POETRY / Stained stones kissed by the English dead: Geoff Dyer on the remembrance of war in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, born 100 years ago next Thursday

OUR memory of the Great War is defined by two ostensibly opposing co-ordinates: the Unknown Soldier and the poet everyone knows. Exhumed and then re-buried amid a riot of symbolism in Westminster Abbey on the second anniversary of the armistice, the former lies at the core of a programme of national Remembrance which endures, in muted form, to the present day.

Wilfred Owen's grave in the French village of Ors, meanwhile, is marked by a standard military headstone. His poems are regularly invoked to challenge or undermine the official procedures of Remembrance. They are not concerned with glory or honour, the famous scribbled preface insists; instead his 'subject is War, and the pity of War'. A hundred years from his birth, and 75 five from his death, however, his subject might also be termed Memory, and the projection of Memory.

Owen volunteered for the Artist's Rifles in 1915. Under the influence of Siegfried Sassoon, whom he met at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917 while suffering from shell-shock, he began writing the war poems on which his reputation rests. He returned to France and was killed in action a week before the armistice, aged 25.

The extreme brevity of his life is brought out by Jon Stallworthy's recently reissued biography (Wilfred Owen, Oxford, pounds 9.99). Since Stallworthy diligently allots more or less the same amount of space to each phase of Owen's life, by the time we come to the part we're most interested in, the period of his major poems, we realise with a shock that there is only a fraction of the book left. It is as if the remaining 700 pages of a standard-sized life have simply been ripped out. Not only that: Owen's final weeks vanish in the wide-angle of regimental history. Dominic Hibberd has fleshed out this period somewhat in Wilfred Owen: The Last Year (Constable, pounds 14.95), but he also stops where Owen's life really begins - with his death.

In his lifetime Owen published only five poems; seven appeared in an anthology of 1919; a slim selection, edited by Sassoon, came out the following year; Edmund Blunden's more substantial edition was published in 1931. This means that Owen's poems came to the notice of the public not as gestures of protest but as part of a larger structure of bereavement.

The period from the armistice onwards saw the construction of memorials throughout England and cemeteries throughout Flanders and northern France. Climaxing with a flash flood of War memoirs and novels in the late 1920s, this phase of protracted mourning was completed with the inauguration of the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval in 1932.

The extent to which these strands are intertwined is glimpsed by the way that in 1931 Blunden borrowed the 'official' vocabulary of Remembrance to lament 'how great a glory had departed' from the world of poetry with Owen's death. On the other hand, the hope that the anti-war case had been clinched for good, by the War poets particularly and by Owen especially, proved short-lived as boys of Orwell's generation 'became conscious of the vastness of the experience they had missed'. Hence the appeal of the Spanish Civil War. Owen's idol Keats had declared himself 'half in love with easeful death'; a generation on from Owen, Philip Toynbee recalled that 'even in our anti-war campaigns of the early Thirties we were half in love with the horrors we cried out against'.

The realities of the war, then, were not simply overridden by the organised cult of Remembrance - the Cenotaph, the Unknown Soldier, two-minute silence, poppies and so on. Rather, in the decade and a half after the cessation of actual hostilities, our idea of the war was constructed through elaborately entwined, warring versions of memory. Indeed, one might even say that the true subject of the war itself was remembrance. It seems not so much to be tinted by retrospect as to have been fought retrospectively. With his gaze fixed unflinchingly on posterity, Field Marshal Haig systematically re-wrote his diaries to make his intentions accord with - and minimise his responsibility for - what actually resulted from his orders. Even while war was raging, the characteristic attitude was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered. 'The future]' exclaims a soldier in Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, a direct influence on Owen.

'How will they regard this slaughter, they who'll live after us? How will they regard these exploits . . ?' Recited every year on Remembrance Day, the incantatory phrases - such as 'We will remember them', from Laurence Binyon's 'For the Fallen' - were actually written in September 1914, before the fallen actually fell. It is work, in other words, not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining. We will remember them.

Owen's poems redefine rather than simply undermine Binyon's. Despite their apparent inappropriateness, they are now invisibly appended, like exquisitely engraved graffiti, to memorial

inscriptions to 'The Glorious Dead'.

Owen succeeded - as Sassoon, Blunden, Graves and the rest could not - in memorialising the war in the image of his poems. His lines offer a virtual index of the themes and tropes - mud, gas, bombardment, shell-shock, self-inflicted wounds, disablement, homoeroticism, futility - of books which take their titles from him: Strange Meeting, Out of Battle, The Old Lie, Some Desperate Glory. . .

It is impossible to read about the First World War except through his words, and it is difficult to approach the Second without invoking their memory. Vernon Scannell's 'Walking Wounded' - 'Some limped on sticks; / Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings' - seems less an evocation of an actual scene than a close creative commentary on Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.

Owen addressed the issue of his own legacy in 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', a poem which anticipates the time when it will stand as the response to its own appeal: 'What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?' Sassoon made a vital contribution here. It was he who suggested 'Doomed' for 'Dead' in an earlier draft, so that his friend's poem, like Binyon's, is about those who are going to have died. Blunden wrote a poem entitled '1916 seen from 1921' - Owen had written a dozen such poems four years earlier.

To a nation stunned by grief, this prophetic lag of posthumous publication made it seem that Owen was speaking from beyond the grave. Memorials were one sign of the shadow cast by the dead over England in the Twenties; another was a surge of interest in spiritualism. Owen was the medium through whom the missing spoke.

THEY ARE going to have died: this is the tense not only of Owen's poems but also of old photographs. Although he was thinking only of photographs both are, in Barthes's phrase, 'prophecies in reverse'. The strange temporal elisions in Owen - who carried photos of the dead in his wallet - become even more pronounced when we consider his poems in relation to photographs from the War.

It is difficult, now, to imagine the Great War in colour. Many photographs - like those from the first day of the Somme - were taken under skies of Kodak blue but, even had it been available, colour film would - it seems to us - have rendered the scenes in sepia tones. Coagulated by time, even fresh blood seems greyish brown. And if, as Gilbert Adair suggests, Auden's poems of the Thirties are somehow 'in black and white' then Owen's are sepia-toned. Like photos of the war they too are colour-resistant.

Having seen all things red,

Their eyes are rid

Of the hurt of the colour of blood forever.

Sepia, the colour of mud, was the dominant tone of the war. This is why photographs of men queuing up to enlist seem wounded by the experience that is still to come: they are tinted by the trenches, and have the look of ghosts: they are already dead.

This characteristic sensation - Larkin's 'MCMXIV' begins with a photo of 'long uneven lines' queuing up to enlist - is articulated by Owen in 'The Send-Off', a poem describing recruits about to entrain for France: 'Down the close darkening lines they sang their way / To the siding shed'.

The landscape they leave in this, the first line, is like a premonition of the one 'a few' of them may return to in the last. At the moment of departure they are already marching through the landscape of mourning. The summer of 1914 is already shadowed by the dusk of drawn blinds. Before they have even boarded the train they have joined the ranks of the dead: 'Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray / As men's are, dead.'

But Owen's poem does not, so to speak, stop there. The train pulls out into a future that seems, to us, to stretch away from the Great War and extend to the memory of another, more recent Holocaust:

Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp

Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed up, they went.

They were not ours:

We never heard to which front these were sent.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride