Wilfred Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles in 1915 and served on the Western Front. While convalescing from shell shock in early 1917 he met Siefried Sassoon, who had considerable effect upon him as a poet. Owen returned to the front in late 1917 and was soon awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. On 4 November 1918, a week before the Armistice, he was killed when his company was crossing the Sambre Canal.
This is one of the best-known poems to come out of the Great War. Sassoon considered it “a masterpiece…the finest elegy written by a soldier of that period.” Besides its riveting metaphors and imagery, the poem well illustrates Owen’s mastery of what is known as "pararhyme." This is a kind of half-rhyme where the vowels vary between the beginning and ending sounds of a word. We find it throughout this poem by the pairing of words such as groined/groaned; hall/Hell; spoiled/spilled; and friend/frowned. Here’s the poem, followed by some comments:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
Using the tradition of the dream poem, Owen escapes reality and has a vision of some sort of subterranean Hell. This vision soon becomes nightmarish because although no guns are firing there and no blood is being spilled (unlike on the ground above), many "encumbered sleepers" lie stuck in the reality of death. One springs up, and by his "piteous" look and motion the poet realizes he himself is in Hell—he has joined the dead.
The long passage that follows sums up the terrible pity and waste of war, “the undone years.” From the spectral German soldier we hear of the great potential and rich future that is taken forever from dead youth in war. Like countless others, this ghostly speaker might have lived to give so much to the world through talent and empathy. These losses are described in artistic imagery and poetic metaphors, which makes us think that Owen is to some extent writing about himself.
And here is the larger tragedy of war’s waste: “Now men will go content with what we spoiled.” The poem turns from war’s terrible individual loss to the dehumanizing effects it has on all of us as we become inured to any form of salvation. The powerful final lines bring us back to the "profound dull tunnel" and to war’s waste, pain, and hopelessness.
David F. Beer
Images from the Melos Ensemble presentation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem