I’ve been deliberately holding off on this particular muse because, even though Owen’s poetry inspires me, it also makes me feel sad and I wasn’t sure it was the right way to start the week. But if we don’t look back and acknowledge our mistakes every so often, without dwelling on them, how can we learn from them and look forward?
Of course, if you’ve never heard of Wilfred Owen, you’re won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Owen was a poet during the First World War and he wrote some of the most moving verse, capturing the true horror of life on the battlefield and in the trenches. He was 25 when he died, killed just a week before Armistice Day on 11th November.
I love history and I’ve always had a fascination with the First World War – it was so devastating and incredibly senseless. There are of course other poets associated with the war, in particular Siegfried Sassoon, who influenced a young Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poetry has always touched me though and stayed with me.
In my third year at high school, I enjoyed English more than any other class because the teacher was the only English teacher I ever had who actually seemed to be passionate about his subject. We only had him for one year and we never had another teacher who really encouraged our creativity. We studied the First World War, mainly it’s poetry of course, and it was an excuse for our teacher to show us Blackadder Goes Forth. We had six brilliant lessons where we sat and watched Blackadder and Baldrick worm their way out of going “over the top”. (If you aren’t familiar with the Blackadder series, you can see what I’m talking about here.) It remains one of my favourite comedies.
Despite it’s silliness, Blackadder did highlight the issues of that time and the overwhelming sense of despair. By the time we came to reading the poetry, we were already aware of the general feelings, ranging from blind patriotism and following often contradictory orders, to severe resentment and cynicism. We read the verses written 80 years before and could understand the anger and the grief.
One of Owen’s most famous poems also happens to be my favourite of his. The descriptions are vivid and you can almost taste the bitterness in the final lines:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST by WILFRED OWEN
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
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.
Perhaps not the cheeriest way to start the week but it certainly gives food for thought.