June 1918 saw Wilfred Owen both returning to Scarborough and being 'taken up' by the Sitwells, his association with whom may point us in the direction his poetry would have developed but for his untimely death.
In spite of their necessarily different experiences of the war, each abhorred the propaganda put about by that faction of the country for whom the war had become an ongoing crusade. What happened that June was that Edith and Osbert Sitwell asked Owen for specimens of his poetry to include in their anthology WHEELS, whereupon Owen made himself acquainted with Sitwell's work and found poetry that was turning away from the fading romanticism of the Georgians to less traditional and more experimental forms such as those being adopted by T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound and W.B.Yeats.
The poem's form - four five - line stanzas, each of four longer lines ending with a shorter one - is hardly untraditional or experimental; the broken rhythm, however, is more significant. Variations on a nine - syllable line and a mix of anapaests and iambs create a melancholy effect which informs the direction of the poem Rhyme the same. The pattern may be regular with pararhymes beginning and ending each stanza but the result is discord in the ear and disharmony in the sense.
At first the atmosphere is calm enough: weathercocks roosting, roads at rest, streets dreaming dreams; yet 'wistful' (line 1), 'musing' (6) might make us pause and ask if yearning unfulfilled underlies the calm. In lines 10 - 11- 12 speculation becomes certainty with men's minds focused elsewhere as,
'… they hear the unknown moan'
'… remember alien ardours and far futures
And the smiles not seen in happy features.'
By the final stanza the women too are rueing the
'… love they ha (ve) not lived
And passion past the reach of stairs
To the world's towers or stars.' (18 - 20)
The 'other times' (9) of whose cries men are held may denote present realities, i.e. war, while having wider application. Yet Owen would surely have recalled the phrase 'smiles not seen in happy features' when later he came to write his satire on the DAILY MAIL and its readers, SMILE, SMILE, SMILE ('…. How they smile! They're happy now, poor things,').
From stanza 3 the message becomes stark with its surreal glimpse of infernal regions where, allowing ourselves to by - pass ambiguity (13) and incongruity (14), we are confronted with anguish in the womb and damnation beyond the grave, the implications of which are as fearful as anything in DULCE ET DECORUM EST, THE SHOW or MENTAL CASES.
In stanza 4 we are back with the living, the poem ending on a slightly more material though no less disturbing plane. Deprivation, mourning are emotions we understand, perhaps can share, and we may ask if the poem would have ended here had he lived to finish it, even though he deemed it ready to feature in his planned first collection.
In 1922 was published a poem that has become a major work in the modernist tradition, Eliot's THE WASTE LAND. Might a longer-lived Wilfred Owen have come to write one fit to stand beside it? For had he not already written in his famous preface, 'All a poet can do today is warn'?
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2005