World War I poet Wil­fred Owen in­tended his words as a cau­tion for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, writes Mahir Ali

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

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:



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.

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