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Poetry CritiqueChances

In Stanza 1 a soldier, or ex-soldier, is reminiscing - from what vantage point we don't know. The fighting front? Behind the lines? Hospital? Back home? Wherever it is he and his four mates were talking about "going over the top" next day. One of them, Jim, reckoned they each had five chances, from being killed outright to being wounded to some degree or other, to more or less getting away with it.

In Stanza 2 the narrator relates how, in the event, they all fared.

Written throughout in demotic language, Owen makes much use of Army slang: show = battle, cushy = slightly, scuppered = killed, mushy = not in the best condition, chops = little bits, Fritz = Germans, blighty = a wound serious enough for the recipient to be sent home.

This is Wilfred Owen's only poem written entirely as a monologue. The colloquial dialect is no doubt accurate enough, for this was one form of speech he would have heard regularly in the trenches. It well illustrates the troops' remarkable sang-froid, nevertheless being less educated speech and alien to Owen's true poetic voice it comes over as specious and condescending. It is an irony that Siegfried Sassoon, who came from a much higher social background than Owen, could do this sort of thing rather better.

The two stanzas (6 and 10 lines respectively) comprise a series of rhymed couplets which change to "abab" at the final four lines, possibly to heighten the dramatic effect. The metre is basically iambic pentameter with variations, and incorporating a number of breaks within the line (caesura). The result is a slowish rhythm that may suggest a slowness of speech or indeed thought.

We don't expect colloquial diction to contain much in the way of imagery, and that's fine as regards realism though less helpful in compelling our imaginative grasp of a dire situation. Our senses are not worked on and are little affected. Where Owen gains is by communicating that tone of wry resignation characteristic of those who wage war; where he loses is in adopting an artificial style to which he is not naturally suited.

A cursory reading may fail to reveal certain anomalies regarding what happened to these five men.

One "Had the misfortune to be took by Fritz" (10) while Jim too is taken "pris'ner" (15). Capture was not given as one of the five chances. These included being knocked out, also scuppered, but "scuppered" means killed and so does "knocked out". ("One of us got the knock-out, blown to chops").

As for poor old Jim who was -

…….wounded, killed, and pris'ner, all the lot,

The flamin' lot all rolled in one. Jim's mad. (15-16).

While he might have been wounded and then killed, the chances of a dead man being taken prisoner or even mad seem remote.

One other minor puzzle. Written at Craiglockhart and revised at Scarborough the following July, THE CHANCES, was published in WHEELS in 1919 together with, among others, STRANGE MEETING, THE SHOW and THE SENTRY. Alongside poems of real distinction, this one would seem at best a dubious selection.

Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001

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