Sunday, February 5, 2017

But nothing happens - premature celebration of the the 100th anniversary of Wilfred Owen becoming a great poet

Against my recent practice, I read an academic edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1985, ed. Jon Stallworthy) rather than some version of how readers would have originally known him, like Poems (1920, ed. Siegfried Sassoon).  The difference is palpable.  The more or less chronological arrangement of the complete edition means that close to half of the book’s 200 pages is given to the minor poems of a talented imitator of Keats.  Most surprising is a twenty-page poetic version of “The Little Mermaid” (written 1912), the “Endymion” of Keats but using Hans Christian Andersen rather than Greek mythology.  It’s pretty good, for what it is.

The complete edition tells a story, then.  Young Keats, then a long gap while Owen is fighting in France, then the astounding, rapid development of a real successor to Keats, created – creativity is a mystery – by some combination of experience in combat, the discovery of a subject, the friendship and example of Sassoon, and perhaps most importantly the hospital stay that finally allowed him to write.  The speed at which this great poet appears is something to see.

Then the story ends with Poems as Owen’s first book, posthumous.  Poems is barely a book, only twenty-three short poems, but each one extraordinary.  There is no develop.  The great dead poet just pops out of the war.

Well, different books tell different stories.

Owen’s technical mastery had me – I don’t know.  It is, on the one hand, easy to be absorbed by subject, the pathos of the myriad deaths of Owen’s young men, but it is similarly easy to pause over a stanza’s language, savoring the pararhymes and searching for the assonance and so on, all of the effects that make the poem sound so good, read aloud or otherwise.

from Exposure

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deathly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew;
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
                But nothing happens.   (ll. 16-20)

The last line is a refrain.  I picked this stanza because it is transparent, the repeated “fl-“ and “w-“ words close together.  “Sudden successive… silence… shudders…  sidelong,” that last word somehow shifting into the “fl-“ cluster.  “Snow” and “renew” seem more like slant rhymes than pararhymes, but “silence / -chalance” is ingenious.  You vary the vowels, but keep the consonants, if you don’t want to look up “pararhyme” – “mood / mud,” “grinned / groaned”:

‘My Love!’ one moaned.  Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
                 And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned
                 Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
                And the Gas hissed.  (from “The Last Laugh,” ll. 11-15)

His imagery is as skilled as his versifying.  The air shudders, the flakes pause, the shells groan – wonderful stuff, at a distance, but by the time any but a few poets read these poems, it was at a distance.

I suppose the beginning of a poet’s Annus Mirabilis does not lend itself to anniversaries like a death, but 2017 – more like October or November, though, not now – is the hundredth anniversary of the creation of a great poet.


  1. "You vary the verbs, but keep the consonants": perhaps you mean vowels rather than verbs. Yes?

    "air that shudders black with snow": I've lived in some harsh arctic climates (e.g., Iceland), and I cannot relate to the image; what am I missing in "black with snow"?

    Poets in WW1, like everyone else in that carnage, were confronted by war in new and terrifying forms; the poets needed new and stronger language to express the new terror. Owens was a master!

  2. Oh, yes, "vowels." Odd sideways error there. Thanks; I'll correct.

    As for "black," I don't know. The word I think really hits there is the verb, "shudders." That I feel I have seen, the air shuddering during a blizzard.

  3. Not to long ago I read The Delphi Complete Edition of his works. You can see the imoact of the English class structure in the poems which perhaps amplifies his love of the "common Tommy". The war poems are truly great, as you said the others show a poet just developing. Thanks for this post.

  4. Owen is amazing. I don't know what else to say, except that I love how he uses traditional formal structures with such untraditional subject matter.

  5. Yes, I thought I should just gush about Owen. What a great poet. What a match of subject and form in the war poems.