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
Saturday 13 March 1993
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.'
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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