War Poetry: The Pity of War

A text-context analysis of Wilfred Owen’s works.


War Poetry in general, can be identified as the collection of poems written under direct or indirect influence of war, or at large, any work of poetry dedicated to the subject of war. Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) considered one of the greatest of the war poets in the English language wrote his poems under the influence of the Great War of 1914 – 1918. Unlike earlier war poets like Rupert Brooke who glorified the cause of war, Wilfred Owen wrote about the “pity of war”. On the subject of War Poetry or rather the “pity of war”, Wilfred Owen’s half-finished preface can be taken into analysis…

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.

Inspired deeply by the poetry of Keats and Shelly, Wilfred Owen dreamed of becoming a poet from an early age. He stayed in France as a private tutor during the outbreak of the war in 1914. Being far removed from the battlefield, he did not feel the urge to enlist. However, pursued constantly by the political propagandas and the copies of the Daily Mail sent by his mother, he finally decided to enroll in 1915. Owen served as a second lieutenant in the Second Battalion Manchester Regiment and saw plenty of action in the trenches. He wrote to his mother in a letter, “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last four days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’ s Land.
We had a march of 3 miles over the shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded

trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was course of dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water…”

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and “Strange Meeting” are two important poems that are bathed in the realties and absurdities of war.

Owen presents his “Dulce Et Decorum Est” which is one of his most popularly celebrated work portrays the extreme terror that haunted the soldiers who fought in the front. Here, the old idea of honour and glory in battle had been completely abandoned as he presents the soldiers’ pathetic living conditions in the trenches. The elements of horror in fact, can be felt from its famous opening lines…

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Trench warfare had been adapted during the Great War and troops on both sides dug trenches extending to hundreds of miles. Owen lived his nightmare in these trenches where they were constantly under heavy machine gun fires and shell explosions. The trenches were half-filled with slush restricting free movement and at night, as they trudged back towards their distant rest, were still haunted by enemy flares and sounds of heavy artillery. The soldiers were wounded, sick, and exhausted. The following lines describe their reaction as the Five-Nines (gas shells) dropped behind them.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

The Germans had introduced the use of poison gas on enemy troops and so, when attacked, they were required to wear protective masks. Upon the failure of one soldier to wear his helmet (gas mask), Owen watches helplessly the horrifying struggle for life, which kept haunting him in his dreams as such –

But someone was still 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, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

The poet tells his readers to imagine what it was like to witness such horror. He presents a disturbing image of how the poison gas had affected the young soldier. The poet now filled with compassion towards the suffering victim, sets out to inculpate the old theories of heroism. He derides the age-old belief of war being an act of valour and patriotism and instead voiced his thoughts on the futility of war.

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.

Here, the use of the Latin words ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, taken from Horace (Odes 3.2.13) is to contrast between the old beliefs and the new realities. He mocks the term as ‘The old Lie’, and its literal translation being “It is sweet and meet (decorous) to die for one’s country.” He makes an asserting challenge to the basic view at and before the beginning of the war. Owen himself suffered from many injuries at the front, both physical and psychological. Driven by his feeling of pity towards the suffering of the soldiers and anger towards the people in England who could but would not choose to relieve them, wrote his poetry not on a personal note but from the viewpoint of the soldiers and felt an ever lasting duty to tell their stories.

Shortly, Owen was diagnosed with symptoms of shell shock and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburg where he met Siegfried Sassoon. His stay in Craiglockhart hospital marked the most important year of his poetic career. By the time they met, Sassoon had already published his first volume of poetry, The Old Huntsman (1917), protesting against the war. Owen soon befriended Sassoon who helped him immensely in developing his poems. He attained his psychological and poetic maturity during this period, and his earlier poems like “Dulce Et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” paved way to his fully matured poems such as “Strange Meeting”.

Despite their urge to return to England and protest against the continuation of war, they felt more inclined towards their comrades and instead returned to the front. Sassoon wounded for the second time was sent back home while Owen remained with his men to the last of his days. On November 4, 1918, precisely a week before the Armistice, Wilfred Owen was killed in action while encouraging his troops to cross a river in the Sambre Canal on the Western Front.

The poem “Strange Meeting” marks Owen becoming a great poet. T.S. Eliot referred to “Strange Meeting” as “one of the most moving pieces of verse inspired by the war.” The title is believed to have drawn its inspiration from Shelly’s The Revolt of Islam (1818). The poem is about two soldiers, each of the opposing side who meet in a place far removed from the scene of war. It was inspired by Sassoon’s “The Rear Guard” and based on an earlier draft of Owen’s “Earth’s Wheels”. The poem consists of 44 lines composed in iambic pentameter and four stanzas of irregular length.

