It took some time for this split-octave sonnet to come to maturity, maybe a good five years; the work, in the first place, of a young lay curate and, at the last, of a hardened soldier. Consequently there is more to it than meets the eye.
It opens with day giving way to night, an event of cataclysmic proportions. All-powerful night performs an act of violence, malice and contempt for its victim before,
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world (3-4)
From line 5 onward we accompany the poet as he lies awake anxious for the dead to return and provide him with evidence of life after death.
There watched I for the Dead, but no ghost woke (5)
Whatever the reason - distance, voicelessness, restraint or actual extinction - the result for the poet is one of desolation, a state of mind mirrored, in the sestet, by dawn's hesitant entrance, not with night's trumpetings, but 'indefinite, unshapen' (9) and 'sad as half-lit minds' (10). For our seeker after hope this is.
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained (11)
Then in lines 12-13 he ponders on the Dead's absence, appalled at the fate they all share.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn
Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds (12-13)
The finality of it is plain. 'Gagged': a denial of expression, outcry, protest; it makes mockery of 'Wing' (capitalised to signify the deity?) that properly should shelter and protect but instead smothers. The poem ends with mind and soul bleak and empty.
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained (14)
First drafted late 1912 or early 1913 THE UNRETURNING allegorises Owen's own religious heartsearchings emanating from his dislike of the narrow evangelicalism practised at Dunsden by the Reverend Herbert Wigan. What makes the link evident is Owen's early draft having on its reverse side a drafted letter to Wigan setting out his objections to a 'Christian Life' that 'affords no imagination, physical sensation, aesthetic philosophy', its one dimensional 'strait line upwards' and its 'one interpretation of Life and Scheme of Living among a hundred.'
Wigan's religion was completely at variance with a growing poetic instinct that rebelled against being 'gagged' by any sort of 'smothering Wing' and that shackled creative thought. Not only was Wigan not a poet, he didn't even believe Wordsworth to be one! Wilfred would have remembered Wigan's remark to that effect ('sad as half-lit minds' perhaps?). From now on goodbye to a 'heaven with doors so chained' (14) and to conventional notions of the after life.
It isn't hard to look forward to Owen's last days and months.
Closed minds such as Wigan's he abominated, and that large number of other churchman so militant that they seemed not to want the war to stop he regarded in a similar light. As Dominic Hibberd says in OWEN THE POET,
His anger against Wigan….prepared him for his later indignation at the support which the Churches gave to the war….
Whatever Owen's feelings about religion were towards the end of his life, the time he spent at Dunsden had succeeded in changing them for ever.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006