In Wilfred Owen's poems like "Greater Love" and "Apologia," do you feel like Owen explores any positive virtues associated with combat?
Wilfred Owen was a British war poet famed for his vivid and visceral verses about the atrocities of World War I. For a span of twenty-one months, from January 1917 until his death on the frontlines in November 1918, Owens served as a solider on the Western Front, but it was during this short period that Owen penned some of the most moving proclamations about the Great War. His poetic imagery is graphic, often detailing the physical carnage and destruction of battle, and he uses his words to not only provide a realistic snapshot of the battlefield, but challenge the notion of “just” warfare. Yet, while Owen uses his candid imagery to capture the bloodshed and gore of World War I, nearly all of his works uphold an inseparable theme of camaraderie between soldiers on the front lines. His poems tell the tale of sacrifice and love between the men serving in the war, and he glorifies the brotherly bond of his fellow soldiers, often calling on the memories of his fallen friends, as in “Wild With All Regrets.”
Therefore, in “Greater Love” and “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” both poems that capture the horrors of combat and the subsequent mutilation of the human body, Owen explores the positive virtues of camaraderie through tropes of honor and brotherly love. First and foremost, the title of “Greater Love” is a biblical allusion to John 15:13, which states, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Owen begins his poem with the concept of noble sacrifice and aligns it with the bond between men on the battlefield, and he does this by juxtaposing the love of a woman with the love between soldiers. The poem begins:
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure. (1-4)
The poem opens with a simile comparing an unidentified woman’s lips to the blood-stained stones of the battlefields. On one level, the grotesque image is intended to be a sensational depiction of reality, but on a deeper level, the simile uses an iconic image of beauty (“Red lips”) to represent the dead English soldiers. This suggests Owens is trying to find beauty in the notion that the fallen men served with honor and dignity. This is supported in lines three and four. For Owen, the love of a woman, the “kindness of wooed and wooer,” cannot compete with the selfless, “pure” love between soldiers.
“Greater Love” is in fact a poem that contrasts the heteronormative love between man and woman with the brotherly love between soldiers in battle. Stanza two again addresses the unidentified woman, stating, “Your slender attitude / Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed” (7-8). The simile again pairs two unlike things together: attitude and severed limbs. Yet, the diction of “not exquisite” suggests that Owen is again glorifying the sacrifice made by the soldiers. To Owen, the woman is not as beautiful as the honor of fallen men. Similarly, the poem concludes with an anthropomorphism addressing the heart: “Heart, you were never hot / Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot” (19-20). This simile conveys the idea that nothing compares to the hearts of men serving on the battlefield, again upholding Owen's theme of camaraderie.
In “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” a similar stance on camaraderie and brotherly love is found amongst the vivid imagery of the battlefield. Again, Owen places more value on the love shared between soldiers than any other forms of conventional love. The persona delivers the following lines:
I have made fellowships, -
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long. (17-20)
The stanza begins with an acknowledgment of the friendships the solider has made on the battlefield, but then a litotes, a literary device used to emphasize a point by denying the opposite, is used to say what “love is not.” The persona states, “For love is not the binding of fair lips,” suggesting that true and pure love is not the attraction between a heteronormative couple, but rather a sacred and honored bond between comrades. This idea is later supported with the alliteration of “But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong” (22), which metaphorically says men are bound together with “war’s hard wire,” emphasizing the strength and durability of the bond.
Thus, in both “Greater Love” and ““Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” Owens combats the brutal carnage of wartime destruction with threads of honor for the bond shared between fellow soldiers. He relies on similes and metaphors to compare traditional notions of love with battlefield camaraderie, and he uses contrasting diction, such as “exquisite,” “dear,” “merry,” and “great,” to describe seemingly awful images of slaughter. This, in fact, paints the fighting soldiers in a glorified light, despite being surrounded by the chaos and atrocities of World War I.