A companion piece to HAS YOUR SOUL SIPPED, SONG OF SONGS was written during Owen's early days at Craiglockhart where he had come under the care of Dr. Arthur Brock. One of Brock's psychiatric strategies was to get patients working on their own specialisms or interests, and in this sense he might be seen as Sassoon's predecessor in facilitating Owen's flowering as a poet. When Sassoon read SONG OF SONGS he pronounced it 'perfect work, absolutely charming' and asked for copies, a proud moment.
It was printed in Craiglockhart's journal THE HYDRA in September 1917, and the following May won a prize and a place in the literary magazine THE BOOKMAN; being, along with THE NEXT WAR, MINERS, FUTILITY and HOSPITAL BARGE, the only examples of his work to appear in print during Owen's lifetime.
An interesting point about the poem is do we consider it simply as an exercise in the poet's craft or does it say anything of value and significance? Owen himself suggested it didn't. He wrote nine months later to Susan saying,
'The Bookman affair about which you are so kindly
importunate was a mere idle job, an old lyric I
condescended to send from Scarboro'.
Still, he did pick one particular theme as against many other possibilities. It's a love poem, not we might think in Owen's style although he'd written others, for example THE TWO REFLECTIONS (1912), SONNET (1913), IMPROMPTU (1915) and HOW DO I LOVE THEE (1917). However, these weren't written with women in mind, and SONG OF SONGS might just be an exception.
1 July 1917 To a family friend Nelly Bulman:
'….I am not able to settle down here without seeing Mother. I feel a sort of reserve and suspense about everything I do.'
2 July 1917 To Susan Owen:
'…I want to see you now. Oh Mother!'
30 July 1917 To Susan Owen (who has travelled to Edinburgh to see him)
'The "only once" (when Wilfred felt such exultation) was when I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure, at the Caledonian. I thought you looked very beautiful and well, through the veil, and especially on the night of the concert. But without the veil I saw better the supremer beauty of the ashes of all your sacrifices….'
SONG OF SONGS addresses the object of his love, craving gifts that will capture her essence: the songs implicit in her laughter, speech, sighs and heart. Laughter and smiles accompany the dawn. Her spoken words are the melody that sustains the daytime hours. At evening comes the solace of her sigh; at night highly charged emotion.
Unconventional features are the 3-line stanzas and the triplets of pararhyme. The iambic pentameter is only slightly modified, while the poetic diction includes a few archaic forms - laugheth, viols, solaceth (hard to say!). We might question some of the figurative language.
Line 3 'Like Love that cannot flute for smiling at Life.'
A simile that would seem to clash with 'Sing me at dawn' in line 1.
Line 8 'Like lifting seas it solaceth…..'
Surely they would mostly cause disquiet rather than solace.
Line 9 '…the sense that no songs say.'
Not if we take 'songs' as we've taken them in the rest of the poem, that is, figuratively.
Line 11 'And let its moaning like a chord be heard'
A simile that does nothing to enlarge the image.
No matter, a love lyric may be less accountable for detail than for its overall effect - and affect. While SONG OF SONGS may or may not have an unwritten agenda, it certainly has a written one, that is, trying out or trying on a device (pararhyme) which was to prove so assertive a technique in getting across the message of Wilfred Owen in the days to come.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006