Wilfred Owen – war poet, icon . . .visionary?
As one of the most popular and widely-read poets of World War One, Wilfred Owen’s legacy is a body of work deeply critical of war and its effects. But what was his attitude to the ultimate causes of war?
That turbulent decade, the 1960s, with its “Peace Movement” – CND, Aldermaston Marches, anti- Vietnam protests and all that – witnessed also the rediscovery of the works of World War I poet Wilfred Owen and his popular elevation to something of a “moral exemplar” and “voice for his generation”; a process further enhanced by composer Benjamin Britten’s inclusion of several of his poems in the opera War Requiem.
A whole eclectic range of groupings have, often on the flimsiest of pretexts, claimed him as their own; from pacifists, feminists, Christians to so-called socialists, and whilst politically he did “tend to take the liberal side of the question”, he was no pacifist and certainly no socialist, “so called” or otherwise.
Owen was one of a cluster of poets -Sassoon, Graves, Brooke and others – who endeavoured to view war from the perspective of the common soldier, portraying it in all its stark inglorious horror; a genre miles (well, easily half a league) away from the triumphal propagandist outpourings of late – Victorians Arnold, Newbolt and Tennyson. Whilst they, from distant drawing-room safety, could narrate glowing sagas of heroic charges, famous victories and sabres clashing, Owen’s poetic tapestry was an altogether more realistic one, interwoven and spattered with images of carnage and suffering.
Infantrymen “shiver and cringe in holes”, “curse through sludge”, “bleed and spew”, lose limbs, eyesight, sanity. The air resounds to “the monstrous anger of guns”, the wailings of “shell on frantic shell”, “stuttering rifle fire” and “stinks sour” of mud, of men – of corpses.
It is perhaps not widely known that Owen spent little actual time on the Front Line – a mere 30 days between January and April 1917, from which period most of his poems emanate, followed by a further month through October into November 1918. Moreover, although he did suffer all the tribulations of combat and did indeed pay the ultimate price, he was spared the month on month, year on year wet, freezing, verminous conditions and the prolonged tedium, intimidation and gnawing uncertainty endured by so many. Whilst he could with every justification write, “Those 50 hours were the agony of my happy life” and, “Those last 4 days I’ve suffered Seventh Hell”, his overall war experience was by no means typical.
The son of a minor railway official, Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1893 and if money was sufficiently tight to preclude university education, his upbringing was not a deprived one. Displaying some small academic talent, Owen pursued careers initially as pupil-teacher then parish assistant.
Already, inspired by Keats, he was dabbling in verse. The outbreak of World War 1 found him eking out an existence as an English tutor in Bordeaux, France whence he displayed not the slightest inclination to “answer his Country’s call”. Eventually however, feeling “traitorously idle” and galvanised by the views of his French literary mentor, Laurent Tailhade, he crossed the Channel in October 1915 and enlisted as a private in the Artists’ Rifles, “to defend his language and culture”.
Thereafter, through sheer graft, “Little Owen”, a frail diminutive figure and “perceptively provincial”, secured a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment and in January 1917 arrived in the trenches “to fight Fritz whom,” he insisted, “he did not hate”. Then ensued intermittent periods of ferocious action until in April, already traumatised by a recent gassing incident later featured in verse, Owen was blown up, rendered temporarily unconscious and subsequently diagnosed as suffering from “shellshock”.
By 1917, a more scientific attitude had been adopted towards this phenomenon. The Somme offensive the previous year had yielded 30,000 such cases and as they clearly couldn’t all be “degenerates” or “cowards”, a new term, “Neurasthenia”, had come into vogue. The importance of immediate therapy being recognised, this was provided in nearby field hospitals; not it should be noted, from any humanitarian considerations, but solely to enable the less serious cases, around two thirds overall, to be speedily “cured” and returned to the trenches for another dose of the same.
Owen, as a more severe case, was invalided home, hospitalised in Edinburgh and set about creating the poems that would eventually secure his reputation. In Dulce et Decorum Est, an ironic comment on the famous line by the Latin poet Horace, that it is “pleasant and honourable to die for one’s country”, Owen recounted the plight of an unmasked Tommy caught in a mustard gas attack, concluding:
“In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dream 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,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend you would not tell with such zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.”
