Strange Meeting

by Wilfred Owen

Start Free Trial

What is the relationship between the two speakers in "Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen?

Quick answer:

The relationship between the two speakers in “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen is cordial, despite the fact that the main speaker is responsible for the other's death. This is because they both now share the same fate, which makes it possible for them to find the kind of reconciliation they could never achieve in their mortal lives.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The first speaker in Wilfred Owen's poem "Strange Meeting" finds himself escaping from battle down "some profound dull tunnel" (line 2). He does not realize at first that he is dead, but he sees "encumbered sleepers" (line 4) and hears their groans. Most of them do not wake when the speaker probes them, but one springs up at once. Why does this particular sleeper arise at the speaker's touch? Why is there recognition in his eyes when he looks at the speaker? Why is there a "dead smile" on his face? We don't find out right away.

Instead, we listen in on a monologue from the sleeper, who becomes the second speaker. With his face "grained" by "a thousand fears" (line 11), he speaks of "the undone years" (line 15), all the opportunities that death has taken from him, and the "hopelessness" (line 16) that now fills him. He tells the first speaker that once, in life, they had shared the same hope. He, too, had hunted beauty in the world. He, too, had left behind him "truth untold" (line 24). He, too, had lived the life of war that both speakers now leave to others. He had once had courage and mystery and wisdom and mastery. He had once dreamed of washing away the blood of war, pouring his spirit into healing the world. But it was not to be.

Why? What happened to the second speaker that brought him to the dark place in which he now lies? He explains, "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" (line 40). He was the soldier on the other side of the battle line. He stood opposite the first speaker. He recognizes his killer immediately. "I knew you in this dark," he says, "for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed" (lines 41–42). He tried to fight back, but death took him too quickly. Yet the second speaker holds no grudge. He ends his speech is a calm invitation: "Let us sleep now" (line 44).

In this poem, then, Owen, himself a World War I soldier, reflects on the nature of enemies. Those he fought against, he implies, were not so different from him. They lived and dreamed and hoped and suffered the same, even though they were on the other side of the war.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Unbeknownst to the main speaker, he has just met, amidst all the other sullen shades of Hell, the German soldier he killed in World War I. There is a natural and immediate rapport between the two men, despite the fact that they were on opposite sides in the war and despite the fact that the main speaker was responsible for the German's death.

This is because all the deep, bitter divisions that characterized their mortal lives have no purchase in the infernal kingdom down below. Here, there is only a shared sense of solidarity, a shared sense of grief at the waste and futility of the conflict that they have left behind. United by the hopeless that they both feel, the speaker and the man he killed are able to develop the kind of bond that would never have been possible in wartime.

It says a lot about the horrors of war that such reconciliation can only take place in Hell, somewhere we normally associate with death, pain, and endless suffering. Yet in actual fact, the men have left behind an even worse Hell: the Hell above ground, the Hell of the trenches, where men on opposite sides cannot be anything other than the bitterest of enemies.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The conversation between the two poet-soldiers is one that is of particular interest in Owen's poetry, as he seems to have created a kind of alter-ego that allows him to communicate his thoughts and feelings about war and how terrible it is. By picking two "common men" who act as his mouthpiece, Owen is able to comment upon the futility of war and the way that there will always be men, who, in spite of the futility of war, endeavour to go "Into vain citadels that are not walled." As the tragic ending of this poem shows, the cost of such attempts will be paid well and truly by the common soldier who ends up being a pawn in the game that more important people play for conquest and territory.

The way in which the two soldiers remain anonymous in this poem yet manage to form a friendship and a bond in spite of being on different sides makes this poem a poignant elegy for the many dead soldiers who gave their lives for a conflict that was meaningless to so many of them. Through their relationship, Owen seems to be suggesting that war is something that is little more than two strangers who could be friends killing each other. In their death, the two characters of this poem achieve the unity and friendship that they were denied during their lives:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...'

Through showing this relationship and the cost of war in very real and human terms, Owen is hoping to prevent further wars in the future.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial