, in many cases, given their last full measure of devotion during that same war.
What was Yeats’s justification for his decision to reject them? (Emphasis mine):
I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies, but I have substituted Herbert Read’s “The End of a War” written long after. [Note: “The End of a War” is a long poem which was begun during the War, often revised, and finally published in 1933. I can’t find a single instance of its text being available online.]
The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy– for all skill is joyful– but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies…
Crimenutely. It appears to me that Yeats, famously an
obsessor observer, parser, and critic of anything resembling a social, hierarchical, class system, is saying that Owen and the others failed in their duty as poets (and as officers) by lumping themselves in with their men, and by claiming the suffering of their men as their own. They then doubled down on their failure, in their portrayal of the miseries of war, by not providing an uplifting and “enjoyable” (Matthew Arnold’s word) conclusion or coda to their work.
The key paragraph, in Arnold’s 1853 Preface to the edition of his poems from which Empedocles is excluded (and probably the one on which Yeats is relying) is this one:
What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also
following which, Arnold goes on–at considerable length–to explain that his decision to exclude the poem had nothing to do with unfavorable critical reactions to “subjects chosen from distant times and countries.” It is perhaps notable that Empedocles was restored (without comment I believe) in a later edition of Arnold’s poetry, and stayed in print for the rest of the poet’s life. (If you have a JSTOR subscription (a wonderful resource, and a free subscription allows you to read 100 articles a month–more than enough for me)–this article in Victorian Poetry is interesting and points up the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and gaps in Arnold’s reasoning regarding the temporary removal of Empedocles from his oeuvre.)
As for the second of the above highlighted sentences (the one about how “tragedy is a joy to the man who dies”), as the saying goes, “Tell it to the Marines.”
You’d think, with all that said, that Yeats’s spleen might have been adequately vented, but he wasn’t done with Owen yet. In a letter sent later that year (it sounds like, in response to some pushback at the exclusion of Owen from his Oxford edition), he wrote:
My anthology continues to sell and the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum– however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber’s Anthology– he calls poets ‘bards,’ a girl a ‘maid,’ & talks about ‘Titanic wars’). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . .”
So now Yeats is mocking and insulting Owen’s reputation, and criticizing even his choice of words and his poetic diction? And he’s overtly criticizing me? I’ve always been ambivalent about Yeats, not so much because of what he wrote, much of which is sublime, but because of some of his political beliefs which bordered on the fascistic. And today, I’m feeling pretty validated. But what do you think about Yeats’s view of Owen and Owen’s poetry? Was Yeats right, not only about Owen, but about the need to recollect the emotions of subjects like war with the tranquility of time and distance (h/t Wordsworth) before writing one’s heart out? I should perhaps note that if poets like Owen, Rosenberg, Brooke, and a few others had waited for those special moments of insight and joy in their own lives (anagnoresis), they’d have expired long before penning what many see as their greatest works. Not all of us are afforded either the opportunity for tragic heroism, or the flash of understanding that must, by definition, go with it, and many of the best and brightest simply get chewed up in life’s maw long before such revelatory closure is even a glimmer in their eye. (Perhaps there’s a generational component to Yeats’s outpourings. He was in his late 60s while editing the Oxford volume, and just over 70 when it was published.)
Subsequent literary criticism and study has only enhanced Owen’s reputation, as connections to his literary forbear John Keats are noted, particularly in light of Owen’s own experiments with sensous and sensory langunage, alliteration and pararhyme. (Full disclosure: Owen also admired the poetry of W.B. Yeats.) The most notable parallels for me, aside from their ability to paint pictures with words, are that like the poet I revere above all others, Wilfred Owen also suffered from a weak constitution, almost dying of a respiratory infection in 1913 while in France, and the fact that they both died much too soon, at the heartbreakingly sad age of 25. (Owen was the older by about five months at the time of their respective deaths.)
Sixteen poets of the great war are commemorated on a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner. The text encircling their names is from a Preface Wilfred Owen wrote for a collection of his poems that was published posthumously:
“My subject is War and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.”
We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .
There we herded from the blast
Of whizz-bangs, but one found our door at last.
Buffeting eyes and breath, snuffing the candles.
And thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping
And splashing in the flood, deluging muck—
The sentry’s body; then his rifle, handles
Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.
We dredged him up for killed, until he whined
“O sir, my eyes—I’m blind—I’m blind, I’m blind!”
Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids
And said if he could see the least blurred light
He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.
“I can’t,” he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still; but I forgot him there
In posting next for duty, and sending a scout
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and floundering about
To other posts under the shrieking air.
Those other wretches, how they bled and spewed,
And one who would have drowned himself for good,—
I try not to remember these things now.
Let dread hark back for one word only: how
Half-listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,
And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,
Renewed most horribly whenever crumps
Pummelled the roof and slogged the air beneath—
Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
“I see your lights!” But ours had long died out.–Wilfred Owen
Was Yeats right to exclude Wilfred Owen, and other poets of The Great War, from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse for the reasons he (Yeats) gave?
And, because I can never give too many plugs for the film I consider Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement, please take a look, if you’re interested in World War I, and haven’t already done so, at They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s available on blu-ray, and to stream, from Amazon, here.