In a few weeks, I am driving my father to Paris for a couple of days, and on the way we’ll be spending a morning wandering the site of the Battle of the Somme. Inhaling the death, enjoying the atmosphere, musing on tragedy distant from ourselves. Not that distant, but distant, the generation of men who died in the trenches being those marginally older than my father’s grandfather. My grandfather, who is still alive, a sprightly nonogenarian, was born in 1919 (I think), but to young parents, non-combatants, as far as I know. I don’t know much about this, to be honest, but I’m sure I will by the end of November. ANYWAY, I thought it would be appropriate to do a bit of research before making the trip, so bought myself a book of some Wilfred Owen poems, famously the best/most trench-dead of all the World War One poets.
Wilfred Owen was friends with the others, with Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon – there was a community of them, they exchanged letters and referenced each other, and sat about in hospitals, tents and/or the trenches discussing verse and comparing lyric. But as an individual, Owen is important for one simple reason: he didn’t make it out of the war alive.
Was Owen a good poet? No, not really. The juvenilia in this collection is dull, pointless, florid, 19th-century stuff. In his love of form, his use of (in places) quite hackneyed phrasing and imagery, Owen makes it very clear that he would be forgotten as a poet if he had died either in the first weeks of the war, or if the war had never happened. He was a traditionalist, he liked poetry that felt old, ideas that felt old, but he was lucky enough (to his legacy, though not to his life) to be in the right place at the right time. Because what he sees in Northern France and Belgium utterly changes him as a poet. He records, he explores and he reminisces. He writes his poems of horror and death and suicide and the empty, pointlessness of war, of it serving no purpose but bolstering the egos of fat, old, bald, men in offices far away, he writes of darkness and bones and illness and depression and bleak, bleak, blackness… he writes these poems within the creaky frames of the stylistic forms of a dead century, anachronistic even by his own time. His words, when they describe the awful sights he has seen, elevate this awful verse into the poetry that it is – it is a poetry of protest and expression and description, albeit limited by form.
What would have been the end of Owen’s development as a poet, I’m sure, would have been his realisation that the order he was attempting to place upon his words was false, that free verse was essential to describe the world he was living in. But he didn’t reach this point, instead he died, leaving a slim volume of works, some of which are truly harrowing, deeply moving or just plain fucking wise.
When he wrote about what he saw and felt, and what the men around him had seen and felt, he wrote with aplomb, true aplomb. But his rigid sticking to metre and rhyme structure often gives his words an age that they do not have. These could have been written (had the Great War occurred then) a hundred years earlier. His form reflects the stoic, traditional, irrelevant manner of thought and expression that the trenches truly destroyed. He had to die, because he was not suited to the world heralded by the end of the war.
A very important collection of poems, and there’s never been a more apposite month to read them.
For me (look them up online), the highlights were: ‘Happiness’, ‘Greater Love’, ‘The Dead-Beat’, ‘The Next War’, ‘Disabled’, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (obviously), ‘Inspection’, ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’, ‘Wild with All Regrets’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Miners’, ‘The Last Laugh’, ‘Insensibility’, ‘Exposure’, ‘The Show’, ‘S.I.W.’, ‘The Send Off’ and ‘The Sentry’.