What does Edwina Burness argue about the influence of Wilfred Owen's poem "Strange Meeting" on a poem by Robert Service titled "Bonehead Bill"?

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In an essay published in 1985, Edwina Burness argued that Wilfred Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting” was a significant influence on a poem by Robert Service titled “Bonehead Bill.” She noted that both men had been involved, in one way or another, in World War I – Owen on the battlefield, and Service in the Red Cross. She contended that the poetry of both men had been powerfully affected by their experiences of the war.

Burness noted that Service’s poem “Bonehead Bill” resembles Owen’s “Strange Meeting” in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • its emphasis on an English soldier considering the death of the German soldier he has recently killed
  • its depiction of a meeting between killer and killed

On the other hand, Burness additionally argued that the obvious similarities between the two poems also call attention to their significant differences, which include the following:

  • Service’s speaker has a pronounced Cockney accent
  • in the original version of Owen’s poem (which Service may have read) the location is not definitely hell, although in Service’s poem the location is definitely heaven (but it is a heaven imagined in the speaker’s dream)
  • the ending of Service’s poem is apparently more optimistic than the ending of Owen’s

In her concluding paragraph, Burness suggests that

It would seem that Robert Service, in borrowing for his poem written after the Great War elements from "Strange Meeting," is allowing for a darker reading of what on first sight might appear a trite, even ludicrous piece. For Owen and his personae, the last image is of oblivion and death "Let us sleep now" (p. 55); for Service and Bill there is no escape--they are left with the fact of others having died and themselves going on living.

Burness, Edwina. "Service's 'Bonehead Bill' and Owen's 'Strange Meeting.'." Explicator 43.3 (Spring 1985): 24-26.

Read the study guide:
Strange Meeting

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