Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1247
For Wilfred Owen, born and brought up in the Housman country of Shropshire and Shrewsbury, reader of Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne, a young poet devoted to boyish “loneliness” and the aesthetic cult of Beauty, wounded March 19, 1917, again on May 1, and killed in action November 4, 1918, Beauty...
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For Wilfred Owen, born and brought up in the Housman country of Shropshire and Shrewsbury, reader of Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne, a young poet devoted to boyish “loneliness” and the aesthetic cult of Beauty, wounded March 19, 1917, again on May 1, and killed in action November 4, 1918, Beauty was no escape. The horrors of war, in Owen’s hands, were transfigured in poems into a terrible beauty.
The war itself did not make Owen a poet, but it did mature his poems, as if overnight; too, the war never completely dissolved his early yearning for a misty, aesthetic Beauty. But the war transformed that Beauty from a literary dream to a stark necessity, held to in the face of the horrors recorded so bluntly, spat out, the devastating “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Owen, who published only three poems during his short lifetime, could find cause for elation, within two months of his death, at being accepted “as a peer” by the generally innocuous Georgian poets, those purveyors of sentiment and pictures of the English countryside. But his poetry had before them moved sharply away from both the literary aestheticism of his youth and the either jingoistic or merely homesick poesy which had been the first two reactions to the war which, begun in August, 1914, was to be “over by Christmas.”
Just before the outbreak of war, Owen could write in his diary poems about wind murmuring in the leaves and birds singing. Such evidence of a boy’s experiments with sound and celebration of youth and a pastoral setting is obviously a young man’s conception of poetry, based not on any real experience but probably on an immature reading of Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne. His last known poem, “Smile, Smile, Smile,” starkly illustrates how daydreams have turned into nightmares, the disingenuous into the ironic, aestheticism into social protest, beauty and truth into a deeply-felt pity which, while expressed with mature artistic detachment, is nonetheless a product of personal pain, fear, and moral outrage. The soldiers read the home-town paper and think of buying homes after the war. The poem also describes the stupid, callous, mawkish sentiment and blindness of the Home Front.
Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenburg, and Owen were the first poets to take another look at the war which had at first been regarded as a kind of sacred crusade. In his study of Owen, D. S. R. Welland writes of how, by about 1915, the emphasis in the anthologies of “war poetry” had shifted righteous nature of the crusade to the knightly crusader. The latter response merely replaced national glorification with self-pity, or, at best, evocations of better times in England. Obviously, neither reaction produced much in the way of an honest, fully human poetry. The old ways died hard.
The third reaction was one of protest, and Sassoon, perhaps, or Rosenburg, was most biting in satirical attack. Sassoon met Owen in a hospital in England, and Owen’s mature war poetry dates, roughly, from their long discussions (though to say that Sassoon “made” Owen a poet is a vast distortion). Owen, however, expressed his protest not so much satirically as through a mixture of sarcasm, ironic detachment, and, most importantly, of pity. His verse loses the old melodiousness of the “Celtic twilight,” and becomes hard, direct, colloquial, strongly cadenced. In this respect he was not different than the other poets of the war. In Owen, however, pity for the “poor wretches” is dominant both over pity for himself (of which there is absolutely none) and satiric protest at the perpetrated outrage of war, or the naive, even criminal stupidities mouthed at home. And the pity is rooted not in condescension or gratuitous superiority, but in a profound awareness of human fellowship and fellow-suffering.
In “Strange Meeting” the poet meets an enemy he had killed. They meet in Hell, where he had fled to escape the terror of battle in a dream-vision. They must find fellowship in Hell itself, for Earth has become worse. The German is not a fiend, a killer who delights in atrocities and is devoted to crushing freedom and the British Empire, but a man who, like the poet, dreamed and hoped. Neither the dead nor the living indulges in self-pity. The “enemy” refers to the pity the war has distilled, but by “pity” the poet means not for self, but for his fellows, for humanity itself. Indeed, Owen develops finally a viewpoint which is largely characteristic of the poetry of World War II: a poetry not so much of protest but of a recognition of how, in the horror of battle, human fellowship is starkly, and of necessity, thrown into sharp relief. Enforced murder breeds, at last, a kind of gentleness.
Poems like “Apologia pro Poemate Mea” must be understood in this context. Death becomes a joke, and the men laugh in its face, not out of false bravado, but out of a sense of a new awareness of life, death, and fellowship. What seems bravado is, instead, an honest account of actual human response to a living, absurd hell. The death-bound comradeship, both pitiable and defiant of battle comrades, is a theme on which Owen probes the paroxysm of war more deeply and poignantly than any protest alone could. It is the core of his achievement, and his frequently quoted statement that he was not concerned with “Poetry” must be understood in terms of this attitude. Poetry, here, suggests the old illusions, the old “literary” aestheticism, poesy of birds and Greek goddesses and pastoral landscapes. To a large extent it refers to Owen’s own youthful effusions and illusions. Now the poetry is in such matters as pity and protest.
In the matter of style, it should be noted that Owen’s development away from the vague, vaporous, and pseudo-Keatsian effusions of his youth, his development of a style which is abrupt, chiseled, and colloquially dramatic, corresponds to a general drift in the poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Parallel developments occur in the poetry of Yeats, and T. E. Hulme (who also was killed in the war). Pater and Pound had called for a more objective, “harder” or “classical” poetry, and this development may be traced in Imagism or, better, in Yeats and Eliot. In Yeats, the line of development is clear from the softly sensuous and evocative “symbolism” of his early poem to the harder and more genuinely symbolic and dramatic specimens of THE GREEN HELMET AND OTHER POEMS, published in 1910.
But Wilfred Owen, until he met Sassoon in 1917, had had no important contact with the literary world, and his development of terse, “hard” idiom must have been only a natural and necessary way of expressing, without illusions, lies, evasion, and the stark and monumentally un-"Poetic” reality of war.
Owen’s experiments with slant and internal rhyme, with nonmetrical cadences and compressions like that of “blood-shod,” are significant steps toward a poetry which moves away from the more regular and traditionally “poetic” work of the previous two centuries. Owen influenced, in this respect, later poets like Auden, C. Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice. But it is his individual and searing exposure of both the horror and the pity of war that provides Owen a lasting niche in the history of English poetry. A world changed during his short lifetime. His ability to change with it, and to record the old world’s dying anguish, is his unique and memorable achievement.