Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472
“Strange Meeting” is a short elegy lamenting a soldier-poet’s participation in World War I, the most cataclysmic event that had occurred up until that period in recorded history. The poem is written in the first person; it can be safely assumed that Wilfred Owen and the narrator are the same person and that this is Owen’s private journey into hell.
Drawing from many trips into the underworld by characters in earlier literature, Owen seems to escape the horrors of the battlefield; he enters a “profound dull tunnel” where the sounds and scenes of the war are not evident. Noticing that he is not alone, Owen probes one of the “sleepers,” awakening one who seems to recognize him and bless him: “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.”
Entering into a discussion with the awakened sleeper, Owen informs him that there is no reason to mourn, since the guns and deaths from the battles above are divorced from their presence. The sleeper replies that even though this is true, he grieves over “the undone years,/ The hopelessness.” The sleeper, too, had been a soldier-poet—in fact, he is Owen’s alter ego, and he realizes the effect he might have had on society if he had not been killed but had been allowed to live and continue writing poetry.
The alter ego holds that World War I, considered at that time as the war to end all wars, is only the beginning of conflicts that will plague men for eternity. The calamity is that “Now men will go content with what we spoiled”; worse yet, if they do not accept conditions, they will simply go to war again, with nationalism dominating human progress. The only slight hope that the alter ego has is that the legacy left behind by the dead might be able to exert influence on the populace “with truths that lie too deep for taint.” Leaders would therefore not be able to falsify the reality of war and would not be able to force war upon society.
The alter ego knows that the true duty of the soldier-poet is to inform the public, and he would have gladly given his all to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately for him (and society), he was killed before he was able to do this. Even if he had not been killed, he is afraid that his sensibilities would have been permanently warped by the horrors of war, because the “Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.”
Owen’s alter ego finally identifies himself, in the last five lines, as the man whom Owen had bayoneted to death the day before. Owen then realizes that he too is dead and is bonded with his alter ego, who closes with “Let us sleep now.” Eternity then begins for Owen.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444
By looking formulaically at the structure of “Strange Meeting,” one can look at the introduction, the body, and the epilogue separately and can trace the devices Owen uses to produce his desired effect.
In the three-line introduction, Owen draws extensively from the traditional dream-vision poetry of the Romantic period, but he also bases this descent on several incidents from his actual experiences. It has been recorded that Owen once spent more than fifty hours trapped in a caved-in dugout with his only companion a mutilated fellow officer. He also had an almost surrealistic experience when he was a young child with his family in a misty Irish wood; he was haunted in his dreams by both experiences. His preoccupation with the terror of being trapped underground or in a “profound tunnel” manifests itself in the entry into the netherworld of the poem.
In the body of the poem, antithesis is evident throughout. The newly initiated dead man (Owen, even though he does not yet realize that he is dead) is rejoicing at being away from the horrors of the battlefield and questioning his alter ego about why he should mourn now that they are safe and “no blood reached there from the upper ground.” The alter ego, conversely, is mourning the lost opportunities to influence society positively through poetic works and language that will educate the public about the futility and folly of war. No sacrifice would have been too great for the alter ego except that of dying and not fulfilling his duty as a poet. He says, “I would have poured my spirit without stint/ But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.” Ironically, the price he had to pay was the only one he was unwilling to pay—death—and he mourns.
The alter ego is also mourning the Pandora’s box that he believes World War I has opened. Using the “tigress” as a metaphor for the world as a jungle and man as the relentless carnivore, the alter ego is imagining a world in which only the strong will survive, by subjugating the weak. He sees no hope for humankind, because the world and progress are retreating from aggression.
Antithesis is also highlighted in the closing lines as the alter ego addresses Owen by saying, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” This juxtaposition of opposites, enemy and friend, transcends the animosity of nations and advocates the universal brotherhood of man. It is ironic that this brotherhood is only recognizable and reconcilable after death; on the battlefield Owen was so committed to killing his “enemy” that he had to frown in concentration to accomplish his task.
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