Apologia Pro Poemate Meo

"Of this I am certain," Owen told his mother on 31 October 1918, (and they were the last words of the last letter he was to write),"you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here."

It was one thing a war geared to acts of destruction could not destroy. It is what APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE is about.

"I have made fellowships" (17), we read, the durability of which Owen underlines through the metaphor of war.

…wound with war's hard wire whose stakes are strong;

Bound with the bandage of arm that drips;

Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong. (24-4)

Comradeship, together with resentment of civilians who should be fighting in the war but were not, constitute solid statements in a poem that, giving as it does a divergent perspective on Owen's war experience, gives rise to certain questions, even doubts.

There is optimism here of a kind, though how well-grounded has yet to be decided. However, the regular stanzas, rhyme scheme, rhythm all help to lift it above the muted gravity that characterises so much of Owen's best work, although at the same time variations of metre (a mixture of iambs and trochees) prevent jauntiness.

We know that late in 1917, about the time APOLOGIA is dated, Robert Graves had recommended Owen to cheer up and write more optimistically. This advice had been accompanied by such praise as Owen decided entitled him to write to Susan Owen about it. It is more than tempting, therefore, to imagine him considering a more upbeat approach to his task. Be that as it may, we shall find nothing like the tone he adopts in APOLOGIA elsewhere in the poems.

I, too, saw God through mud - (1)

Although the pronoun indicates a personal poem, like THE SENTRY, DULCE ET DECORUM EST and THE DEAD BEAT, it is unlike them in not being rooted in detailed personal experience. And although it is unlike, for example, SPRING OFFENSIVE, THE SEND-OFF or ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH where Owen distances himself from the action, it is yet like those poems in that it encapsulates a note of prophecy.

War brought more glory to their eyes than blood… (3)

Glory! Not a word we find often in Owen: one we associate more with Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell. In stanza 2 we read -

Merry it was to laugh there-

Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.

For power was on us as we slashed bones bare

Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

A troubling stanza indeed. Merry to laugh! In the trenches?

Coming after as it does -

And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child. (4)

We aren't sure if this represents emotion recollected in tranquillity or in fantasy. To talk of pride in slashing bones bare and not to feel remorse or sickness may be poetry but it doesn't sound much like pity.

What mental state finds life and death absurd?

I, too, have dropped off Fear - (9)

How plausible is that? Even if true, we remember those lines in INSENSIBILITY -

…cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns

That they should be as stones

A sensitive man such as Owen without fear? "Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life," he'd written on 16th January 1917, and on the 19th, "We are wretched beyond my previous imagination." As for laughing and feeling merry -

18th February 1917. It is a good thing no photographs can be taken by night. If they could they would not appear in the Daily Mirror which I see still depicts the radiant smiles of Tommies. (Owen writing home.)

His poem SMILE, SMILE, SMILE makes much the same point.

Altogether, the merits and demerits of Apologia are not easy to discriminate. Almost it reads like a paradox, a set of contradictions, with truth contained amid apparent falsities. The pure love which is comradeship, and war seem mutually exclusive, yet war may be where comradeship at its best is found. War is evil yet may admit moments of spiritual significance.

In spite of reservations we know Owen was not a "Brooke". Probably had Brooke known what Owen knew he would not have been a "Brooke" either. That Owen could "drop off" fear does not exclude his taking it up again. That comrades' faces could be "seraphic for an hour" (16) does not imply even a whole day. Owen's superb metaphor to describe the strength of true fellowship in stanza 6 may be allowed to outweigh the odd expression or two in sub-Keatsian or Shelley-like mode, [ "And sailed my spirit surging light and clear" (11), "Shine and lift up with passion of oblation" (15)].

At the same time his positive celebration of comradeship should maybe overshadow his negative feelings about non-combatants. When he concludes - "These men are worth your tears" (he means comrades), "You are not worth their merriment" (35-6), the scorn is not what we should remember Owen for. Whatever our questions about merriment, Owen has certainly recorded elsewhere his experiences of exhilaration, of his "spirit surging light and clear", and those in the unlikeliest of situations.

For his brother Colin, to whom he writes from No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly on 14th May 1917, he describes the fighting at Fig Wood (St. Quentin)*** the previous month.

There was (he says) an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly…

And after a "tornado of shells" -

I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.

Exultation. It is a word he thought sufficiently apposite to include in APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO. And as "showing ourselves openly" is what poets do, let us allow the word and the concept to stand.


*** See "St. Quentin 1914-1918" by McPhail & Guest. Leo Cooper 2000.

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Copyright: Kenneth Simcox, 2001

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