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WILFRED OWEN (1893 – 1918)
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18, 1893.
He was teaching languages in Bordeaux, France when war was declared. When he visited a hospital for the wounded, he saw the true horrors of war and decided, in September 1915, to return to England and enlist. “I came out in order to help these boys– directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first” (October 1918).
Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home. He received treatment and went back to war. However, he suffered shell shock, and was sent home to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to recover. There he met Siegfried Sassoon and he wrote “Disabled”, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Winter Song” and many other of his famous poems.
He was fit for duty in August 1918, and returned to the front. On November 4, just seven days before the Armistice, he was caught in a German machine gun attack and killed. He was twenty-five when he died.
The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent’s home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead.
Has poetry distorted our view of World War One? http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/z38rq6f
The Wipers Times: The Funny Side of the War:
Anthem for Doomed Youth
http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/projects/stylistics/topic1b/2anthem.htm – Compare the first and second drafts of the poem
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Dulce et Decorum est
(Word cloud created on Wordle at www.wordle.net )
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
In October 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday…the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!”
While the earliest surviving draft is dated 8th October 1917, a few months later, at Scarborough or Ripon, he revised it.
The title is ironic. The intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.
It comprises four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure.
Stanza 1 sets the scene. The soldiers are limping back from the Front, an appalling picture expressed through simile and metaphor. Such is the men’s wretched condition that they can be compared to old beggars, hags (ugly old women). Yet they were young! Barely awake from lack of sleep, their once smart uniforms resembling sacks, they cannot walk straight as their blood-caked feet try to negotiate the mud. “Blood-shod” seems a dehumanising image – we think of horses shod not men. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. “Distant rest” – what kind of rest? For some the permanent kind? “Coughing” finds an echo later in the poem, while gas shells dropping softly suggests a menace stealthy and devilish. Note how in line 8 the rhythm slackens as a particularly dramatic moment approaches.
In Stanza 2, the action focuses on one man who couldn’t get his gas helmet on in time. Following the officer’s command in line 9, “ecstasy” (of fumbling) seems a strange word until we realise that medically it means a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied solely with one idea. Lines 12-14 consist of a powerful underwater metaphor, with succumbing to poison gas being compared to drowning. “Floundering” is what they’re already doing (in the mud) but here it takes on more gruesome implications as Owen introduces himself into the action through witnessing his comrade dying in agony.
Stanza 3. The aftermath. From straight description Owen looks back from a new perspective in the light of a recurring nightmare. Those haunting flares in stanza 1 foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, dying, “plunges at me” before “my helpless sight”, an image Owen will not forget.
Another aspect again marks Stanza 4. Owen attacks those people at home who uphold the war’s continuance unaware of its realities. If only they might experience Owen’s own “smothering dreams” which replicate in small measure the victim’s sufferings. Those sufferings Owen goes on to describe in sickening detail. The “you” whom he addresses in line 17 can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, the “my friend” identified as Jessie Pope, children’s fiction writer and versifier whose patriotic poems epitomised the glorification of war that Owen so despised. Imagine, he says, the urgency, the panic that causes a dying man to be “flung” into a wagon, the “writhing” that denotes an especially virulent kind of pain. Hell seems close at hand with the curious simile “like a devil’s sick of sin”. Sick in what sense? Physically? Satiated? Then that “jolt”. No gentle stretcher-bearing here but agony intensified. Owen’s imagery is enough to sear the heart and mind. There are echoes everywhere in Owen and with “bitter as the cud”, we are back with “those who die as cattle”. (ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH). “Innocent” tongues? Indeed, though some tongues were anything but innocent in Owen’s opinion. Jessie Pope for one perhaps, his appeal to whom as “my friend” is doubtless ironic, and whose adopted creed, the sweetness and meetness of dying for one’s country he denounces as a lie which children should never be exposed to.
A poem seemingly written at white heat. Harsh, effective in the extreme, yet maybe too negative to rank among Owen’s finest achievements: those poems in which he transcends the scorn and the protest and finds the pity.
Copyright: Kenneth Simcox, 2000
For further information on Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est (and a copy of the poem itself) check out the BBC Bitesize site at http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/poetryowen/
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
-O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
In the first stanza, the poet asks that the dead soldier be moved into the sunlight. Up until now the sun has always woken him and so, if anything can do the trick now, the sun can provide the answer. The second stanza invites the reader to consider the sun’s life-giving properties and whether it can indeed revive the dead soldier. The poet asks if life’s purpose is only meaningless destruction and also questions the validity of the whole Creation.
