STRANGE BEAUTY IN BRUTALITY
World War I poet Wilfred Owen intended his words as a caution for future generations, writes Mahir Ali
During a visit to London in 1920, Bengali poet, philosopher and polemicist Rabindranath Tagore received an unexpected letter from a Mrs Susan Owen. She wished to share some information about her favourite son. “It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time,” she wrote, “and the day he said Goodbye to me … my poet son said these wonderful words of yours … ‘when I leave, let these be my parting words: what my eyes have seen, what my life received, are unsurpassable’. And when his pocket book came back to me — I found these words written in his dear writing — with your name beneath.”
Tagore was something of a celebrity in Britain at the time, a white-bearded Indian sage who bore a resemblance to the then recently deceased Leo Tolstoy. He had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 on the strength, essentially, of Gitanjali, a collection of poetry he had translated from the original Bengali with the assistance of William Butler Yeats, which is the source for the aphorism that appealed to Owen’s son. That son, Wilfred, is likely to have perceived rather differently from Tagore the context of what each of them considered “unsurpassable”.
It is equally likely that the young Englishman was unfamiliar with Tagore’s thought-provoking critique of nationalism as well as the poem, composed on the last day of the 19th century, that demonstrates a remarkable prescience about the maelstrom that sneaked up on Europe shortly afterwards: The last sun of the century sets amidst the blood red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred The naked passion of self-love of Nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance The hungry self of Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding For it has made the world its food …
Wilfred Owen’s final foray into that maelstrom came in August 1918. He won a Military Cross shortly afterwards. But while the Armistice Day bells pealed on November 11, his family received a telegram informing them that Wilfred had been killed a week earlier — 100 years ago last Sunday — while leading the men under his command across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors.
The second lieutenant was 25, his longevity abbreviated by a year even in comparison with the life span of his favourite predecessor poet, John Keats.
Unlike all too many of his contemporaries, though, Owen did not exactly die in vain. At least for the past half-century, his poems have served as a prism through which the so-called Great War is viewed. But, despite being anthologised by his friend Siegfried Sassoon in 1920 and Edmund Blunden a decade later, they did not enter popular parlance until pacifist composer Benjamin Britten incorporated some of Owen’s most potent verses in his War Requiem, written for the 1962 inauguration of the restored Coventry Cathedral.
Coincidentally, about the same time, a fellow composer appropriated a contemporary young poet’s verses as the centrepiece of his 13th symphony: Dmitri Shostakovich immortalised Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar, which catapults from a reflection on an egregiously atrocious component of the Judeocide that accompanied World War II into a searing condemnation of anti-Semitism. It also serves as a reminder that the “war to end all wars” not only did nothing of the kind but in fact sowed the seeds for an even more outrageous bloodbath.
Owen entered Britain’s national curriculum during the 1960s, and eventually the curricula of Commonwealth nations, which is where I first encountered him and was blown away by his visceral descriptions and implicit denunciations of war. He did not dwell on the causes but seemed to suggest that the sheer awfulness of military conflict between nations stripped away all justifications.
The alliteration and onomatopoeia of the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth made a powerful impression, but so did the realisation that “those who die as cattle” were by no means restricted to Gallipoli or the Somme, and that “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” continued to “patter out” all too many “hasty orisons”.
Dulce et Decorum Est stands out not only for nailing Horace’s destructive untruth about the value of patriotic sacrifice but also because gas attacks against unsuspecting victims remain par for the course on Middle Eastern battlefields — notably in Syria, where chlorine, used to such devastating effect in World War I, continues to serve as a favourite weapon for the Assad regime and some of its opponents.
Owen pictured a gas attack on a retreating column of comrades in which just one fails to fit “the clumsy (helmet) just in time”. “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning,” he declares, comparing the soldier’s “hanging face” to “the devil’s sick of sin”, before going in for the kill, so to speak:
THESE ELEGIES ARE TO THIS GENERATION IN NO SENSE CONSOLATORY. THEY MAY BE TO THE NEXT. ALL A POET CAN DO TODAY IS WARN
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.