Two features set the tone of this triple-quatrain fragment: the stuttering rhythm induced by a mixture of metre and number of syllables to the line, a broken rhyme scheme with its spattering of pararhymes; the effect of which may be likened to that of music in a minor key. Fittingly, it ends not in a full stop but a question mark indicating irresolution. It begins
As bronze may be much beautified
By lying in the dark damp soil…
Shades here of the young Wilfred, his early poem URICONIUM: AN ODE and his fascination with the Roman remains found there; remembered experience that may have set him thinking about an aspect of war that had him troubled.
What Owen does in the first two stanzas is make what seems an unequivocal statement about the war dead. This he does by linking a pair of concrete images (bronze and pearls) with a metaphysical truth. This is so, therefore that is so also. Striking similes both but can they be taken on trust? That the initial word of stanza 3 is 'but' says something about the train of Owen's thought in the Spring of 1918 (his manuscript is dated Good Friday which was 29 March) and a good deal about the nature of poetry itself.
His posting from Scarborough to Ripon that March sent shock waves through his system. From a busy but not uncomfortable life looking after the Officers' Mess he was suddenly forced for the first time in months to be a soldier.
'An awful camp-huts-dirty blankets-in fact WAR once more,' he wrote on 12 March. He became ill, 'sweating under Army blankets'. To find blood splashed on sister Mary's birthday parcel reminded him, he said, 'of war again.'
To see 'people with crippled arms' doing 'special physical exercises' was 'rather pitiful.' It was the start of Holy Week when he lamented, 'They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel, which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls.' Good Friday was marked by 'fearful fighting.' On Easter Sunday he was contemplating 'the inwardness of war.' 'The enormity of the present battle numbs me,' he wrote, and he thought of his young friend Johnny de la Touche who 'must be a creature of killable age by now.' Next day he was telling his cousin Leslie Gunston, 'All the joy of this good weather is for me haunted by the vision of the lands about St. Quentin crawling with wounded.'
Such was his state of mind when he began this fragment by comparing the physical enhancement of bronze that has lain in the soil, to the soul's flowering in 'men who fade in dust of warfare'. The body sullied, the spirit cleansed, thus runs the paradox. Similarly with pearls tarnished but restored when entrusted to the sea's salt:
Many return more lustrous than they were. (8)
However, with Owen's mind in stress, as his letters show, in stanza 3 the mood darkens and he turns back on himself.
But what of them buried profound,
Buried where we can no more find…
The line that has escaped comes next, and then a last descent into disillusionment:
Lie dark for ever under abysmal war?
Only the question mark, we feel, separates Owen (and ourselves) from total dejection.
Why did he not finish it? Was it because he could not bear to do so?
Six months earlier he had written a poem which he came to revise soon after AS BRONZE was sketched out, and to which AS BRONZE seems to be related.
In ASLEEP, Owen had already pondered the ultimate fate of a dead soldier.
Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God's making…
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old…
It's a question that Owen decided not to pursue.
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
Easier, he thinks, to answer a question of his own, that is, who is worst off? He seems in no doubt.
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!
Returning to the present poem, AS BRONZE promised to carry ASLEEP a stage further before Owen's vision faded like the men 'in dust of warfare' fade, and the question at the end signalled a search for resolution unfound.
Copyright Ken Simcox 2005