Wilfrid Owen began the war as a modestly privileged, educated, sensitive young man with a genius for words. The experience of war, and perhaps especially of his recuperation in Craiglochart Hospital in the company of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, led him to dissmiss all the windy glorification of war in favour of representing the the fate of real soldiers, the ones he commanded as an officer. As he said himself, “My subject is war and the pity of war….”
Sassoon, a more worldly man than Owen, wrote some of the most incisive criticism of the massacres of the first world war:
“Good morning, Good morning, the general said
as we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of them dead
and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack
as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack:
but he did for them both with his plan of attack.”
Owen took his time to absorb the sufferings of his men, and his greatest poems are celebrations of their human greatness, a greatness blighted by their deaths and travestied by official acts of mourning.
”What passing bells for those who die as cattle?”
is his question placed at the beginning of one of his best-known poems. The poem focuses on the normal ceremonies of burial and grieving, contrasting them with the actualities of his comrades’ deaths: “No mockeries for them from prayers or bells.” But then marvellously he hints that the real mourning, which includes the earth itself, is greater than the conventions:
“What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
shall shine the holy glimmer of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
their flowers the tenderness of silent minds;
and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”
We keep faith with Owen and his soldiers when we remember the dead with truth and sorrow, and perhaps with something of his anger.