"Being the philosophy of many soldiers" Owen added to the title, and logically he included it under "Philosophy" in his Preface's List of Contents. Philosophical it is, under-rated too and not the object of much critical attention.
One poem became another. Scarborough 3 December 1917: "…finished an important poem this afternoon", and on 6th he reported that WILD WITH ALL REGRETS was "begun and ended two days ago at one gasp." The following April, at Ripon, found him retouching "a photographic representation" of an officer dying of wounds, which after further revision that July had turned into A TERRE, a poem the Sitwells included in their 1919 publication WHEELS.
A lengthy birth and among Owen's war poems the lengthiest (65 lines) of all. About WILD WITH ALL REGRETS (it applies equally to A TERRE) he had written to Sassoon, "If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say, 'Here is poetry', it will be so for me. What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt?" By that he meant pararhyme with which the poem is top-heavy, a "stunt" that should perhaps be used more sparingly lest it lose its power to surprise.
Ten stanzas of variable length, each explore a different aspect of the situation: 1 (lines 1-4) The dying man's physical state, 2 (5-10) His mental condition. 3 (11-18) Looking back, 4 (19-24) Clinging to life, 5 (25-35) Dirt and death - an extended metaphor, 6 (36-47) Consolation and idealism denied, 7 (48-57) How will it be?
(58-60) Hope rejected, 9 (61-63) Who is this friend? 10 (64-65) A cry from the heart
In hospital an officer lies dying of wounds. We can tell he's an officer from the diction which though largely colloquial is not the same demotic that we find in THE CHANCES. "I tried to peg out soldierly" (5) - a croquet term; "my buck" (11) - a fine fellow; "buffers" (14) - old fashioned-types; not the language of the average private soldier who again was less likely to be talking about teaching a son hitting, shooting, war and hunting (16-17).
His medals, once cherished, now mere "pennies on my eyes" (7), the ribbons having been "ripped from my own back" (9). How different now from then, when to be old and to be dead would seem much the same. He envies his servant, still alive when he himself is gone, whose menial tasks he wishes he could do; even envies trench rats their living state. No feeble attempt at humour can disguise the fear and anguish. To live one more year, one spring even:
Spring wind would work its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots. (23-4)
Freakishly, whimsically he thinks
Dead men may envy living mites in cheese
Or good germs even. Microbes have their Joys. (40-1)
How will he end up? As grain…buds…soap? (48-9)
Do you think the Boche will ever stew man-soup? (50)
He wonders, and then with the break in line 51,
(Some day no doubt, if….)
new trains of thought, more rational, more serious, lead to
…Friend, be very sure
and tiny rays of hope appear -
Soldiers may grow a soul when turned to fronds (59)
But ambiguity and doubt win once more, expressed figuratively in a nice blend with the colloquial. The simile in
One dies of war like any old disease (6)
brings thoughts about the nature of war. War and disease, how comparable are they? Both are preventable - to an extent. Both spread. Both remain intractable. Then comes a startling image:
Discs to make eyes close (8)
Literally so, but also in the sense that the kudos of medal winning may close eyes to what Owen calls elsewhere (in DULCE ET DECORUM EST) "the old lie", the contiguity of war and glory. Thus, and in the light of lines 30-35, "my glorious ribbons" (9) can be seen ironically as can the remark in line 18, "Well, that's what I learnt" (to teach a son aggression).
The long dirt-death metaphor (30-35) conceives death to be the ultimate woe as distinct from life-retaining defilement.
Enjoying so the dirt. Who's prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own's quite dust,
Less live than specks………..
Better a sweep (black as Town) or muckman than a muckman's load. Death the absolute.
Tel me how long I've got (20)
Is a question not a statement, and when hope tentatively enters ("Soft rains will touch me, - as they could touch once") it is a hope of a very wavering kind.
A TERRE, dedicated to Sassoon, catches his style. Other writers too, who left their mark on Owen, resonate in his poem. King Lear of the Fool, "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all". Shelley's Adonais. "He is made one with Nature". From Housman's A Shropshire Lad, "And since to look at things in bloom, Fifty springs are little room". We find echoes too of Owen himself in such poems as INSPECTION, INSENSIBILITY, MINERS, FUTILITY.
There's another link. A TERRE is addressed to some one, who is invited to "sit on the bed" (1), to "be careful" (2). Owen refers to "your poetry book" (10), "your jest" (58), "your guns"….chest….throat" (56-62). "My buck" (11), "We used to say" (12), "….not worse than ours" (37), and "D'you think?" (50) all suggest the presence of a second person. Who? A brother officer probably, though, perhaps illogically, a more fantastic thought may occur.
"Friend, be very sure" says the dying man, and where else in Owen is some one addressed thus? In DULCE ET DECORUM EST;
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest….
However, so ironic a tone would hardly belong here. STRANGE MEETING?
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
In A TERRE we read:
Your guns may crash around me…. (56)
My soul's a little grief, grappling your chest,
To climb your throat on sobs….
Dying men may have strange visions, especially men with enquiring minds who are diggers out of truth, who carry within them something of Owen himself.
A passing thought, probably not worth considering. Still, both poems do have a philosophical bent.
To be one with nature after death (43-7) whether from the idealistic view of the poet or from the realistic one of the ordinary soldier, would certainly serve a useful purpose.
To grain, then, go my fat, to buds my sap,
For all the usefulness there is in soap (48-9)
While at the same time
I shall be better off with plants that share
More peaceably the meadow and the shower (52-3)
Which is fine until that further logical step:
……I'll not hear (the guns)
Or if I wince, I shall not know I wince. (56-7)
To be unaware of evil things, that's good; but to be unaware of the good? An amalgam of hope and despair. "My soul's poor comfort" - yes; however, on the other hand, "my soul's a little grief (61) to be wiped by fresher winds" (63), the wind perhaps that blew down at Pentecost.
"Carry my crying spirit" (64) the dying man (and Owen himself?) pleads, "To do without what blood remained these wounds." (65). Blood is an ambiguous symbol, of salvation but still also of guilt. We think that spiritual certainties had become less than secure in the latter part of the life of Wilfred Owen. A TERRE, more than most, may show us the way his thoughts were taking him up to the time of his death.
Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001