In "1914" Wilfred Owen in effect compresses the history of Western Civilization into a sonnet. The four seasons of the year become a metaphor for this history, which culminates in the catastrophic "wild Winter" of World War I.
The sonnet form represents something deep within European history, an emblem of art that crosses borders, from Italy to England and beyond. Moreover, the sonnet embodies the literary intelligence that animates mankind and is thus a symbol of the greatness about to be destroyed. Owen uses the basic pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet, although the sestet—the final six lines—is idiosyncratic and ends with a couplet, a move more akin to a Shakespearean sonnet. The overall rhyme scheme is thus ABBAABBA CDDCEE. The meter is, as usual in an English sonnet, iambic pentameter.
In general, Owen's war poetry is bleak and sobering. The old ideas of the glory of war, patriotism, and (as Orwell wrote a generation later) the "catch in the throat when the flag goes by" are negated and deflated. In the octave—the first eight lines of the sonnet—the metaphor of the seasons is introduced, but at first in the limited sense of a somewhat conventional likening of the turbulence of war to a turbulent winter. The alliteration of w sounds in the first two lines is also an onomatopoeia given that it imitates the sound of wind (or perhaps the rush of wind caused by gunfire), including that of "the foul tornado, created at Berlin."
In the context of Owen's verse as a whole, the naming of the German capital is somewhat surprising. Usually the thrust of his poetry is that war is a cruel folly perpetrated against helpless victims. In that sense, it does not matter who started it or who is right or wrong. But here he names the Germans as culprits. The war is also seen as a higher level of catastrophe than mankind has experienced, almost rendered as an end-times phenomenon. This does not become absolutely unequivocal until the sestet, but even in the opening lines we are told that
...Rent or furled
Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling....
Owen specifically identifies art, intellectuality, and emotion as victims of this conflict. This is arguably an original phenomenon in the history of human endeavors. The assumption throughout European history had generally been that war was a normal part of life and that humanity would continue, largely unaffected by it despite the battlefield deaths. War had not been thought to destroy art; in fact, it often had an almost symbiotic relationship with it. If Horace was able to write Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (which Owen was to quote ironically in what became arguably his most famous poem) and Tennyson was able to glorify the Crimean conflict with his "Charge of the Light Brigade," then there was no contradiction between the battlefield and the world of art. In "1914," written in the midst of World War I, Owen sees something different happening: an apocalyptic turning point that nullifies the way humans had conducted themselves with "civility" even when engaged in armed conflict.
It is in the sestet that Owen expands the metaphor of the seasons into one that encompasses European history. Up to this point he has called the war a devastating winter following a "human Autumn," the grain of which now rots. But the entire course of the year is next likened to the stages of development through which Europe has gone since antiquity. "Spring" is to ancient Greece as "Summer" is to the Roman Empire. These two phases of time are thus considered the fruitful periods of Western civilization, and all time since then—up to the present war—has become the autumn harvest, the reaping of what was planted in antiquity. Now this mild autumn is over. The implication is that Europe, in this conflict, is destroying itself, just as it had created itself those millennia ago.
Yet it is not, ironically, a final destruction that Owen predicts. A new Spring is being planned and planted, in which the seed sown will be "human blood." The suggestion is that the current cycle of civilization is now ending, and a new one is beginning. But the suggestion is that this new age will not resemble the previous one, in which
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
If this new age is planted with blood, the fruit it will bear cannot be beneficent.
Even before the Great War began, artists and intellectuals sensed that the Western world was about to unravel. This is the message of works as diverse as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional," and Jack London's Martin Eden. Owen's treatment of this subject is unremittingly grim. In "1914" his imagery uses both the terrifying phenomena of nature—a "wild winter" and its "perishing great darkness"—and the benign life-giving elements of the harvest, forming a harsh juxtaposition of opposites.
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