NOTE: For an explanation of the military offence "S.I.W." and its background concerning Wilfred Owen, please visit the web page of the Virtual Tour entitled "The Site of No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly Today.
The poem which was started at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917 divides into four unequal parts: Prologue (14 lines), Action (4), Poem (7) and Epilogue (2), corresponding to (a) the man's background and mental state, (b) the central event, (c) commentary, (d) final twist; a structure which seems arbitrary and disparate. Rhythm too is variable throughout, but variations in the rhyme scheme mostly occur once the introduction is done with, and such variation helps to augment the final dramatic impact.
Pressure is exerted on the man who kills himself from three directions: having to endure the hell of battle, military tradition and the family back home.
First he suffers an existence
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim (12)
And undergoes the
…..torture of lying machinally shelled, (19)
As Owen puts it -
….never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch.
Cleverly he captures the feeling of entrapment: the "infrangibly wired and blind trench wall" -
Curtained with fire, roofed in with creeping fire,
Slow grazing fire, that would not burn him whole
But kept him from death's promises….. (31-4)
In addition to the hell of military action there's pressure from people, his immediate superiors with the whole war machine itself behind him; all demanding more than this man can bear.
At the pleasure of this world's Powers who'd run amok. (20)
To those powers he owes -
…..more days of inescapable thrall, (30)
while from his NCOs and officers he risks
And life's half-promising, and both their riling. (34-5).
Also for breaches of discipline, condemnation, calumny, contempt.
Where does Owen stand in all this? Although by referring to "our" wire patrol (25) and admitting "we" could do nothing (26) he acknowledges his being there at the time, his account of the tragedy shows understanding but not, noticeably, pity.
Lastly, there's pressure from the family who pat him and underline what they expect from him by telling him to-
….. show the Hun a brave man's face; (2)
and just to make sure the message gets across -
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same, (9)
So, all the time knowing he mustn't let them down, the burden grows.
Owen's phrase "inescapable thrall" (30) owes much to the family as it does to trench life and the military machine. "Their people never knew", (referring to the families of previous offenders) shows the extent to which his own family is on his mind.
Sisters are envious and belligerent, brothers more casual but inevitably tuned in to the family ethos, and then there's Father who -
Was proud to see him going, aye and glad. (4)
…..would sooner him dead than in disgrace, - (3)
There's no mistaking what Father thinks:
"Death sooner than dishonour, that's the style!" (23)
Father is more concerned for himself and his standing in the community than for his son. Meanwhile, Mother romanticises about having "a nice safe wound to nurse" (6). Get real, we feel like saying, though to be fair to her it's typical of Owen's scorn for the women at home, which shows, too, in the pejorative verbs "whimpered" and "fret".
Part 3 is The Poem, Part 1 merely The Prologue, but there is "poetry" also in the latter (lines 13-18) that reveals the mental and physical state of the man.
…….. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain. (15-16)
Is a marvellous observation-based simile, and although with "the hunger of his brain" (13) we cannot be sure of the precise insight we are being offered, the effect is clear enough. That death should be "withheld" (18) suggests the rejection of chance in favour of some hostile transcendent force, and is a tantalising thought.
Others have been there before to show the way (21), "Yet they were vile" (22). Propaganda has done its work, and Owen's declaration. "It was the reasoned crisis of his soul" (29) shows fellow feeling though not necessarily vindication.
Owen reserves precise details of the act for the final dramatic two lines in which "kissed" and "smiling" take on a sinister, frightening aspect. But even now the story is hardly complete, for how can we know if Owen intended the teasing ambiguity in the last line or not?
The largely colloquial diction, together with the draft date, September 1917, suggests Sassoon's influence. There is a comparison to be made between S.I.W. and a fine poem of Sassoon's, THE HERO in which the protagonist, like Owen's, is "blown to small bits" under ostensibly ignominious circumstances. The mothers of both men are consoled, in Owen by being told "Tim died smiling", in Sassoon by being made to believe her son died a hero.
On this occasion the comparison may not be in Owen's favour. Where the tone of S.I.W. is fairly dispassionate, Sassoon's poem, though vigorous and satirical, also manages to breathe compassion.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001