HAPPINESS was drafted in February 1917 during the three weeks Owen spent on a course at the Advanced Horse Transport Depot at Abbeville; and thereafter revised at Craiglockhart in the following August.
The title had come from a series of set subjects on which Wilfred, his cousin Leslie Gunston and their friend Olwen Joergens had agreed to write, and at first we may think it a strange theme so soon after he had endured a punishing baptism of fire in the front line.
Two letters to his mother may explain. On 4 February -
'I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour.'
Nevertheless he does go on to describe them before reminding himself -
'….of how incomparable is an innocent and quiet life, at home, of work creative or humdrum.'
And on 9 February -
'Every detail of this blessed life is sweet and precious.'
A sonnet, though in modified form, HAPPINESS has the iambic pentameter broken six times, either by the addition of one or two extra syllables or on the emphasis being placed on a line's first syllable. In effect, the slowing down brings us up sharply against what Owen is saying. Likewise with the rhyme scheme. A regular pattern in the octet is followed by an irregular final six lines that dispenses with the usual rhymed couplet in the last two.
He describes a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, happiness, joy, pleasure, smiled, laughed - a summation of home life and a mother's love; on the other, sorrowful, grief and grievous, wrongs, sadness and sadder - a result of leaving boyhood behind. Then we get words that suggest human need of security, protection, assurance, a thought he enhances through metaphorical life-giving images of sight, hearing, touch and taste: to breathe pure air, the sun's cleansing touch, a caress, pardoning hands, old doll's-home, nesting place, the wide arm of trees.
As to tone, on the surface the octet is wistful and full of disquieting thoughts, yet negative compared with the more positive ruefulness that marks the closing sestet.
Lines 1 - 6 comprise four rhetorical questions:
'Ever again to breathe pure happiness,
So happy that we gave away our toy?'
He thinks, how foolish we were.
'We smiled at nothings, needing no caress?
Had we known then……
'Have we not laughed too often since with Joy?'
We've tried to convince ourselves.
'Have we not stolen too strange and sorrowful wrongs
For her hands' pardoning?'
Even beyond redemption?
This first section ends with the poet trying to cheer himself up, but 'great songs' and 'pleasures more than men's' do strike an ironic note.
Doubts, if there were any, are fully resolved in the sestet.
Questions and irony become certainty, Owen even using hyperbole by making heaven look 'smaller than the old doll's-home' (9) and Nature losing her power to provide 'tranquil restoration' as Wordsworth puts it. The poem ends -
'The former happiness is unreturning:
Boys' griefs are not so grievous as youth's yearning,
Boys have no sadness sadder than our hope.'
Of HAPPINESS, Dominic Hibberd has written, 'There is no mention at all of war in it, but it was written immediately after his first tour of the trenches,' and there is poignancy in those last lines since for Owen and others, Abbeville would be nothing more than an interval in the main tragedy.
Dedicated to his mother, and with early drafts referring specifically to the happiness of being a mother's boy, Owen said in a letter home of HAPPINESS:
'Between you an' me the sentiment is all bilge, or nearly all. But I think it makes a creditable sonnet.'
Of the second sentence, we may think it holds more water than the one before it.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006