Books Monthly September 2014 The Jerry Dowlen Column

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Jerry Dowlen on... Wilfred Owen


 

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) seems to be first among equals of the famous War Poets. Look in any anthology of the best British poetry and you’ll likely find that the soldier-poet Owen is a fixture there. He resides in the English Literature school syllabus, too.

 

Owen’s best-known poems include ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Futility’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. The latter poem starts with its mesmerising description of a dream-like, after-death journey into Hell:

 

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel …

The composer Benjamin Britten incorporated settings of Owen’s verse in his ‘War Requiem’ composed during 1961 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt from the ruins of bomb damage during World War Two.

 

W.B. Yeats wrote that Owen was the WW1 poet of “blood and dirt”. Later, the poet Philip Larkin summarised: “From being indifferent to the war, and the troops fighting it, Owen became deeply concerned. From being an unimpressive and derivative poet, he became an original and unforgettable one.”

 

The big catalyst for this change was Owen’s meeting with Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917. (If you read Pat Barker’s novel ‘Regeneration’ this famous moment is dramatized in her story). Already writing war poetry that was challenging and outspoken in tone, Sassoon became a mentor to the younger Owen, and encouraged him to write realistically of the bleak and appalling experience of trench warfare.

 

In a remarkably short time, Owen’s poetry gained a darker, harsher and more telling realism, albeit displaying deep compassion amidst his outpourings of rage and disgust.

 

                                                                   Futility

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?

 

The critics diverge on classification of Owen beyond the obvious label of War Poet. Was he a Romantic? Was he a Modernist? One thing is certain: he is an accessible, powerful, skilful and historically educational poet of the twentieth-century.

 

The war brought human carnage and economic devastation on a scale that people afterwards could scarcely comprehend. But people instinctively knew that nothing – including literature – remained the same. The old order was gone. Into this void stepped the work of poets like Owen: poets whose warning voices had not necessarily been heard or appreciated during the war itself, but would now command respect for the message that their poetry would send.

 

Tragically, Owen had been killed in action in France just one week before the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

 

Futility, indeed.

 

Jerry Dowlen

August 2014

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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