Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden.
A Graph Review, 70 with highpoints to 80
First published 1931 by Chatto & Windus.
There’s a romance about this book that clicked into my mind and stoked imagination. Yes, the contents, the memoir of 40 pages filling the book with the life of Wilfred Owen and yes too to the poems as they fill, fade and haunt the reader. The romance is found from the carefully torn edge of the first, leading page of the book. It seems to have been creased and cut with a paper-knife so the name of the owner, or the giver and receiver were carefully removed for the sake of secrecy. Next, is the firmly pencilled word ‘Assonance’ next to a sample poem of Owens developmental style (use of para-rhyme) and on the following page an underlining of a title; Strange Meeting.
Following the annotations, clues, we are moved on to read the poem: From My Diary, July 1914, next we are bidden to read, Exposure, pressed on to Dulce Et Decorum Est. and finally to Spring Offensive. Why not to Strange Meeting, as was highlighted earlier?
Why mention these notes? Purely as part of the fascination of coming across old books and finding such markings. Names of the past, hands that have turned those same pages. Minds that have pondered or maybe scorned. Notes that the earlier reader made for reference or satisfaction. These were no students notes in a textbook, would that they were, there must have been a reason. No matter, just another layer for thought.
Perhaps a key element of the annotation is in the ‘Preface‘ written by Owen as notes for a volume of poetry he was preparing. Some of his words:
‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
………… All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.’
He believed from early teens that he would be a poet and all his life was aimed at learning the art of his own poetry and a commitment to observation and truth. It seems that for the last year of his life he finally had confidence in his ability as a poet which carried him through that last rash of fighting and his death, sadly, so close the end of the War.
Read as comparative style, Julian Grenfell’s, Into Battle: it was written in 1915 and caught the public imagination at the time. JG was from a sporting family, entered the military as a regular (dragoon) several years before the start of WW1; was deployed in India and South Africa before being sent to Flanders soon after the WW1 unfolded and was killed in 1915:
Followed by Owen’s: Spring Offensive (probably written mid 1918).
Grenfell was born a very few years before Owen. Owen had already claimed his vocation was as a poet but believed he needed time and experience to develop his own style (confidence in its quality). Owen started in Artists Regiment and was gazetted to Manchester Regiment and Western Front in 1917. After a spell in hospital (shell-shock) and recuperation in Edinburgh he went back to France and was killed 4 November 1918, right at the end of the war. Before returning to France he had written of his new belief in himself as a poet and his calmness of nerve and resolve for the return to the Front.
This collection will have been read by millions, mulled over by critics and teachers and studied by students of all ages. Lines and words will have been analysed and maybe ripped apart. Owen worked at being a poet, or rather strained at producing what he knew he could. He succeeded. Maybe his observations in a world of less turmoil would have seen a different butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of Keats’ , Shelley’, Tennyson’ and his other favoured poets’ works. But we have what we have, an observant, compassionate and true account of people in war. Poetry whose words are often subjugated by the images they throw into the readers mind. Owen mentions in his writing when younger that he had thought of being a musician, had thought of being an artist but that he had to be a poet. So perhaps no wonder each poem is like a painting and reads like music. The best of his poetry in this collection is an integration of all three arts.
I wrote at the start that there was a romance of annotation, a trail of another’s making to follow in my copy of this book. I mentioned above Julian Grenfell. Previously I have written on collections of other War Poets likeIvor Gurney and Vernon Scannell and recommend the website. War Poets Association.. . I have sampled poems for ‘ Of war and men’ and will no doubt do assorted others. So where is the ‘romance’ in war poetry? It is in the discovery, the sliding between subjects, between the poetry and poets. Between objective and subjective and the slicing in the readers eye of what strikes home.
For Owen, in his own words in his ‘Preface‘ he wished to show ‘the pity of war’. And in truth, he does.
The first poem on this collection is ‘From My Diary, July 1914‘. A gentle yet shimmering poem on early summer. The happy days of play, of youth and promise. A lightness of touch for the gleaming prospect ahead. …..
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.’
To be tipped, headlong into the next poem, ‘The Unreturning‘……..
‘Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled‘
From here-on the war is all-embracing. His eye catches scenes and his pen fails nothing.
Once again I urge you to read this collection, including the memoir and notes by Edmund Blunden. The poems would appear to be in order as written, as far as ascertainable
The poems move on through the collection of verse and sonnets and you cannot help but remember the likes of ‘Shadwell Stair‘, ‘Arms and the Boy‘, ‘Asleep‘, ‘Disabled‘, ‘The Kind Ghosts‘.
The final poem, ‘Strange Meeting‘, with it’s last, short line…. “Let us sleep now……….”
Below is a poem, not really typical of those poems which strike deepest but a sonnet format features throughout the collection, maybe giving elements of internal structure away from his maddened surroundings.
On seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
Spend our resentment, cannon, yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.
Yet, for men’s sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!