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Poetry CritiqueApprenticeship

Aged fifteen, the young Wilfred Owen was counselling his mother,

"…divert your thoughts to Nature"

The early untitled poem SCIENCE HAS LOOKED suggests that he was following his own advice.

"These mountains are the breasts of Mother Earth.

Nestle thou there, child; suck the fill of joys,

And strive no more to look beyond thy Mother's arms."

The Wordsworth he had studied in Shrewsbury would continue to influence him (other than stylistically) as much probably as did Keats whom he apostrophised in WRITTEN IN A WOOD (1910). This preoccupation with the Romantic poets led to FULL SPRINGS OF THOUGHT and communion with the "aerial Shelley", "solemn Gray" and, briefly, Arnold and Tennyson. What he was aiming for was to fit himself for the company of these exemplars that he might, as he put it, "water my fair garden". To Shelley's "music of the rapid vision-giver" he sought to add Gray's "majestic utterance" and Arnold's "tempered beauty"; a heady cocktail, yet in the end he was to prepare a draught of his own that was even more potent.

The lengthy ode to POESY (1909-10) sets poetry on a throne around which "a thousand suppliants stand". By personifying poetry Wilfred provided himself with a focus and satisfied his religious impulse. High-flown of course but by the time of SCIENCE HAS LOOKED (1912) he'd discovered that to wait on poetry was more likely to pose problems than to solve them. Seeking assurance he implored poetry to

"…Give me on this height

The one true message of thy thousand oracles!"

only to be told,

"Seek light no more! There is no light as yet."

A healthy step forward perhaps.

O WORLD OF MANY WORLDS (begun 1912) shows him prepared in the quest for "a centre of mine own" and to forsake religious orthodoxy, and despite the risks to trust in poetry which might promise less but which was nevertheless

"…the track reserved for my endeavour."

He was now at Dunsden in the role of lay curate and his letter of 15th May 1912 indicates his awareness of the size of the task.

"I have finished a story from Anderson in Blank Verse

(LITTLE CLAUS AND BIG CLAUS); but I am dissatisfied

with not only my attempt, but the story itself, which doesn't exactly inculcate peace and happiness, the truth and justice, religion and piety."

To be fair he was still only nineteen years of age! SUPPOSED CONFESSIONS OF A SECOND RATE SENSITIVE MIND IN DEJECTION, suggested by Tennyson's almost identical title, may have been written about then. Out were to go the pleasure to be had from sad poetry, by which means he hoped to arrive somewhere near the truth.

Wilfred's last days at Dunsden and their aftermath were critical ones but they were days that helped him to a better understanding of the nature of poetry. In January 1913 he was drafting ON MY SONGS, a turning point in his attitude to the poetry of the past which there was

Not one verse that throbs

Throbs with my heart, or as my brain is fraught.

It anticipated an involvement in the needs of others such as at that point he could not have guessed at. At least he was now seeing poetry not in high-flown vagueness but as bearing purposefully on reality.

By that January of 1913 he was showing signs of optimism.

"I have no satisfaction so pleasant as the feeling of

something attempted, something done…"

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of Wilfred's period at Dunsden. In spite of the trivial daily round, experiences that mattered came upon him there which he needed time to assimilate, an example being that which he recorded in DEEP UNDER TURFY GRASS. At Dunsden he did a lot of thinking about poetry, more probably than actually writing it, whereas during the following period in Bordeaux it was more the other way round. Bordeaux was largely a regressive period, a retreat when poetry could be defined too neatly as "God's smoothest answer to all passion's plea" (STUNNED BY THEIR LIFE'S EXPLOSION). To declare poetry to be a recipe for "…a whole and splendid heart" was to deny lessons already learned. Owen wrote a great deal during that final first spell in France when he came under the influence of the Parisian poet and satirist Laurent Tailhade, although "I find purer philosophy in a Poem than in a Conclusion of Geometry, a chemical analysis, or a physical law" seems trite against the genuine intellectual searchings of before.

In Merignac woods he was reminded of Broxton (Cheshire) " as it were weeping", a recollection of when as a boy, Broxton had been "for my uplifting, whose bluebells it may be, more than Greek iambics, fitted me for my job." Nostalgic but also the thought of promise and ambition as yet unfulfilled.

1916 and Army service in the U.K. found Wilfred Owen poet still at the journeyman stage. "I have no Fancies and no Feelings" he announced from the fighting front in January 1917. However, there would be no lack of these before long, emotions to be recollected in tranquillity or something near it, material to provide him with his subject as well as new conceptions about the nature of his art. Yet months would pass before he would be provided with the needed catalyst. THE FATES, dating from his early days at Craiglockhart is an escapist poem still, though what more natural than wanting to put recent searing experience behind him?

So I'll evade the vice and rack of age

And miss the march of lifetime, stage by stage.

He had begun to test out early thoughts about the possibilities of pararhyme. For example in SONG OF SONGS which was published in the Craiglockhart journal The Hydra and praised by Sassoon. It was followed by HAS YOUR SOUL SIPPED, more powerful and pointing to war's brutalities. His poems were beginning to gain an audience, and so Craiglockhart came to be his base from which he would launch himself on to the world, and where the catalyst he needed in order to do so lay in wait for him: the mentorship of Siegfried Sassoon.

But that's another story.

Copyright: Kenneth Simcox , 2002

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