The first verse describes the sun in pleasantly sentimental terms. Its touch is gentle, it whispers (so as not to startle or offend), it is ‘kind’ and ‘old’ and therefore wise. Similarly, the words associated with the dead soldier are quiet and gentle and arouse pity for his plight. The instruction in the first line – ‘Move him into the sun’ – is qualified by the next word ‘gently’, with its overtones of care and tenderness. ‘Gently’ also describes the sun’s gentle touch, which woke him ‘at home’, where he was safe from harm. It whispers of ‘fields unsown’ – a literal reference perhaps to the farming calendar of a country boy, but more significantly symbolic of the promise of youth that he has not had the opportunity to fulfil. The diction of the whole stanza is tranquil and considerate – very different from the mood of the second stanza.
The first word in the second stanza is again an instruction and invites the reader to ‘Think’ about the fact that all life is dependent on the sun. Then follow the three questions with which the poem ends. Their tone leaves the reader in no doubt about Owen’s meaning. The first question (‘Are limbs…?’) is a cry of disbelief for the young man’s fate. The words emphasise the precious, warm qualities of life in contrast to the harsh fact of death. The second question (‘Was it for this…?’) is short and full of bitterness. ‘(T)he clay grew tall’ is a reference to the climax of the Creation of the world according to the Book of Genesis wherein God fashioned the first human, Adam, out of clay/earth. The third question (‘O what made…?’) expresses the futility of the Creation. Owen is angered beyond measure at the loss of the young man’s life. ‘O’ is an exclamation of protest and despair, and the word ‘fatuous’ exposes the earlier description of ‘the kind old sun’ as a complete sham, and we realise that the last two lines of the first stanza are not serene and gentle at all, but bitterly sarcastic. The effect of the word ‘fatuous’ is heightened by it being the only unusual word in the whole poem. This word apart, the poem owes much of its success to its simple diction: the words are direct, lucid, and sincere; the sentences are simple and short.
[Only five of his poems were published in Wilfred Owen’s lifetime. FUTILITY was one of them. It appeared, together with HOSPITAL BARGE, in “The Nation” on 15th June 1918, shortly after being written – at Ripon probably – although Scarborough is a possibility. At about this time Owen categorised his poems, FUTILITY coming under the heading “Grief”.]
The front line on a bright winter morning. A soldier has recently died though we do not know precisely how or when. Owen appears to have known him and something of his background and he ponders nature’s power to create life, setting it against the futility of extinction.
It takes the form of a short elegiac lyric the length of a sonnet though not structured as one, being divided into seven-line stanzas. Owen uses the sun as a metaphorical framework on which to hang his thoughts.
The sun wakes us (lines 2 & 4), stimulates us to activity (3), holds the key of knowledge (7), gives life to the soil (8), gave life from the beginning, yet (13) in the end the “fatuous” sunbeams are powerless.
“Move him into the sun”. “Move” is an inexact word yet we feel the movement has to be gentle, just as the command has been quietly spoken. (What a contrast with the body “flung” into the wagon in DULCE ET DECORUM EST.) Of course, we may have been influenced by “gently” in line 2 which reinforces the previous impression, while “touch” again not quite an exact word, is surely light, reverent even.
A similar tone characterises line 3 with “whispering”, so soft a sound. “Fields half-sown” (“unknown” in an earlier version) has its literal sense of work on the farm that this man will never now complete, and a metaphorical one as well, suggesting the wider tragedy of life left unfulfilled.
“Even in France” (line 4). No fields here to speak of, no seeds to grow on ground devastated by war. Does the mention of snow startle? Sun, sowing, may have put a different picture in our minds.
“kind old sun” again suggests the softer emotions, “old” being literally true of the sun but again, as used here, a term of affection.
Stanza 1, then, seems tender, almost unchallenging. Stanza 2 is very different.
“Awoke”, “woke”, “rouse”. This poem is about their opposite. In stanza 2, Owen invites us to share his thoughts, and soon a note of bewilderment is struck that becomes near despair. The questions he asks, prompted by the sight of his dead comrade, seem direct and rhetorical at the same time. So much has gone into the making of a man (“so dear achieved”), how can the sun that has done all this in the end do so little? Line 12’s “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” has life, in man, reaching its peak merely to come to nothing, and the poem ends, fittingly, in ambiguity:
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s peace at all?
Why ever did the sun do anything so fatuous is one question, while another is – what was the cause of the sun behaving in this way? Depending whether the stress falls on “what” or “made” in line 13. A clever end to Owen’s set of imponderables.
