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Apologia Pro Poemate Meo – Wilfred Owen

I, too, saw God through mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I, too, have dropped off fear—
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear,
Past the entanglement where hopes lie strewn;

And witnessed exhultation—
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
Seraphic for an hour, though they were foul.

I have made fellowships—
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long.

By joy, whose ribbon slips,—
But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but a trembling of a flare
And heaven but a highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.

What do you think it means? Which part is the most striking?

The kind of distorted, feverish “joy” Owen describes – a happiness intensified but equally suffocated by the presence of war, “wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong”, is something Sebastian Faulks describes in his novel Birdsong. 

Compare it with this passage from the novel:

“At its best it was like pride. They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away. They were in their own view a formidable group of men. No inferno would now melt them, no storm destroy, because they had seen the worst and they had survived. Stephen felt, at the better moments, the love for them that Gray had demanded. Their desperate courage, born from necessity, was nevertheless endearing. The grimmer, harder, more sardonic they became, the more he cared for them. Still he could not quite believe them; he could not comprehend the lengths to which they allowed themselves to be driven. […] They were built to endure and to resist; they looked like passive creatures adapting to the hell of circumstances that oppressed them. Yet, Stephen knew, they had locked up in their hearts the horror of what they had seen, and their jovial pride in their resilience was not convincing. They boasted in a mocking way of what they had seen and done; but in their sad faces wrapped in rags he saw the burden of their unwanted knowledge.”

Like I said before, the key to understanding a poem is to honestly register your emotional reaction to it. Wilfred Owen’s poems, and all the prose they inspired, (Faulks is known to have been influenced by Owen’s poetry), should make this easy. Be self-analytical when deciding what phrases upset/disturb you. If you do this, honestly and non-dramatically, you will be able to explain what you think a poem means so much more convincingly.

If you want to read more analysis of war poetry, visit this excellent blog, written by a professor of English Literature.

Lest we forget x

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