From Scarborough, Wilfred Owen wrote to Siegfried Sassoon on 27th November 1917, "I trust you'll like SOLDIER'S DREAM well enough to pass it on to the NATION or Cambridge." He'd left Craiglockhart at the end of October and it's likely that this particular poem was the last to emanate from the place that had changed his life.
"I dreamed….." it opens. Twice before, at Craiglockhart, Owen had elegised his dreams.
"In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me…..
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
"I can't" he sobbed. Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids
Watch my dreams still.
And doubtless there were many others as well that went unrecorded. Recurrent dreams, unlike this one, seemingly a once-only dream - and open to more than one interpretation.
Two regularly rhymed quatrains are broken by a more disturbing irregular rhythm, a speech element that leads to speculation as to whose voice it is, who he may be, this person who dreamed. The title suggests it may not be Owen himself; a poem written in the first person as if by another.
We find more than one level here. The events of the dream are plain enough. Christ, hating war as much as most of its participants, destroys all means of waging it. And the dreamer's reaction? Thankfulness presumably that the war's over, followed on waking by the horrid realisation that it's not.
But though this may be another's dream, it's Owen's poem, Owen whose reactions would certainly have been the same as the average combatant's, that is, delight asleep, disappointment awake.
Nevertheless there's more to the poem than that, and however much his Christian orthodoxy may have undergone change, that Owen should conceive a situation in which God and His Son are not One but actually at loggerheads must come as some sort of a surprise.
And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs (5)
And when I woke he'd seen to our repairs (8)
Why is "theirs" capitalised? Would there be more significance in the destruction of "their" armaments that of "ours"? And why, when God takes a hand is it only "our" repairs, not "theirs" that He's seen to? Are we to infer that God would leave "them" defenceless while "we" had the wherewithal to blast "them" into submission?
An alternative scenario, to cast not God but the Archangel Michael, commander of God's army, as villain and arms restorer, ignores the fact that Jesus' intervention makes God "vexed".
Like the unhappy rhyming of "pikel" with "Michael", some may find that the whole poem jars. Freakish? Whimsical? Quirky? One certainty is that Owen wrote no other poem like it.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001