(Poem #321) Strange Meeting
It seemed that out of 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 that 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... "
Poets have long been the (self-appointed) legislators of the world's conscience, but for every Milton or Dylan who actually makes a difference, there are dozens of hack moralizers whose verse sinks under the weight of its own pomposity. Not so the work of Wilfred Owen: few poets - indeed, few people of any sort - have spoken with the clarity of vision and moral authority he brings to bear upon the monstrosity that is war. In other poems, Owen chronicles the 'charring of the emotions' that war brings about , or attacks 'the old lies' of glory and honour . In 'Strange Meeting', though, he is concerned with the sheer pointlessness of it all - 'the undone years / The hopelessness'. And it's not just the senseless sacrifice that stirs Owen, but the moral corruption that accompanies it - by participating in the slaughter, the protagonists condemn themselves to an eternity of regret, where 'no guns thump', it is true, but where 'the truth untold /The pity of war, the pity war distilled' continues to haunt them. thomas.  'Insensibility', poem #232  'Dulce et Decorum Est', poem #132 PS. I especially like the couplet: 'Courage was mine, and I had mystery, Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:' As Martin pointed out in his commentary on 'Tall Ships and Tall Kings' a few days back, it's probably the incantatory effect, the repetition of form, that lends this couplet its peculiarly haunting quality. [On Protest Poetry] Poetry with a social agenda is nothing new, of course; indeed, there are many writers today (both poets and critics) who hold that changing the world is, in fact, the primary function of literature. I'm not sure I agree with this view; having said that, I must add that possibly my favourite contemporary poet is the 'high priest of social protest', Adrian Mitchell. Do check out his work, especially 'To Whom It May Concern', poem #28 and 'Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off', poem #95 [On Owen] I found a neat little essay on Owen's poetic development on the Web; rather than merely linking to it (as is our usual practice), I felt compelled to include a rather generous extract in today's post: "... the journey from Owen the shy and aspiring young writer of interesting but immature verse, to Owen the bold army soldier and war poet was a long and difficult one. When Owen eventually made up his mind to enlist, it was after much soul-searching and he carried with him all [sorts of] contradictory feelings about the war. He later described himself as "a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience". The more Owen came to experience the terrible reality of the war, the more his indignation toward the warmongers increased and so did his sympathy for the plight of the ordinary soldier. He saw young men, with their full lives in front of them, being sent into battle to kill each other. At the same time, Owen could not withdraw from the senseless slaughter. To do so would be to desert those he had the most affinity with and stand alongside those for whom he had nothing but contempt; the people who spoke about the "glory" and the "honour" of the war from a safe distance, hundreds of miles from the trenches. For Owen, there was neither glory nor honour in the war. As he explained in the short preface he wrote for a collection of his poems, "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. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." It was the search for this truth - to reveal the real nature of the war to those that could not or would not see it - that marked the steady maturing of Owen's work. And herein lies the enormous significance of Owen's encounter with Sassoon. Up until that point, Owen had a very different idea of what kind of poetry he wanted to write. He had striven to describe all the things that filled him with the joy and wonder of life. And so he wrote, very skilfully, about love and passion, music and song, about storms, dreams, and the feeling of happiness. Even after having fought at the battlefront and witnessing much bloodshed and carnage, he determined not to write about the brutality and horror of the war. It was as if, amidst a world being torn asunder in the most horrible and senseless way, this young poet was trying to preserve something untainted by the hideous savagery around him. For Owen his poetry was the antithesis of everything the war represented. Sassoon's achievement was in turning Owen around to face the war head-on and to write about what he saw. With a war raging across Europe there was an added immediacy to everything. Owen realised, in order to impart the preciousness of life, it was essential to write about the ugliness and brutality taking place. All the anger and indignation towards the war that had been building up inside him now found an outlet. Once he began to "face the war" nothing seemed to escape his gaze. Nor did he flinch from the full horror of what he saw. He wrote about the disabled and disfigured young men, the mental destruction taking place in the trenches, the vast numbers being sent to be slaughtered, the callous inhumanity of the army generals and the men in power, and the unbearable imminence of death. Owen's poems did not exhibit the fury and bursts of anger that were characteristic of many of his contemporaries - which included some of the finest poets in the English language. Instead, Owen began to constructively fuse these sentiments with a feeling of pity and compassion for the ordinary soldier. It is this ability to combine such powerful emotions in a particularly graphic way that marked Owen's work out from so many others and gives them an enduring quality. -- Harvey Thompson; full article at [broken link] http://socialequality.com/articles/1999/apr1999/owen-a08.shtml