On 15th October 1912 the nineteen year-old Wilfred Owen, parish assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading, went to a funeral. It was not his first: that had been ten months before when he had worn black 'and mourned there - for other cause than people thought.' The other cause could have been the recent death of his cousin Kathleen Loughrey but wasn't; rather, he confessed, it had been his beginning 'to count the probabilities of my duration.'
Such moments of self-regard were not uncommon.
Alice Mary Allen and her daughter Hilda Agnes, aged four, died on 11th October 1912 in a horse-and-cart accident, and four days later Wilfred watched them being buried, while the seeds of what would become perhaps the most significant of his early poems grew within him.
What emerged were four seven-line stanzas that set the scene and reflected on its implications, and did so in an overblown style which includes alteration of normal word order ('But as I spoke, came many children nigh') and archaic grammatical forms ('methought', 'adown') and diction ('terrene', 'whelmed').
The rhyme scheme is regular whereas a basic iambic metre has just enough variations to emphasise meaningful words such as 'Deep' to start the poem off, 'scorning' (line 8) and 'hurrying' (16); while extra syllables in the final stanza help harness the mind to the sense rather than the sound.
There will be three further occasions in the poems of Wilfred Owen when buryings occur, tone and intention being different each time. For instance, irony in 'S.I.W.'
'With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the mother, "Tim died smiling".'
Then in 'Exposure' -
'The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces.'
A sense of numbness prevails, while in '(AS BRONZE MAY BE MUCH BEAUTIFIED)' this short piece speaks of pity and resignation:
'But what of them buried profound,
Buried where we can no more find,
Who ( )
Lie dark for ever under abysmal war?
('DEEP UNDER TURFY GRASS') represents a phase in Owen's religious development.
In stanza 1 the earth is heavy beneath which the bodies of the bruised dead mother and her child lie deep, and heavy and 'heart-wild' is the young Wilfred Owen as he ponders the meaning of this double tragedy.
Why did it happen? Were they 'victims of a swift mischance' (3)? Swift certainly although 'Death's trapdoor' in line 4, a superb metaphor, and 'beguiled' (enticed) do suggest active malevolence not passive bad luck. As he looks for someone, something, to blame for this 'cold shame' (7) he rounds on Heaven itself and the Gospel's over-arching principle of love which a seemingly arbitrary and callous act has cancelled out.
In stanza 2 Owen switches from accusing a culpable Creator to indicting mortal men and women whom he 'scorns' and 'mocks' (8). How can the warmth of life-giving marriage be sanctified on altar steps that coffin after coffin have rendered cold? Forget 'Love's fierce flame' (6). It's 'Love's blindness' (12) that prevents those who wed from seeing what the fruits of marriage will amount to in the end.
How Owen dons prophet's robes to denounce religious orthodoxy;
'I will go counsel men, and show what bin
The harvest of their homes is gathered in' (13-14)
However, such assurance is short-lived.
Stanza 3, while rather marred by mannered 'poetic' diction and grammar, has Owen questioning the children's motives in 'hurrying lightly' to the grave - until he realises that although curiosity may have brought them there, the understanding of some at least may be superior to his own.
Wordsworth ends his IMMORTALITY ODE thus:
'To me the meanest flower that grows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.'
Similarly, the image of 'rich-odoured flowers and their antithesis the 'fetid earth' which complement the marriage and death device in stanza 2, are at the same time manifestations of 'Death's riddle' (21) and, to youthful instinct, the answer to it.
Finally, in stanza 4, Owen will find his own answer from a different angle, not from the grave but in one of the children clustered round it whose 'pale brows' (22) suggest she has come not to spy but to sorrow. Could she have been Milly Montague, a particular favourite of Wilfred's, for we assume a girl from the simile in line 23? Whoever she was the effect on Owen is immediate like that on Saul on the road to Damascus. He like Saul, ceases to kick against the pricks, now reconciled that
'….Birth and Death should be, just for the freeing
Of one such face from Chaos' murky womb
For Hell's reprieve is worth not this one bloom.'
And yet….Bloom. Hibberd has pointed out the ambiguous symbolism of flowers as exemplified in Owen's later poem 'THE SEND OFF' and the women giving flowers to the departing soldiers. It's possible that Owen's final thoughts in this poem will undergo some recasting in his mind as he gains in knowledge and experience.
Copyright Ken Simcox 2005