Exactly when it was written and revised we're not sure. However, TO EROS reads like a young man's poem, and that it may date from Owen's Dunsden period is entirely feasible.
A sonnet whose basic iambic meter is broken by dactyls in lines 1-3 and 7, and frequent pauses within lines, the effect is of a mind in doubt, the mood rhetorical and self-absorbed. There is drama here and guilt. But how guilty does young Owen really feel?
A sonnet and ode combined, but an ode that tarnishes rather than celebrates its subject.
In a stanza that forms the first part of a divided octet, Owen remembers his one-time obsession with love (the earthly sexual kind not Christian love) and rationalises it by affirming I worshipped well' (2). The consequence? Sacrifice, and no mere casting aside of
'…. Innocent small things, fair friends and Christ' (4)
but sacrifice on a grand scale that calls to mind his later poem THE PARABLE OF THE OLD MAN AND THE YOUNG in which Abram binds Isaac, forsakes the burning of a lamb and slays his son instead. Here Owen confesses that, similarly, he 'bound and burnt and slew' (3) all that he held to be of 'most worth', a claim that could not have been made more strongly.
However, after line 5 in which the savage act of slaying is twice repeated, Owen pauses for thought - and maybe in time, for what went before came near to posturing. Now he ponders how to differentiate the true and the false when paradoxically,
'….truth is the prime lie men tell a boy' (6)
We seem to have two strands here: what Owen sees as Dunsden's false creeds that led him to discard the baby with the bathwater, and the other lie represented by the false promises of Eros; and the two are not easily disentangled.
With hindsight and in calmer mood he now declares without affectation,
'Glory I cast away…..' (7)
and follows it with a slightly risqué simile to end the first section.
The god has taken human form in the sestet, inviting speculation as an intriguing scene unfolds: a secret tryst, an idyll that quickly fades -
'….. when I fell and held your sandalled feet
You laughed, you loosed away my lips, you rose' (9-10)
Whose feet were these? We think of possibilities. Not those of the beguiling Henriette Poitou (Bordeaux) for she and Wilfred were never alone together. Nor as far as we know were Wilfred and the favoured Milly Montague (Dunsden). But Vivian Rampton? Writing from Dunsden in the spring of 1912 (CL118) -
' On Sat. I secretly met with Vivian at a stile and went a delicious ramble; lay in
in hawthorn glades….'
The poem's lines 11-13 have,
'I heard the singing of your wings' retreat;
And watched you, far-flown, flush the Olympian snows,
Beyond my hoping….'
After that 'delicious ramble' there were a few piano lessons and help with lantern slides, but Wilfred's 1913 Christmas card went unreciprocated, and when he revisited Dunsden in 1916 he glimpsed Vivian 'hovering behind the yew trees.'
A fickle god, Eros.
The poem ends,
'….starkly I returned
To stare upon the ash of all I burned.'
One way and another Wilfred Owen burned quite a lot of ash at Dunsden. But when we reflect on what arose, like the phoenix, from the ashes there seems small cause to regret it.
Copyright: Kenneth Simcox, 2007