Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468
“Strange Meeting” is probably Owen’s most celebrated poem. He may have taken his title from a line in The Revolt of Islam (1818), a poem by the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In Shelley’s poem, two warriors are reconciled in life, but Owen’s poem is more pessimistic: His soldiers can become friends only after both have died and are no longer fighting for their respective countries, England and Germany. Owen implies that as long as men and women live, they will fight wars.
The tunnel down which the speaker escapes in the first stanza could be a trench, the speaker’s unconscious, or the classical underworld, where people were supposedly sent after death. Owen describes this tunnel as having been “scooped” by many wars to indicate that what he has to say in this poem applies to wars throughout the ages, not merely to World War I. People have always realized too late that the so-called enemy was really a friend, no matter how strange or foreign that enemy may have seemed at first. Owen’s use of off-rhymes emphasizes the digging pain of war (“groined” and “groaned”) and forces readers to see the lines that death etches into human faces (“grained” and “ground”). At the same time, the fact that these words almost rhyme suggests that these sworn enemies are really very much alike in their vulnerability to pain and in their shared mortality.
The speaker realizes that he and his enemy shared the same hopes while alive and that each was, in a sense, the other’s hope: Each might have made the other man laugh in fellowship; each might have done something, if he had lived, to make the world a better place for others. Perhaps most important, each might have told others about the truth of war, about how unglorious and merely wasteful death is. Instead, both men are now dead, and the truth about war will die with them. The ignorant people back home who do not realize the true horror of war will only continue the meaningless fighting. They will be quick to act, but quick in the sense of rash and fierce, like a mindless animal “swift with swiftness of the tigress.” They will go looking for grand adventure, but by going to war they will make a journey back into barbarism, a “trek from progress.”
The poem ends with the strange friend suggesting that he and the speaker, now that they have fought and killed each other, should now go to sleep. At least in death, they are at peace. Fortunately, the truth about the horror of war does not have to die with them. Owen’s poem conveys it and suggests that readers take pity on other people and on themselves—before it is too late.