Notice the simplicity of the diction which together with the use of so many words of one syllable accords with the elegiac, deeply felt mood. Owen is careful, however, to avoid smoothness. The first and last lines of each stanza are shorter than the rest. (Some lines begin with the stress on the first syllable (trochee), some on the second (iamb).) He makes much use of his favourite pararhyme (half rhyme): sun-sown, once-France, seeds-sides, star-stir, tall-toil, snow-now; which also helps to disturb the natural rhythm.
The problem Owen faces in FUTILITY is how to reconcile the miracle of creation with the evil of that creation laid waste, which intimates futility in two senses, first the futility behind the paradox of life made death, and second the futility of trying to find an answer. The bitterness of ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH and DULCE ET DECORUM EST, in FUTILITY gives place to pity.
Literary Criticism of ‘Disabled’
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, –
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands;
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood- smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and may be, too, to please his Meg;
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
(Owen remarks in a letter to Sally Owen (14th October 1917) that he showed this poem to Robert Graves who had come to Craiglockhart to visit Sassoon.)
Owen’s former athlete, both legs and one arm gone, sits in his wheelchair in a hospital convalescent park listening to the shouts of “boys” playing at sunset. He cannot help recalling the excitement of former early evenings in town before the war, back then “before he threw away his knees”.’
‘He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark’
The immediate appearance of ‘dark’, ‘grey’, and ‘shivered’ sets up the isolation of the wounded soldier. It strikes a strong comparison to the warmth of the second stanza.
‘glow-lamps’ and ‘girls glanced’
Both are linked effectively by the use of alliteration.
‘before he threw away his knees’
The implication that this was a needless loss (sacrifice) is reinforced by lines 23-4 where the wounded soldier fails to remember why he joined up, pointing only to a distant sense of duty, and euphoria after the football match.
‘Now he will never feel again how slim/Girls’ waists are’
Showing not only the physical loss of his arm, but also the psychological scars as the soldier knows he will be shunned by women from now on.
‘younger than his youth’
The reversal is total. The implication is that his face is now older than his youth.
‘He’s lost his colour very far from here’
An example of ‘deliberate, intense understatement.
‘spurted from his thigh’
Clearly a parody of sexual ejaculation. Owen uses erotic language at this point but referring to blood instead of semen. The irony being that here we have the loss of life (the soldier loses his limbs, and his senses) as opposed to the creation of life. The sexual imagery plays on the continual point that his injuries, resulting from his enlisting in order to please his girlfriend and other admirers (ll. 25-6), has resulted in him being abhorrent to women.
‘ a bloodsmear down his leg,/After the matches, carried shoulder-high’
Again Owen uses irony effectively here. We are already aware that the soldier has lost an arm and his legs, yet here we are told that before the War he felt proud to have an injury (albeit obtained on the football field), and to be carried shoulder-high (for reasons of celebration as opposed to helplessness). The concept of reversal is again used: sporting hero to cripple, handsome to ‘queer disease’, colour to dark, warmth to cold.
‘a god in kilts’
An indication that the soldier was a member of one of the Scottish regiments (repeated in ll.32-6). This also implies that the soldier joined up for reasons of vanity
A Scottish term for a young woman.
‘Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years’
The sadness of the soldier’s plight is heightened. Clearly he was under-aged when he enlisted and therefore is still young.
‘Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal’
Recalls the image of the football match earlier. L.22 implies that he was carried from the field shoulder-high, possibly as the result of scoring the winning goal. Here, despite having achieved far more, for far greater a loss than a ‘blood- smeared leg’, the crowd’s reception is more hollow
‘do what things the rules consider wise’
The soldier’s passivity is complete. The fine young athlete has been reduced to a state of dependency on others and helplessness (heightened by the pitiful closing repetition of ‘Why don’t they come?’). The stanza has him waiting for others to do things for him, he ‘spends a few sick years’, ‘takes whatever pity’ others choose to offer him; he is passed over by the women’s attentions, as he bemoans the cold and hopes that someone will put him to bed.
‘Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes/Passed from him to the strong men that were whole’
Repeating again the loss of the soldier, this time in his attractiveness to the opposite sex. ‘Whole’ implying that he is incomplete, less than a man. ‘Ironically he is now dependent on young women to put him to bed, in contrast with his pre-war virile manhood when he could expect to take women to bed’.
‘…Why don’t they come’
Dominic Hibberd has noted that this line can be linked to the recuiting poster of 1914, ‘Will they never come?’ Several recruiting posters used the motif of linking sport to the army, and there were numerous recruiting drives at soccer matches.