'The soldier held his peace. In the distance he saw the night as they would pass it - cramped up, trembling with vigilance in the deep darkness at the bottom of the listening-hole whose ragged jaws showed in black outline all around whenever a gun hurled its dawn into the sky.'
Of the books Wilfred Owen read at Scarborough in December 1917 was the above-quoted UNDER FIRE by Henri Barbusse, so obviously an influence on Owen's fragment CRAMPED IN THAT FUNNELLED HOLE.
Stanza 1 sets the scene, making clear by means of metaphor, the men's perilous state, while the second stanza further disfigures the picture through hellish images not now of sight but smell, feeling and hideous sensation.
That word 'cramped'. In GREATER LOVE Owen writes:
'Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death's extreme decrepitude'
And earlier that year, commenting on an evangelical mission carrying on Christ's work from a business premises in London,
'St Paul's business premises, if I remember, were
somewhat cramped, not to say confined.'
Not only are these men assailed by fear but by claustrophobic lack of space, the physical discomfort suffered once by the apostle in prison and now by soldiers in the trenches.
'I'm going to get up at dawn tomorrow and do a dawn piece'
wrote Owen on 3 December 1917 - and went on to prove it.
'……………..they watched the dawn
Open a jagged rim around….. (1-2)
A beginning which matches an observation in a greater poem of similar date, EXPOSURE -
'The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow.'
In both poems incisive hurt is a main feature. EXPOSURE has
'……………mad gusts tugging on the wire
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles'
and for an opening line -
'Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us'
while 'CRAMPED….'s particular cutting edge gives us in addition to dawn's 'jagged' rim, 'death's jaws' and the shell's odour that is not only sour but 'sharp'.
What then of Owen's startling simile a hell 'felt as teeth of traps'? As a boy he had come under the influence of an evangelical Christianity that affirmed Hell to be a real place for the torment of sinners, and if now, intellectually, he had cast aside that belief, the psychological effect may have still lingered. Poems such as CRAMPED….. do seem to depict the field of battle as an embodiment of the infernal regions with its trenches, tunnels, shafts, dugouts and pit-scarred landscapes. What awaited Owen during his first days at the Front were -
'An octopus of sucking clay 3 4 and 5 feet deep….craters full of water.'
Then in March 1917 he fell into a 'shell-hole in a floor laying open a deep cellar.' He finished up in hospital and before long again found himself below ground.
'For twelve days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out…..
I was blown in the air…. passed most of the following days in a Railway cutting
in a hole just big enough to lie in….'
For comrades to share 'the sorrowful dark of hell' (APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO) was the insignia of their freemasonry. Owen dreams of 'all that worked dark pits of war, and died' (MINERS), while his worst nightmares were encapsulated in the craters, hidden holes and foul openings of THE SHOW. From metaphor to ambiguity and uncertainty. Significant that what is arguably a poetic masterpiece, SPRING OFFENSIVE, presents us with a double vision, a terrifying view of Hell in the line.
'On the hot blast and fury of hells upsurge'
and then a morally ironic view of Hell's challenge faced and conquered
'With superhuman inhumanities
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames - '
Making us ponder too the paradox in STRANGE MEETING of Hell the place of reconciliation and true comradeship.
CRAMPED IN THAT FUNNELLED HOLE is not a poem to be judged on its own but as part of a pattern, and compared to other excursions into Hell it lacks impact. Setting out to pinpoint war's ghastly horrors it strives for an effect that isn't realised: experience recollected in too much tranquillity perhaps.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST leaves us sickened. THE SHOW will always be a living nightmare. MENTAL CASES reaches out to pity's depths. And in a different idiom and on a higher level SPRING OFFENSIVE and STRANGE MEETING engage our sensibilities to an advanced degree. In fact Owen's evocations of Hell invite a range of responses. CRAMPED IN THAT FUNNELLED HOLE is a skilfully made miniature of men who find themselves in that hell. But made, not felt
Copyright: Ken Simcox 2005