This poem is remembered chiefly for its early experiments in pararhyme. Earlier examples can be found but not on so large a scale. It was written some time between Owen's arrival at Craiglockhart War Hospital in late June 1917 and his life-changing meeting with Siegfried Sassoon in mid - August.
A letter to his mother on 13 August may give some indication of his state of mind at the time. A tirade against Canterbury's Archbishop for laying aside Christ's injunction to love your enemies as unsuitable in present circumstances concludes that Christianity was virtually dead, and goes on:
'…thinking of the eyes I have seen made sightless, and the bleeding lad's cheeks I have wiped, I say Vengeance is mine, I, Owen will repay.'
Was HAS YOUR SOUL SIPPED? prompted by a line in Charles Sorley? Stallworthy's 1985 edition of Owen tells us that on the last MS page of Owen's poem Owen had written on the back, 'Marlboro & other poems/ Chas Sorely' (sic). This was a January 1916 collection of sonnets which included the line,
'When you see millions of the mouthless dead….'
Stanza 9 in Owen's poem has:
'To me was that smile.
Faint as a wan, worn myth,
Faint and exceeding small,
On a boy's murdered mouth.'
However, going back to MAUNDY THURSDAY (1915) references to mouths and lips continue to appear, an aspect of the Decadent convention in verse which, once taken up, Owen was never quite to put down again.
In this 11-stanza, 4-line lyric (except, curiously to insert one of six lines) Owen first addresses his question about soul-sipping to someone as yet unidentified. Going on to witness 'a strange sweetness' which in six further stanzas he proclaims outclasses whatever delights he can think of. Again the nature of this sweetness remains undisclosed until stanza 9 when he assigns it to the face of a dead young soldier and his smile which Owen manages to invest with mythological, halcyon and sexual qualities.
Each line is short - 4,5,6,7 syllables, the basic dactylic metre variable. A freakish shape and a freakish theme. Pararhyme occurs throughout, as it were, fracturing the verse. Altogether Owen produces an aberrant effect consonant with the abnormality of the event.
Few poets before or since can have recognised in violent death 'a strange sweetness', or culminate several stanzas of lyrical diction in which the word 'sweet' and its variants are repeated no fewer than nine times, with an astonishing oxymoron, 'sweet murder'.
The images Owen selects in order that they shall be transcended - 'rays of the rubies of morning', 'soft rise of the moon', 'nocturnes of the wild nightingale' and so on - are all conventional, objective to the extent that anyone of a poetic bent might have picked on them. What then is startling is the abrupt shift to an image that is not conventional at all but subjective and totally idiosyncratic:
Though from his throat
The life-tide leaps
There was no threat
On his lips
But with the bitter blood
And the death-smell
All his life's sweetness bled
Into a smile.
Hibberd has pointed out how in HAS YOUR SOUL SIPPED, 'The poetic quest for a strange beauty and exquisite sensation has found a kind of fulfilment.' That self-indulgence will, once Owen has found his true voice, be sublimated more often than not in more selfless regions of the mind and result in such masterworks as STRANGE MEETING:
'The pity of war, the pity war distilled'
A different kind of fulfilment was to mark another poem about a dead soldier which Owen wrote nine months later, for FUTILITY is characterised by pity in a pure form with a metaphysical dimension.
But by then Wilfred Owen had become a true poet.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006