A Palinode

PALINODE: A poem in which the poet retracts things said in a former poem.

As a disciple of Wordsworth it's hard to imagine Wilfred Owen laying aside that poet's feelings about Nature as expressed thus:

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being

(TINTERN ABBEY)

Yet that's what he does here. In stanza 11 of this 12 X 4-line stanza poem we read:

….The City now

Holds all my passions; these my soul most feels (41-2)

Written when? It is thought, some time after the early summer of 1915, a time when Owen was much concerned about where the future was leading him. That spring he was still tutoring at Merignac near Bordeaux and writing about the woods, the meadows heaving with new grass, violets 'not shy as in England', anemones 'dense like weeds', primroses 'like the yellow sands of the sea' and the ever-singing nightingale.

All that would change.

That May he passed twice through Paris on a business trip to London from where he reported his luck in finding (a) a gold purse in Brompton Road and (b) that his troublesome cough had gone. On top of that, back at Bordeaux he wrote:

On Sat, being now tired of the West End, I thought a little ugliness would be refreshing; and striking east from the P.O. walked down Fenchurch Street and so into the Whitechapel High Street & the Whitechapel Road. Ugliness! I never saw so much beauty, in two hours, before that Saturday night.

Just as Wordsworth, Nature's apostle, waxed lyrical about London in his 'Westminster Bridge' sonnet, so Owen now follows him by glorifying 'The City' in A PALINODE.

For the first six stanzas - half the poem - Owen recalls his earlier preferences when

….Nature seemed to me

So sympathetic, ample, sweet and good

That I preferred it to Society (2 - 4)

Then solitude was welcome 'altogether and permanently' (6) and he goes on to extol those aspects of Nature he found 'soul rousing and sense lulling' (12) -

The seasonal changes, and the chanting seas (11)

The stark stretch of a bleak-blown moor (14)

In secret deserts where the night was nude (21)

So that

….the contentment of the world was mine (20)

However, as religious belief may break down into religious mania, so do Owen's affective feelings for Nature overrun their rational limit. 'I fell seduced,' he says, 'into a madness' (29) to the point when

I madly hated men and all their ways (31)

Yet it was men who

….ignored not me,

And did not let me in my moonbeams bask (37-8)

What the antidotes were against error that Owen was persuaded to take we do not know -

Unless yourself be poisoned, do not ask (40)

He bids us. For the time being at least, he's a changed man, for

….The City now

Holds all my passion…. (41-2)

Yet while it took six stanzas to praise Nature, the city is rapidly disposed of in two. Crowds, traffic, bridges, then in the final stanza -

Pacific lamentations of a bell;

The smoking of the old men at their doors;

All attitudes of children; the farewell

And casting - off of ships for far off shores (45-8)

It's a curious compilation that doesn't seem to stand up before the impression which the East End of London had left him with on that Saturday night in June 1915. Poetic but somehow not very real.


Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007