Once thought to have been written in 1909-10, 1911 now seems a more likely date, for TO POESY has Keatsian overtones, and it was in 1911 that the 18 year-old Wilfred Owen began taking a lively interest in that poet. April that year saw him holidaying in Torquay with his uncle and aunt John and Annie Taylor, browsing in John's bookshop, acquiring Colvin's biography of Keats and making his pilgrimage to the house in Teignmouth where Keats had lodged in 1818. In London that year he described the poet's Hampstead residence as 'a sermon in stone' and at the British Museum drooled over letters and manuscripts 'in a spirit of subdued ecstasy.' The sight of a mould of Keat's face and two paintings 'of his extraordinary beauty' also enthralled him.
TO POESY comprises a series of abab quatrains curiously arranged in stanzas of varying lengths which encroach on one another. Virtually it is an ode invoking the goddess Poetry's celestial power and beseeching her to bring influence, guidance and inspiration to the writer. It is overlong but we don't forget that Wilfred was very young when he wrote it.
Archaic forms (thy, thee, yea, dost etc) and syntactical inversions ('to muster not a few', 'gladly would I', 'loath would I be') as well as adjectives placed either sides of a noun ('speechless star-lamps keen') give it its inflated, rhetorical tone.
In stanza 1 Owen puts himself in the forefront of Poetry's disciples. None, he asserts,
Has loved thee with a purer love than mine (8)
Not 'for the sake of passing pleasures' nor (stanza 2) 'gorgeous memories of days far distant' nor even 'the unseen road which leads unto the awful halls of Fame'. No, it is (although 'I am mad to ask')…to meet
The bards of old and greet them as my peers (36-7).
In the third stanza the writer requests to be taught his trade.
Yet show thou me the task,
That shall, as years advance, give power and skill (40-1)
For he knows he has much to learn:
Would know the hills, the founts, the very trees
Where sang to Greeks of old (54-6)
There follows a stanza fifty lines long, thirty-five of which contain the core of the poem. He writes:
Throw early dews
Of inspiration oft-times on my brow (69-70)
an appeal he proceeds to trumpet forth in a succession of potent images to suggest that here maybe is a poet in the making:
Let them fall suddenly and darkly as thou choose,
Uncertain, fitful as the thunder-drops
Which sprinkle us then cease, to splash once more
Rapidly round, still pausing for long stops,
Not knowing if to vent their heavy store
Upon the parching ground, or wait awhile
Till hasty travelling winds bring increased worth.
But as at last the concentrated pile
Of seething vapours flings its might to earth
In spurts of fire and rain, and to the ground
Flashes its energy, yields up its very soul,
So, midst long triumph-roars of awful sound,
Flash thou thy soul to me at last, and roll
Torrential streams of thought upon my brain.
So give, yea give Thyself to me
At last. (85-6)
Which might have made a more fitting ending than the further thirty-odd lines that add little of consequence. Lines such as
And far from men's gaze would I feel thy kiss (113) or
We sit alone, our faces pressing nigh (117)
might in later years have allowed the more mature Owen a quiet smile.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007