One result of Wilfred Owen's two years as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden was his loss of taste for evangelical religion. Yet later, surprisingly, at Bordeaux where he went to teach English in a languages school, he showed that his religious sense had not entirely deserted him. He got on well with the English Pastor there, he attended prayers and Bible classes at the Union Chretienne; he also sought out a Reformed church and the Protestant Temple.
Family influences still had power to draw him back, just as in an opposite direction they tended to confirm him in certain prejudices. One such prejudice was against Roman Catholicism.
It's hard today to imagine the intemperate utterances employed at the turn of the century by Protestants against Catholics and vice versa, in newspapers, sermons and lecture halls. In such an atmosphere was Wilfred Owen brought up. And although his views on religion certainly changed as he grew older there's no evidence that his opinion of Catholicism did so.
In France he attended five R.C. services. On the first occasion - Midnight Mass Christmas 1913 - it was the sniggering of his friends and an uncomfortable draught, not the ritual, that irritated him. But the following Easter he was deploring the non-observance of Good Friday; then at a funeral service in the May he declared himself almost seduced by Catholicism but added that 'the illusion soon passed.' High Mass at Christmas 1914 brought the comment, 'It would take a power of candlegrease and embroidery to romanize me.' Finally at Easter 1915 he went twice: High Mass on the Sunday when he called candle, book and bell 'all like abominations of desolation', and the service of Veneration of the Cross which in the Letters he wrongly attributes to Good Friday. 'Always I come out from these performances an hour and a half older: otherwise unchanged,' he wrote.
MAUNDY THURSDAY is a sonnet of undivided lines in regular iambic pentameter, and it focuses on, first, the different approaches of the congregation to the act of veneration and, second, Owen's momentary and memorable encounter with a 'server- lad' an acolyte with brown hands.
For the men, veneration is a gesture rather than a statement of faith. They are there from habit not conviction. What they kiss is an 'emblem' and less than real. They are 'lugubrious but not sad', their emotion inward not outward looking.
On the other hand for the women it is the Real Presence they worship. Their faith is genuine but their mouths are 'meek', and submission to Church dogma does not recommend itself to the sceptical and independent minded Wilfred Owen.
As for the children, too young to understand yet with imaginations at the alert (kissing a silver doll) their unawareness of the deeper response is soon overtaken by Owen's utter rejection of it.
So does he indirectly deny two thousand years of Catholic doctrine and affirm the precedence of the real over the Real presence. It is bold and shocking the way that he goes through the right motions - kneeling, bending his head, the kiss - all for the wrong reasons.
The Christ was thin and cold, and very dead (line 12)
strikes an immediate chill, while the final line does rather the opposite:
I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.
A startling antithesis in a startling poem that has Wilfred Owen beginning at the altar rails and ending, as some might think, in the Confessional.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007