I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
In a preface to his posthumous collection, Owen said his poems were about the pity of war, not the “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power" that war poems traditionally addressed. "Strange Meeting" contains this phrase in the context of a subterranean meeting of a soldier and the enemy he killed. The enemy soldier ruminates on how the truth of war - the pity of it - is quelled when the soldiers die. Those back at home, those who started the war, do not know what it is truly like to wait in the trenches, dodge bullets and poison gas attacks, watch their friends die in front of them, and lose their reason and will to endure. Owen felt it was his mission to use his poetry to distill the truth of the war, and his poems stand as beautiful and brilliantly bitter expositions on the horrors of the battlefield and the complexity of the return to the home front.
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.
In this poem Owen makes the case that brotherhood and fellowship are preferable to romantic, erotic love in a time of war. The opening lines of the poem convey the poet's thoughts from the outset - he takes the color of love and romance and flips it to its other connotation of bloodshed. He also scoffs at the simplistic sentimentalism of "wooer and wooed" and contrasts it to the authentic purity of the relationships between soldiers. Later he says a woman's voice is not as "dear, / Gentle, and evening clear" as the voices of those of whom "earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed." A woman's eyes, voice, "slender attitude", and heart simply cannot stand up to the true camaraderie of soldiers knit together by the reality of war. Owen's poems deviate from traditional poetic conventions of love and artifice, choosing instead to focus on what he believes is a deeper fellowship - forged between soldiers in the face of death.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.
This is one of the most memorable lines of Owen's poetry. It translates from Latin to: "It is sweet and right to die for one's country". This was the refrain repeated in schools and churches and homes and political circles to entice young men to embrace patriotic fervor and enlist in the military. The true nature of war was concealed and they went off to war like the soldier in "Disabled" - young, naive, full of dreams and completely unprepared for the carnage and complexity. Owen addresses this to an ambiguous "friend" (who was actually Jessie Pope, a zealously nationalistic poet) and completely dismantles the myth that war is glorious and young men should die on their nation's behalf. The verses before the last lines depict a surreal war of horror, nightmare, and pain. This single poem of Owen's is enough to convey to the reader just how terrible WWI was, and how far removed the actuality of battle was from idealism and heroism.
And suddenly the whole sky burned / With fury against them; and soft sudden cups / Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes / Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Owen uses the motif of Nature and her reaction to war to exemplify his belief that war is a perversion of the natural order - inherently irrational, destructive, and impure. In this poem the soldiers relax amidst the beauty of their natural surroundings. Things are peaceful and placid as the fighting momentarily ceases. Once they are summoned back to war, Nature revolts. The sky "burned" in rage and their bodies bled. The "green slopes" which had seemed a place to relax and unwind, were now "sheer to infinite space", a veritable opening to Hell.
They move not from her tapestries, their pall / Nor pace her terraces, their hecatombs, / Lest aught she be disturbed, or grieved at all.
Owen expresses bitterness in many of his poems, and "The Kind Ghosts" is no exception. Here he directs such bitterness toward the women back at home who cannot and do not want to comprehend the truth of war, or deal with the ghosts of those who have been killed. The woman in the poem glides throughout her luxurious palace, which has walls that block out the ghosts. Her dreams are lovely and undisturbed, her halls quiet. The ghosts do not permeate her bower and she is not forced to come face to face with them. She is not disturbed, and not grieved. The poem's tone is certainly dripping with anger despite the softness of the imagery, and it is no wonder that Owen was occasionally criticized for misogyny by critics. While it does not excuse his disdain for women, the poem's evocation of those citizens back at home who exist peacefully and ignorantly while young men die on the battlefield to sustain their comfort rings painfully true even today.
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth's sleep at all?
Many of Owen's poems deal with Nature in some fashion. Here, the speaker of the poem has laid his dead friend in the sun, hoping its vibrant rays will revive him. It is a childish longing, but he ruminates on how this powerful life force "wakes the seeds" and the "clays of a cold star" - i.e., the dead man. He thinks about the majesty of every human being with their "limbs so dear-achieved" and thinks how absurd it is that life can be snuffed out so easily and so quickly. At the end of the poem his cry becomes anguished as he wonders why the sun even bothered to wake earth at all - an expression of the poem's title, "Futility". There seems to be no meaning in life in the face of such irrational death. Nature cannot nor will not intervene, as war is a violation of her tenets.
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.
One of the reasons why "Disabled" is such a strong and memorable poem is how much it resonates with the reader. The young protagonist is realistic, relatable. He could be any one of the young men who joined the war for glory and did not stop to contemplate the sacrifices required, and who returned home very different physically or psychologically from his former self. He spends much of the poem reminiscing about the days before the war when he was heroic and beloved, as well as physically whole. He joined the war for seemingly silly reasons, and Owen condemns how easy it was for such a naive boy to lie about his age and enlist. The quote shows how the boy's greatest regret now is that he will not be attractive to women. He does not lament his lack of glory or awards, but that his life back at home will be incomplete and unfulfilling. This is a pitifully sad and universal fear for young men of all wars and all eras.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
In this retelling of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, Abram does not heed the angel's advice and slay the Ram of Pride, but instead continues his preparation and slays his son, as well as the rest of Europe's sons. This parable refers to the prideful rulers of Europe blithely ignoring the sacrifices of the young men required to grease the wheels of war. The scholarship of WWI is consumed with the question of how the "enlightened" rulers of the West got themselves into one of history's most brutal, disastrous, and seemingly meaningless conflicts. The major reasons seem to be nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Although Owen does not proffer a detailed history lesson in "Parable", he encapsulates these inane reasons for going to war, depicting Abram as a prideful, foolhardy, and bloodthirsty old man.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns, / That they should be as stones; / Wretched are they, and mean / With paucity that never was simplicity.
In "Insensibility" Owen begins by acknowledging the ways in which soldiers psychologically deal with the horrors of war. They repress emotion, quelling compassion and imagination in the face of death and fear. They are dull, placid, cauterized. For them it is better to laugh on the battlefield than to deeply contemplate the meaning of life and the senselessness of the war. Owen repeatedly calls these soldiers "happy", and indeed, they are, as they do not have to think or reconcile or rationalize. However, as this quote expresses, by the end of the poem Owen wonders if this is truly the way to deal with the war. The soldiers are so removed from "pity" and "whatever moans in man" that they are barely human beings. They are ciphers, detached from even the things left to them in life. They are unconnected and do not share in "the eternal reciprocity of tears". Owen understands why they might repress their feelings, but he does not necessarily think it is the best course of action. Coping strategies on the battlefield will turn you to "stone" in life.
What passing-bells for those who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
This poem suggests that the young men fighting in the war die nameless and faceless - like animals. They are denied the dignity of proper funerals and burials in many cases, and are not afforded the rituals and traditions of those who die under normal circumstances. They must be content with the sounds of guns and rifles as their bells and choirs. Owen also expresses sympathy with the women back at home who mourn their fallen sons, husbands, and brothers, but has little to comfort them. War disrupts the patterns and norms of life, and, clearly, of death.
Wilfred Owen: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Wilfred Owen: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.