It promised well at first, Wilfred Owen's lay curacy in the Berkshire village of Dunsden, though before many months he was beginning to have doubts about the Vicar's evangelising ways. He worried about the lack of opportunity for study and the condition of the village poor. His cousin Kathleen Laughrey had died. He'd attended his first funeral and 'mourned there- for other cause than people thought.' January 1912 found him 'feeling at low vitality', for the Reverend Herbert Wigan, uncongenial companion and mentor, was gradually sucking the patience out of him. 'If others knew the fog, fog, fog which rolled my mind,' he wrote home in the March. He moaned about 'my hours of ennui.' Certainly it was a time when religion had begun to loosen its hold. As he wrote on 23 April, ' I am increasingly liberalising and liberating my thought.'
Out of the fog emerged SUPPOSED CONFESSIONS OF A SECONDRATE MIND IN DEJECTION, except for the final two words an exact reproduction of one of Tennyson's early titles, a poet with whom Wilfred was already well acquainted. But there the comparison ends. Tennyson's piece is altogether more measured, more rooted in Christian orthodoxy. What marks Owen's 'confessions' is that they are the product of a mind seemingly haunted in the extreme.
Hibberd has demonstrated how 'the image of the deathly face' (personified as the Gorgon's in Owen's poem) 'always obsessed him', emerging later in the war poems, 'a projection of his own imagination and unspoken urges arousing guilt, fear and helplessness.'
He often had nightmares, a symptom of the condition for which Dr. Brock treated him at Craiglockhart, and it is hard not to feel that the religion he first absorbed at the knee of a mother with Calvinist leaning had something to do with that.
Broken stanzas of 4,20,4,12,4,18 and 16 lines fittingly suggest disorder. The rhythm too is disturbed, dactyls fracturing the basic iambic pentameter. Even the almost regular abba rhyme scheme is halted at line 53 and again at 62 by words that rhyme with nothing else at all.
To this young poet nothing but poetic language would do. All the ayes, ye's, thys etc and the inversions (lovely the tones, there find I), compelling images and personification in profusion, add up to an impressive literary exercise without always inducing empathy between writer and reader. Except perhaps at the start when Owen reflects on the power of melancholy verse to give both pain and pleasure. Here he finds himself identifying himself with his beloved Keats:
'O then, how firm and close was his embrace
Unto Despondency.' (10-11)
Yet there's another side to things, applicable both to Keats (gone to Italy to die) and Owen himself:
'But think not, if your life-blood still is warm,
That ye have looked upon Despondency.
Ye have but seen her in another's eye…..' (17-19)
And once the Perseus-Gorgon analogy is introduced, interesting theory then becomes terrifying reality:
'Down-dragged like a corpse in sucking, slimy fen,
I sank to feel the breath of that Despair.' (27-8)
After which there's no going back.
Stanza 4 connects us with the world of night(day)mare and the 'balm' Owen seeks in stanza 5, by stanza 6 is found to be illusory. Instead he is faced by 'hellish scenes' (46), nature herself in agony and
'A grave for me at hand.' (53)
Relief through oblivion perhaps? Not so. Just as poetry's 'marvellous boy' would have discovered that
'……………………..Death is not the end:
No death for such as thou, O Chatterton.' (67-8)
so is Owen forced to the same conclusion, though in his own case with a different outcome, for the poem ends in total bleakness and the despairing cry:
'……………………………………… O dense
The darkness that shall flood around me then;
Denser the clouds of biting arrows, when
Vile devil-broods to torment bear me hence!'
For one who was supposed to be 'liberalising and liberating' his thought at the time, it is a remarkable document.
Or did he simply get carried away?
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006