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Poetry CritiqueOn My Songs

A Shakespearean sonnet in iambic pentameter with its conventional archaisms, the standard 8 - 6 line division and the usual 4 - 4 sub-division of the octet. But, unusually, the sestet is without the final couplet, and having regard for what the poem is saying, the lines more logically divide not 4-4/4-2 but 5-3/3-3.

For Wilfred Owen, January 1913, the date of ON MY SONG's initial draft, was an unhappy month. On the 4th he informed his mother that the Vicar's (of Dunsden) presence 'sat heavy on my soul…. Murder will out, and I have murdered my false creed….Escape from this hotbed of religion I now long for…. To leave Dunsden will mean a terrible bust-up…' But within a week, leave Dunsden he did, his health and his career plans in tatters.

A count of first-person pronouns in ON MY SONGS affirms its subjective viewpoint. Altogether there are eleven of 'I','me', 'mine','my' plus one 'his' that refers to Owen himself. Such self-regard may slide into self-pity. What rescues it from that is suggested in the first words of lines 6, 9, and 12. After 'Though' in line 1 we get 'Yet', 'Tis then' and 'One night', signalling changes of mood. Owen is having a dialogue with himself.

Lines 1 - 5.

In an earlier poem (FULL SPRINGS OF THOUGHT) Owen had dwelt on and communed with the spirits of Thomas Gray, Shelley, Arnold and Tennyson. Now, similarly, he recalls occasions when 'unseen poets'

'Have answered me as if they know my woe' (2)

tailoring their thoughts to match

'….my own soul's cry; easing the flow

Of my dumb tears with language sweet as sobs' (4-5)

(Was 'sobs' a rhyme of convenience? - 'throbs' in line 7)

Lines 6 - 8

Consolation? Not quite. Apparently these 'unseen poets' have their limitations. Their 'hoards of thought' don't always connect

'…. with my heart, or as my brain is fraught.' (8)

As the octet ends, the tempo slows, and the underlying melancholy is out in the open, and consoled translates into disconsolate. As Coleridge had put it in DEJECTION: an ode -

' …shifted, drowsy, unimpassioned grief

Which finds no natural outlet. no relief

In word, or sigh, or tear.'

Lines 9 -14.

Impelled to provide his own deliverance

'Tis then I voice my own weird reveries:' (9)

The reader might think that to seek consolation through his own verse was better not described in such mawkish tones as 'low croonings of a motherless child' (10). However, the last three lines redeem all.

'One night if thou shouldst lie in this Sick Room,

Dreading the Dark thou darest not illume,

Listen; my voice may haply lend thee ease.' (12-14)

Surely we have here an early hint of what would come to be, for Wilfred Owen, a fixed purpose - to rank others above himself and to speak for those unable to speak for themselves.

Later he would see the dread on the faces of his comrades, 'more terrible than terror' as he said in his end-of-1917 letter home. 'It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it I think I must go back and be with them.'

ON MY SONGS was a prophetic title after all.

Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006

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