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First World War Poetry

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on March 18, 1893. He was on the Continent teaching English until he visited a hospital for the wounded and then decided, in September, 1915, to return to England and enlist.

Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home; he was fit for duty in August, 1918, and returned to the front. 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.

Some examples of his work (the last with notes):

Greater Love

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death's extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,--
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,--
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear,
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

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 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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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,--
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.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek 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.
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...."

SONNET

On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great Gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse.
Spend our resentment, cannon, -- yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.

Yet, for men's sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

At a Calvary Near The Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

[A "Calvary" is a statue of the crucified Christ; these crucifixes are erected at many crossroads in France.]

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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?

NOTES:

Poem "Translation" Commentary
Move him into the sun - "Move his body into the warmth of the sunlight!" We can imagine a soldier who has just been hit by a bullet. He is not moving. Perhaps he is dead. The weather is cold. It has been snowing. The soldier needs warmth, but he is in the shadow. Somebody suggests moving him to an area where the sun is shining.
Gently its touch awoke him once, In the past, the touch of the sun used to wake him up gently, The sun wakes everything.

What other fields is Owen talking about?

At home, whispering of fields unsown. when he was at home (in England). The sun spoke to him of fields that had not been planted with seeds.
Always it woke him, even in France, The sun always used to wake him up, even here in France, Although the sun woke this soldier in the past, today it is not waking him.
Until this morning and this snow. until now and until this snow.
If anything might rouse him now If anything is able to wake him from his sleep now, But the sun is the only thing that can possibly wake him.
The kind old sun will know. the sun can do it.
Think how it wakes the seeds, - Imagine! Think how the sun wakes the seeds (in the fields?). The sun is the source of life.
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star. Think how it woke the soil of the Earth.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides, Is a body, created at so high a price, Despair. Surely, it is not so difficult to wake a body that is still warm, that has all its nerves, its limbs.
Full-nerved,- still warm,- too hard to stir? and which is still warm and full of nerves, too difficult to wake?
Was it for this the clay grew tall? Is this why the soil was transformed into life? Irony. Why did the sun create life? It was pointless, useless, futile. And it is futile to move the soldier. He is dead. He will never wake again. Futility in both senses.
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil Oh! Why did the purposeless beams of the sun work hard
To break earth's sleep at all? to wake the earth in the first place?

to awake (awoke, awoken) (v): to wake up; to waken
unsown (adj): without seed; not planted (NB: "fields unsown" = "unsown fields")
to rouse (v): to wake up; to stimulate; to animate
clay (n): type of earth; earth; soil
limb (n): member of the body (leg, arm)
dear-achieved (adj): costly to create
to stir (v): to move; to waken
fatuous (adj): purposeless
to toil (v): to work hard; to labour