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Poetry CritiqueConscious

Without prior knowledge would we have known that CONSCIOUS was by Wilfred Owen? Other poems of his bear the mark of Siegfried Sassoon, but this perhaps more than most, reminding us as it does of Sassoon's THE DEATH BED. CONSCIOUS was written early in 1918, either at Scarborough or Ripon and is about a soldier ill in hospital, though whether or not in France or England we can't tell, or what he's actually suffering from - physical wounds, mental illness, or both?

The reader encounters other unanswerable questions. Even the title may be queried. The man is certainly conscious in a way but not in the fullest sense, and the degree to which he is seems hard to determine. He has just come out of sleep, his fluttering fingers (1) suggesting imperfect bodily control, though his "pull of will" (2) shows his hold on life remains strong. He can pick out various details of his surroundings, but without our knowing his state of mind, how accurately and how significantly we can only guess.

Six other poems by Owen are set in hospitals or institutions: THE LETTER, DISABLED, WILD WITH ALL REGRETS (which Owen expanded into A TERRE), SMILE,SMILE,SMILE, and MENTAL CASES. The first five are to do with the physically wounded while MENTAL CASES explains itself. The angle in MENTAL CASES is that of an outsider, so we are able to take what's offered at face value. CONSCIOUS on the other hand is totally subjective and because we don't know what is the matter with the man, as mere observers we can't be sure about the reality of his impressions.

A structure comprising four quatrains divided into two stanzas with a regular rhyme scheme is not typical of Owen. Only a few scattered trochees in a basic iambic pentameter metre, and variations in the number of syllables to the line disturb the rhythm and give a slight feeling of unrest.

Everything is seen from the patient's angle though we are left wondering whether Owen's recollections of stays in No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station (later No 41 Stationary Hospital) at Gailly have found their way into a poem written some months later. That those days occurred in the Spring of 1917 and the poem refers to "yellow mayflowers" (3) suggests this is so, as Owen wrote to his sister Mary on 8th May 1917 - "Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow mayflowers…….."

In stanza one the details are sharply observed:

The blind-cord drawls across the window-sill…..(4)

Three flies are creeping round the shiny jug……(7)

However, in the second stanza deterioration sets in. With-

But sudden evening blurs and fogs the air (9) the narrative undergoes a sea change. Not only is the air blurred but sight and mind with it. The patient may be "conscious" but what is he conscious of?

There seems no time to want a drink of water (10)

Well, there might be no time to drink one but wanting to drink is an involuntary act and not subject to time's exigencies.

Nurse looks so far away………..(11)

Indicates impaired vision, after which illusion intensifies.

Music and roses burst through crimson slaughter (12)

We are not certain if the music and roses are real or as much in his head as his nightmare memories of trench warfare. Likewise the "blue sky" (13). Crimson slaughter, blue sky, yellow mayflowers - these are technicolor visions. What happened in the trench that "is narrower" (14) ? What dreadful sights are there that haunt him?

No time to want a drink of water (10)

No time to ask…. He knows not what (16)

Perhaps we have no occasion to ask either. He knows not what and how can we?

An elusive character and an elusive poem.

Owen's beloved Keats, he who coined the phrase "Negative Capability", would have understood.

Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001

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