THE CALLS is not a great poem. However, it's Owen's only one that embodies his growing resolve in 1918 to return to the Front.
'For leaning out last midnight on my sill,
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I must go.'
As early as 31 December 1917 he was writing, 'I think I must go back and be with them.' And once he had got to Officers Command Depot at Ripon in March 1918 with other Light Duty officers 'doing physical drill to fit them for service warfare' the idea was never far from his mind.
By the end of that month he was considering himself 'completely restituted now from Shell Shock', until what happened that July finally crystallised his thoughts.
His friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon was again wounded and invalided home. Consequently, on 30 July:
'Now must I throw my little candle on his torch, and go out again.'
From then on events moved fast. Declared fit for draft in August:
'I am glad. That is I am much gladder to be going out
again than afraid. I shall be better able to cry my
outcry, playing my part.'
And so, once more back in France, he made, on 4 October, a month before his death, his last declaration of purpose and intent:
'I came out in order to help these boys - directly by
leading them as well as an officer can, indirectly by
watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as
a pleader can. I have done the first.'
Of THE CALL's seven four-line stanzas (iambic pentameter with variations) the seventh and last, already quoted, represents the crux; unlike the other six it has a final line that is truly meaningful and accords with the prophetic note already struck in the Letters. The role Owen assumes is that of a voice for those whose voices are unheard, he in turn having heard the voice of another, the repatriated Sassoon.
Because the 'I' in the final stanza is obviously Owen himself, we have to assume that the 'I' in the rest of the poem is Owen as well, working his way from dawn to 9.00 to 10.00 a.m. to afternoon to dusk and evening as he watches and listens to the sights and sounds around him, rejects their implicit calls to action, and finally succumbs.
'A dismal fog-hoarse siren', 'quick treble bells', 'stern bells', a church organ, 'blatant bugle', 'rag-time tunes', gongs humming and buzzing 'like saucepan lids' (a curious simile), then gunnery practice echoing in his mind, 'the shell-shrieks and the crumps': all loud sounds, actual sounds - and totally ineffective. Only the still small voice in Owen's inner ear, the hushed call of men sighing and the call from him whose example Owen knows he has to follow.
The poem's setting raises questions. Where is Owen supposed to be? An army camp and its surroundings with blatant bugle, clumping, clumsy Tommies and gunnery practice? Then where do the siren, bells, organ, gongs and saucepans come in?
The first three lines of each stanza rhyme; some fourth lines rhyme internally; not the happiest of arrangements. Stanza five has no fourth line at all, an omission we wouldn't have minded in the ones before it:
'But I'm lazy, and his work's crazy (line 4)
'I must be crazy; I learn from the daisy' (8)
'Sing my religion's -same as pigeons' (12)
After that -
'But I sit still; I've done my drill' (16)
seems positively inspired.
For a poem that is among the last he wrote and that touches directly upon a turning point in his career, we could have wished THE CALLS more fit to stand alongside the best.
Of several odd aspects of the poem, that he apparently considered it worth including in his first published collection, is perhaps as surprising as any of them.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2005