The Poems of Wilfred Owen, A Graph Review

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!


Useful links

I sometimes add links to blogs but realised it would also be  useful to have them plus others on a single page.   They will be added to when I get  a round tuit (as they say) and no doubt may fall off over time.  Most will have links to other sites.   This ought to be a page not a post but it is a start.  Also havent yet checked the links work.  (Oh the shame of amateurism versus enthusiasm).  Many offer similar items such as poetical form but always the one you want.  Usually have examples, which is useful

There are thousands of sites and here but a sample………

All UK based (as far as aware)  unless country noted e.g. USA

blackbox manifold               Current poems and poets, online mag.  Uni. Sheffield site.             USA              A site for students and teachers.  Can be useful as a quick double/check on people and terms.      For full service there is a subscription.

Friends of Dymock Poets       Covers an area of beautiful countryside which attracted poets to live and visit, specifically supporting:  Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, John Drinkwater, Robert Frost, Wilfrid Gibson, Edward Thomas

Guardian Poetry page            Regular articles and reviews from this Guardian site.

Ivor Gurney Society               Composer and poet:  often considered a war poet (WW1) but he considered music and song as his priority.

John Clare Society                 John Clare possibly positioned himself as a ‘peasant poet’  for public consumption of the day.  Wrote a huge amount of poetry and natural history notes.   It is now possible to visit Clare’s Cottage in Helpston.

literacyadvisor                        Based in Scotland but a blog that is interesting for teachers, primary plus as information and links that could be useful to all at some time.

literature Wales                      Focused interest, I first looked for inf. on Alun Rees

National Poetry Day             Part of Forward Arts Foundation, see site for full range.

Poetry Book Society              Founded in 1953 by T.S. Eliot and friends

Poetry Foundation                USA:  Putting poetry into American culture.  Publish online poetry magazine.

Poem Hunter                          assumed USA        As it says; good way of finding poets and poems of all description.  Includes audio poems.

poetry pf home page              North London based.  Regular events  and listing of current poets and poems.

Robert Bloomfield Society      poet 1766-1823.  author of  The Farmer’s Boy

Shadow Poetry                         USA:  Another useful site, covering many styles of poetry with examples plus other resources.

The Victorian Web                  a superb site for literature and history et al of the Victorian period

War Poets Association       UK:   A good listing of names and work of War Poets plus relevant events and comments.  Not restricted to  era.   Seems a reasonably new site and likely to be another.  Pleased to see Vernon Scannell listed.

Epithets of war: poems 1965-1969 A Graph Review

Epithets of War, poems 1965-1969

my copy:    Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1969  hardback

A Graph review:  55 with highpoints 65

Some years ago a polymath and poet friend suggested I read   Vernon Scannell.  In those busy days it just went into the back of my mind and got lost in the usual debris of the days.  Years later, picking through old ideas and memories – in jumped vernon Scannell via a secondhand-bookshop.  Now, eventually, I have taken it up.

Scannell won numerous awards for his poetry and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1960.  His experiences as a soldier during WWII played heavily on his life though not purely from the Normandy landing. He seems to have been wayward in many directions, according to the blurb of the book but read of him yourself to grab a hint of his life as you read his poetry.

By sheer coincidence, looking for what is in print, I see that O.U.P. published a biography of Scannell in October, 2013     £25.

Walking Wounded, Vernon Scannell  1922 – 2007

walking Wounded life of Vernon Scannell coverthe life and poetry of Vernon Scannell

by James Andrew Taylor

978 0199603183  buy now via Amazon

‘Walking Wounded’       was the work that brought him to the fore as a war poet.  Other collections covered similar but also other themes.  He was highly praised by the likes of the critic John Carey and poets Stephen Spender and Seamus Heaney as being of ‘War Poets’  status, so perhaps we should raise a small banner in support of the poetry of Vernon Scannell.

The title:  Epithets of War, is the theme of the first five poems and follwed by thirty five others.

The five, as title, cover elements of comment from the 1914 war to WWII as a timeline.  War, or the haunting memories filter specifically through many of the other poems.  All are depictive, straightforward poems with varied subjects that sometimes have an unusual direction though emotions push through forcefully.  Anger, sadness and nostalgia battle it out with touches of wry humour thrown in.  You could say there was no lightness of touch in the humour, no sun breaking the dark clouds but the skill and force of writing carries you through to his own thoughts.  So it seems to me.  There seems no harking back to literary or classical heritage (not obvious to me, at least), just images shadowed with memories of wartime and its aftermath on life, on a maybe volatile but depressive man.

Whether he wrote in emotion or nostalgia, in drink or coolly, his style remains gruff within its own well-founded parameters.  These can truly live within the realm of ‘War Poetry’ but should be allowed to venture a little further into anthologies, maybe even of love, if you dare.

Best liked:     Any Complaints,     Uncle Edwards Affliction,    View from a Deckchair,          A Long Sentence,       Moods of Rain,  Growing Pain

‘A Long Sentence’   might be  an excercise but is interesting for that.

‘Growing Pain’   seems the gentlest of the collection

Using a sombre palette throughout Vernon Scannell shows his merit for the label.  We must remember that this is a genre that is not purely WWI based but now stretches forward to today and hence must stretch back into the past though labels may be soaked in different wines.

Above I have just agreed to one label but in my own head I have him in a corner arguing with D.H. Lawrence and drinking with Dylan Thomas, swapping tales of the boxing ring with Byron and other names on the edge of the circle looking in.  Standing his ground and making his point but wishing he could raise a smile.