In the first stanza, the poem “Strange Meeting” begins with a dreamlike note…

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

The speaker-narrator travels down a ‘profound dull tunnel’, which has been dug long ago. He points towards the fact that there had been great wars of similar magnitude in the past and these wars had “groined” this deep tunnel.

In the second stanza, the speaker comes to perceive a sight of soldiers lying and groaning in pain or perhaps all dead. The poet here presents an eerie atmosphere of the dark tunnel. Then as he probed them, he caught one springing up who looked at him with piteous recognition and raised his hand as if to bless. But when he saw the apparition smile, he comes about a terrifying realization that they now stand in Hell.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,- By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

In the third stanza, the narrator describes what he saw on the face of the apparition. He could see great amount of suffering and misery the soldier had endured during the war. It is clear now that the narrator recognizes the apparition to be his enemy, a German soldier. He now comes to compare that in Hell there was the absence of war, the machine guns and shell explosions did not disturb them and the blood from the upper ground did not reach where they now stand. He then opens a conversation with the German soldier calling him ‘Strange friend’ signifying a paradoxical statement. ……….

‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’ ‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,

He attempts to console by saying that in the place they are now, they are no longer enemies. It was only war that bound them to kill each other. Had there been no war, they might have been friends because they had no personal enmity between each other. He assures him that he has no reason for mourning to which the ‘Other’ agrees but except for the years gone by, the years spent uselessly in warring.

The German soldier begins to speak and intertwine his past history with that of the narrator suggesting the similarity between the two persons in relation to their respective hopes and ambitions before the war. The lines here express the Other’s feelings of forlorn towards his past life, of days gone by when he would go hunting for whatever beauty he perceived.

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, Was my life also; I went hunting wildAfter the wildest beauty in the world,

The second speaker goes on telling the first that the wild beauty “lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair” but he points to beauty in a deeper sense. Beauty that is in a place where there is peace and harmony, and oblivious to the suffering of the war. He regrets that his life has been cut short and that if here was still alive, he could have made some people happy and be the reason behind their laughter. He then says that he did not get the chance to voice the reason (“I mean the truth untold”) behind his weeping because he is now dead. The second speaker then reveals that this untold truth is nothing but the hopelessness of war.

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

He tells the English soldier about the uselessness of war. That war had distilled all that was good and pleasant in life. It had defaced the natural landscapes and demoralized the mind of man. And now their future generations must go content with what they had spoilt or rise up to destroy one another in hatred. In case of such event, “They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress”. He envisions that the countries will once again come to war and by such an act they will trek away from progress.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

The soldier now looks back at his past life when he fought in the battlefield. He says that he was courageous and wise in his actions. He feels that the war is causing the human race to retreat to a hopeless conflict and the soldiers are fighting for nothing. He says that a time is bound to come when the slaughtering will overwhelm them and the wheels of the war-chariots shall become clogged with blood. Then they would stop a while and maybe come to a realization of the mass destruction they have caused. He then volunteers that if he could, he would go up from hell and full heartedly wash them clean from their sins but not through war. He draws an image of the soldiers suffering from physical injury and psychological distress.

The poem concludes with the following stanza, as the German soldier finally and officially declares his identity to the English soldier…

“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. . . .”

We now discover that the second speaker is a German soldier whom the fist soldier/ the English soldier had killed in the battlefield. The German soldier proclaims that he (the English soldier) was the one who killed him and had recognized him when he walked into the dull tunnel. He tells his “strange friend” that he had tried to counter his attack during their fight but his hands were cold and exhausted from all the fighting and so he was jabbed and killed. The poem ends with a musical mood fading out as the soldier urges his friend to go back to sleep…

Owen experienced the horror and absurdities of trench warfare first-hand and resounded them in his poem like “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, “Strange Meeting”, “The Sentry”, “Futility”, “Exposure”, and many other. He came to witness that the ancient views of patriotism and chivalry are now but a thing of the past. He was disillusioned at the way technological advancement had brought about mass slaughter in the battlefields and the horror led Owen to transform the traditional response of heroic pieties and nationalistic feelings into the hopelessness and futility of war in his poems.

Owen appealed to the pacifist view of war and condemned the power politics of the neo- imperialistic state. He held a strong sense of inclination towards Sassoon’s protest against the War Department that “…the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it… I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” The feeling of alienation and disillusionment had grown too great and Owen expressed them with great mastery in his poems.

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