When was it written? France, April 1917 it was thought at first though for several reasons Scarborough towards the end of that year now seems more likely. Consider other verses that belong to that earlier period: TO THE BITTER SWEET HEART, ROUNDEL, HOW DO I LOVE THEE? HAPPINESS, WITH AN IDENTITY DISC. All conventional, immature work alongside LE CHRISTIANISME which more easily fits with his end-of-year, immediately post-Craiglockhart and Sassoon output, poems such as APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO, HOSPITAL BARGE, AT A CALVARY NEAR THE ANCRE and ASLEEP. Like these poems, LE CHRISTIANISME bears the true Owen stamp which six months earlier he had yet to find.
The verse form is conventional enough: two quatrains (abab), but where at one time he would have played fairly safe with metre and rhythm, now he's ready to experiment and take risks. And because it's what he wants to say that now comes first, not the way he says it, the way he says it comes out of the poet he is rather than the poet he once wanted to be.
On the surface all seems plain. A church (not Quivieres as written on the ms, for it has no church, but another) has been shelled and a statue of Christ is one of the casualties. Fortunately, removed below ground for safety, effigies of the saints remain unscathed. For the moment the Virgin Mary, grotesquely wearing a tin hat, smiles, unharmed. But for how long?
Is this poem merely a record of an image of war? Hardly. Owen has more to say than that.
Is the Christ figure a statue only -or an embodiment of Christ who Himself "hit and buried" shares the suffering of war's victims, the Christ who, as Owen wrote, is "literally in No Man's Land"?
The saints who "lie serried" are, in other words, in ranks. Well, so were the troops. Together they may form a band of brothers in spirit if not in actuality.
Then the "immaculate Virgin", surely an ally in the cause by virtue of being invested with "an old tin hat", a spiritual combatant who shares in the "trouble" and is vulnerable to the same dangers of war.
But a piece of hell will batter her (8)
However much the Church may transgress, Christ and His Mother and his saints are there in the line alongside the fighting men. So says Owen.
Or….or does he?
Under its rubbish and its rubble (2)
Could be a metaphor for the rubbish and rubble that Owen assigns to the practices and attitudes of the Church he sees as presently constituted. Those packed up saints who "lie serried" may not be banded together with anyone, or even packed away to be saved from the depredations of war, but banished from the scene as irrelevant being unconcerned about all that's going on above, glad to be
Well out of hearing of our trouble (4)
Is Owen quietly deriding Christian tradition when he calls the Virgin "immaculate"? Is it that when she
Smiles on for war to flatter her (6)
He sees self-satisfaction in that smile, the same lack of real concern that he attributes to the packed up saints? That the "old tin hat" with which she's "halo'd" turns her head into an object of fun. An icon no longer?
Wherever we look in LE CHRISTIANISME we find ambiguity. We know that Owen's religious sense was not the same in 1917-18 as it had been before the War, but to what degree and in what way it had undergone change we are far from certain, and from such ignorance ambiguity springs. That there was disillusionment we do know, but did that sour his love affair with religion itself? Did his basic faith remain firm or not?
Like poets generally, Owen here presents us with as many problems as he does solutions.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2002