|poems of wilfred owen
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), like many of his fellow soldiers, was at first eager to go to war. He enlisted in September 1915. Owen was already an accomplished poet when he went to war and used his poetry to record his experiences and impressions of the war. In 1917 Owen was sent to a hospital in Scotland to recover from shell shock, then returned to active duty. He died in November 1918 - seven days before the armistice was signed. Owen was twenty-five years old.
Here are three war poems by Owen, including his celebrated "Dulce et Decorum Est."
anthem for doomed youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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,
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.
We have fallen in the dreams the ever-living
Breathe on the tarnished mirror of the world,
And then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh
My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.
Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shriveled, killed.
By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped
Round myriad warts that might be little hills.
From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.
(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)
On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.
Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.
I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.
Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean, I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.
And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.
Source: Oscar Williams, ed., The War Poets
(New York: The John Day Company, 1945), pp. 36-38, 40-41.
The poem "Dulce et Decorum Est is usually interpreted as an anti-war poem. Yet does it also romanticize war?
What does the poem "The Show" tell us about life in the trenches?
poems of siegfried sassoon
Siegfried Bassoon (1886-1967) was even more enthusiastic about the war than Wilfred Owen. Bassoon enlisted in 1914, a few days before Britain declared war on Germany. His brother also enlisted and was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Bassoon responded by becoming even more aggressive, volunteering for dangerous missions. In spite of this, Bassoon survived the war, although he suffered from trench fever and German measles, at different times.
In 1917 he wrote an official declaration of pacifism, which earned him a diagnosis of shell shock and a brief convalescence before being returned to the army. He was finally relieved of duty in 1918 after a head-wound.
In "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Owen compares the soldiers to cattle; what is he saying about the nature of modern warfare?
Groping along the tunnel step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.
Tins, bottles, boxes, shapes too vague to know,
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring, fifty feet below
The rose gloom of battle overhead
Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped and asleep, half-hidden by a rug;
And stooped to give the sleeper's arm a tug.
"I'm looking for Headquarters."
"God blast your neck" (for days he'd had no sleep),
"Get up and guide me through this stinking place."
Then, with a savage kick at the silent heap,
He flashed his beam across a livid face
Horribly glaring up; and the eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And twisted fingers clutched a blackening wound.
Alone, he staggered on until he found
Dawn's ghost, that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground,
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him, step by step.
does it matter?
Does it matter? — losing your leg?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter ? — losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter? — those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle's guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head....
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead
Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you 'II never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget!
"The Rear-Guard," copyright 1918 by E. P. Dutton, Copyright renewed 1946 by Siegfried Sassoon, "Does It Matter?," "The Dug-Out," "Aftermath," from Collected Poems of Siegfried Sassoon by Siegfried Sassoon, copyright 1918, 1920 by E. P. Dutton. Copyright 1936, 1946, 1947, 1948 by Siegfried Sassoon. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., and the Barbara Levy Literary Agency.
Compare Sassoon's "The Dug-Out" with Owen's "The Show"; what do both men say about the futility of the trenches?
Is "Does it Matter?" an anti-war poem?
3. Pretend you know nothing about the kinds of weapons used in the first World War; try to describe them from the poem "The Rear-Guard."