Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Few Words on Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, whom World War I both brought to maturity as a poet and killed, is not much read or thought about these days. But his poetry of the sorrow and pity of war, his astringent eye for the lies of patriotic self-sacrifice (that is, the demands that others sacrifice themselves), seem very appropriate to our new world order of seemingly permanent war. Yeats dismissed his work as “all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick,” that is, as too base, and yet it is that baseness, that groundedness, that makes Owens’ poetry live for us today.

In keeping with my last post, I am impressed by how much of an experimental poet Owen was. “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I will discuss in detail, is among other things a formal and thematic commentary on the conventions of the sonnet. The sonnet, which traditionally engages an idealized vision of the world, here is turned to the rather gruesome description of painful, pointless death, becoming a kind of anti-sonnet engaging an anti-ideal. I’d like to look at some of the ways the poem uses and refuses the conventions of the sonnet form, and the ways that its formal distortions and dislocations enact and embody the distortion and dislocation of human lives and human values enacted by war, in which men sleepwalk toward death (their “distant rest”) for the profit of those who will never see a battlefield.

Dulce et Decorum Est

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.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” can be read both as two sonnets, in which the second half (the second sonnet) answers the first half (the first sonnet), and as a double sonnet of 28 lines in which the break between the two sections (the past and the present) constitutes the volte or turn, dividing the piece in half instead of the traditional Petrarchan proportion of eight to six. The poem also follows the traditional thematic pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet, in which the first part sets out a problem or situation and the second part sets out a solution or response. Here, we have the brutal narrative of the first half, followed by the recollection and moral reflection of the second half. The poem can also be read as a truncated sonnet sequence, as if to say “I can’t do that sort of thing anymore, not after what I’ve seen.”

The formal adventurism of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is evident in its combination of the contours of a sonnet (the first fourteen lines are even set typographically as a Petrarchan sonnet) with a quatrain rhyme structure. Owen also plays with formal expectations by concealing the quatrain rhyme-scheme typographically, even breaking stanzas in the middle of quatrains. And he plays that quatrain rhyme-scheme against the sonnet thematic/narrative structure in a kind of poetic counterpoint.

Read as a sonnet, the first half of the poem combines the octave of a Shakespearean sonnet with a more improvisational sestet in which the end words of two lines, “light” and “drowning,” don’t rhyme at all. We don’t return to the rhyme until we come to the word “sight” at the end of the first line of the second sonnet, and it is indeed that “thick green light” (of the poison gas) that makes possible and leads to the speaker’s “helpless sight” that still haunts his dreams, the sight of his fellow soldier “choking, drowning.” This is immediately followed by the reappearance of the word “drowning,” to emphasize that the speaker’s comrade is, for him, perpetually drowning. That the rhymes cut across the boundaries of the poem’s two halves (they’re part of a single quatrain, yet also the end and the beginning of the two halves of the poem) emphasizes the presence of the past horror in the present moment. The repetition of the word “drowning,” an ironically perfect rhyme, between lines in the poem’s two halves plays out both connection (the identity of the sounds and of the experience the sounds represent) and disconnection (since the experience is of the death of another, which by definition cannot be shared). By beginning the poem’s second half with two lines that rhyme with nothing else in that half of the poem (that is, in that sonnet), the poem enacts the psychic and spiritual disorder which is its theme. A similar effect occurs at the end of the poem, when the pentameter line is truncated (like the life of that fallen soldier and so many of his comrades) down to a trimeter. The poem is whittled down to death, ending on the Latin word mori, to die.

The first half or first sonnet of the poem also has a turn or volte at the expected moment in a traditional sonnet, at the stanza break after the octave, when the poem switches from a more objective description of the soldiers’ situation (though a description that is also heavily symbolic, as the soldiers trudge unconsciously toward their “distant rest,” that is, toward their deaths) to an immersion in the situation signaled by the eruption of direct speech into the poem: “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” At this point the poem also shifts from a description of group’s experience to a focus on that of an individual, the one “still yelling out and stumbling” who didn’t get his gas mask on in time. It also shifts to the speaker’s individual experience of watching this man die: “I saw him drowning.” This ending on the word “drowning” echoes the end of the poem’s second half and thus of the poem as a whole. Both halves end in death, like the experience of which the poem speaks, like the war it commemorates and condemns.

The poem’s second half begins with the repetition of this individual experience:

In all my dreams, in all my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

But then it turns to direct address and chastisement of the reader and thus of the society of which the reader is a part, which expects art to be uplifting and patriotic and death to be noble and glorious. It’s sweet and proper to die for one’s country. This poem exposes the truth of that “old Lie.” In that regard, it seems very much a poem of our moment.


Miguel Murphy said...

Thank you for this! Your post has introduced me to a poet I've never even heard of before. . . why is it that?

I'm interested to read up and see how much of the pity of his poetry (that Yeats thought so much in inappropriate) results in a kind of brutal attention to the body. Are his poems always at war? Is death for him always a form of this disbelief you've shown in the final lines of "Dulcem et Decorum"? And is it this scrutiny against spiritual salvation that Yeats has so much trouble with?

I've just ordered my copy of his collected. . .

Leslie said...

I've taught this poem to non-english majors a few times and my students always cite it as one of the highlights of the class. They say they didn't know before reading this that a poem could be dirty, bloody, disgusting and and so utterly grounded in the physical--

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

Who since then could do this as well as Owen did? Anyone?

The thing that always gets me is that physicality and horror so carefully draped over the formal bones--the abstract pattern of form. It is a weirdly horrifying and effective thing, a kind of theft or corruption of consolation.

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