The “old Lie”? During his prolonged convalescence, Owen encountered various viewpoints, dissenting and otherwise, on the conduct of the War but there is no evidence that he ever developed any understanding of the underlying reasons for its having been waged in the first place. Nevertheless, however inadvertently, Owen has, as it were, “landed a direct hit”. It does require a lie; a veritable pack of them in fact, to persuade the artisans, the farmhands, the clerks in one country that their own best interests are suddenly and mysteriously at variance with those of their direct counterparts in another and to spontaneously quit their respective workplaces, dole-queues, semis and slums to participate in the act of mutual slaughter that is war. Always “freedom”, “democracy”, “ways of life”, “national pride” are at stake and, remarkably, “God” is ever on their side.
Specific to the 1914 affair, German “militarism” had to be rebuffed and “plucky little Belgium” supported. The truth is decidedly less exotic. Wars are always and only waged for entirely commercial reasons – access to raw materials, markets, trade routes and strategic positions from which to defend them all. In short, to consolidate existing profits and aspire to the accumulation of others. The present globally-dominant economic system, capitalism, features within each country, the ownership of the means of wealth – the land, factories etc. – by a tiny parasite minority, from which it follows therefore that any profits will accrue only to that minority. The overwhelming non-owning majority; those who do the fighting and the dying, effectively get nothing. Would any worker, apprised of this, raise even a peashooter to their lips? Hence the need for the “old lie”.
Germany did not become unified until the 1870s, by which time the bulk of the world’s exploitable resources had been colonised by longer-established nation states like Britain and France. To develop and expand, therefore, required attempting to “muscle in on the action”, precisely in the way that criminal organisations have long engaged in feuds over bootlegging, gambling and drug-trafficking rights. World War I was only ever a sordid largescale turf war between rival “families” within capitalism’s mafia – although by the time the politicians, the media, the clergy and the educationalists had spun their lies, old and new, very few people saw it as such.
Ignorant of the real causes of the War, Owen could only see its solution in terms both abstract and impracticable, if not downright silly. In this he was not alone. Some held that the war was a “natural tragedy” to which the only responses could be of sorrow and compassion; others that it represented merely the periodic erupting of some innate human predisposition towards aggression. Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells believed the war would “exhaust itself”, enabling wise and devoted people (like themselves, presumably), to step in and “rebuild Society”. Owen himself considered that when the war machinery had “choked itself to a halt”, then “art” and “beauty” could be deployed to “help refresh the human spirit”.
Accordingly, he hoped to avoid being returned to the Front, but his hopes were not to be realised. In due course, he was deemed “cured” and returned to France nicely in time to participate in the final decisive attack on and through the Hindenberg Line. For bravery under fire he was awarded the Military Cross but as this particular incident involved him also single-handedly exterminating numerous “Fritzes”, the actual text of his citation tends not to be quoted by those who would portray him as the “Poet of Pity”. He himself perished at St. Souplet just one week prior to that supreme exercise in pretentious cant -“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day, etc., etc.” – that was the signing of the Armistice.
The September 1914 issue of the Socialist Standard, observing the entirely “business” nature of the war embarked upon, both extended the hand of friendship to the workers of all countries and declared that there was nothing at stake “to justify the shedding of a single drop of working class blood”. This uniquely principled stance, maintained throughout, s one of which socialists can feel immensely proud. More importantly, a solution, concrete, practicable and eminently sensible, was offered. Since wars arise solely from conflicts of interest between rival groupings of capitalists, and are merely an extension, a more turbulent or intense phase of this ongoing struggle, then it follows that their eradication lies with the universal replacement of private ownership with common ownership. If the world’s natural resources and means of producing wealth were the property of Humanity at large, what possible reason for conflict would, or could, remain?
Wilfred Owen’s poetic voice was an exceptional and developing one, prematurely stilled. Who knows to what heights it might have soared? His poems depict their subject matter in ways that are once beautiful and repulsive and are, albeit unintentionally, a damning indictment of class-divided society. Furthermore, they serve as a dire warning to any testosterone-fuelled youth “ardent for some desperate glory”, that the net result of “taking the shilling” might just be the sudden and catastrophic loss of his testosterone-producing faculties. As much, however, as his poems deserve to be read, to be appreciated, to be cherished, they do merely observe; they neither investigate nor solve. This requires the altogether more prosaic process of examining and understanding the underlying reasons for war.