Wilfred Owen’s most memorable, and often cited, works reveal several characteristic traits. Romantic imagery dominates his work, regardless of whether it is war-inspired. Owen was a passionate disciple of Keats; he made pilgrimages to Keats’s shrines and felt a personal affinity for the great Romantic poet. There is also brutal realism in Owen’s war descriptions. Had Owen not been there himself, the reader might be tempted to believe the verse exaggerated, such is its power. The poetry is also characterized by the sensual glorification of male beauty and bravery, and the hideous waste of wartime slaughter. Such elements have prompted a plentitude of conjecture about Owen’s personal relationships; but the sentiment with which he glorifies male qualities in his early years and the depth with which he expressed his concern for his fellows in his war years are not, in his case, cause for prurient speculation by the psychological critics. The simple fact concerning Owen’s poetry is that he wrote about his comrades in ways that were never offensive and always eloquent.
Innovations and experiments with the potential of language give Owen’s best work a quality that is more of the modernistic than the Edwardian or Georgian temper. In spite of its strength and ferocity, however, there is an equally noticeable fragility. Owen’s earliest extant attempts at poetry (according to Jon Stallworthy, it is probable that his first efforts were burned by his mother at his death, at the poet’s request) reflect a somewhat awkward sentimentalism. He laboriously expresses his adoration for the muse in “To Poesy.” The poem, an odd beginning for one who would later write that he was “not concerned with poetry,” contains a variety of religious, erotic quest images (none very effective) designed to signify the “purer love” of his aesthetic principles. Also noticeable at this time in Owen’s poetic infancy are poems and fragments that either imitate Keats or illustrate his exultant emotions after having visited locales associated with Keats’s life and work. Again, the sentiments are apparent, if hardly laudable artistically, as in “SONNET, written at Teignmouth, on a Pilgrimage to Keats’s House.” Its sestet begins: “Eternally may sad waves wail his death,/ Choke in their grief ’mongst rocks where he has lain.” Still, the young poet shows signs of searching for more sophisticated methods. A revealing fragment from an early manuscript shows that Owen had penciled in lines to attract attention to the interesting effect of half-rhymed words, “tomb, home,” “thou, below,” “spirit, inherit.”
“Dulce et Decorum Est”
The effect that one experiences when turning from Owen’s earlier works to his mature verse is dramatic indeed. “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,” begins “Dulce et Decorum Est,” one of his most often cited depictions of the reality of war. An interesting juxtaposition established at the beginning is that of the simple exhaustion of the troops who “marched asleep . . . lame . . . blind . . . drunk with fatigue,” and the nightmarish, almost surreal atmosphere of the battle, lighted by “haunting flares,” pierced by the “hoots” of artillery fire, and pervaded by the sickening presence of gas. The soldier who has donned his gas mask looks through “misty panes” at thick green light, as if submerged in a “green sea.” The nightmare is unrelieved by the passage of battle as the persona sees “in all my dreams,” without relief, a comrade who was unable to survive the attack, who lurches grotesquely, “guttering, choking, drowning.”
After witnessing these events, the reader is drawn more intimately into the scene, as the persona uses the second person, asking...
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