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Poetry CritiqueSmile, Smile, Smile

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag

And smile, smile, smile.

While you've a lucifer to light your fag,

Smile, boys that's the style.

What's the use of worrying?

It never was worthwhile.

So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag

and smile, smile, smile.

Wilfred Owen would have heard lots of marching songs during his two tours of duty in France and would have joined in himself no doubt. There were the nostalgic, sentimental ones such as TIPPERARY or KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING; the more cynical, for instance WHEN THIS B……. WAR IS OVER; and others often designed to boost morale. In September 1918, PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES….. gave Owen just the ready-made title he wanted.

That September, now back in France, Owen had picked up on two events that virtually coincided. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau refused Austria's peace offer on the grounds that it would betray the fighting troops. Meanwhile, in London, pictures were being published of three smiling wounded men, captioned "Happy". Within a few days Owen had delivered his stinging response. Much in the manner of his friend Sassoon, to whom on 22 September he addressed his disgust at these happenings, adding in paraphrase of Sassoon's own lines. "O Siegfried, make them stop!"

Although SMILE,SMILE,SMILE, comprises a single extended stanza, it in fact divides into six quatrains (alternative rhyme schemes - abba, abab) with final couplet. The more logical sequence would be:

Lines 1-4 Scene set (objectively)

5-17 A propaganda message

18-23 How things really are

24-26 Ironic conclusion

Fittingly, while the propaganda middle section is in a rather monotonous iambic metre, in the other three, a smattering of trochees help to point up the truth of the matter.

It is a satirical poem, quite Sassoon-like and not perhaps the sort of thing that Owen does best, but it's effective and certainly stays in the mind.

As in APOLOGIA PROMATE MEO and S.I.W. we are in the territory of "them" and "us" with no doubt which side Owen is on. We catch the condescending tone in -

The men's first instincts will be making homes (6)

Instincts, not rationality, not clear thought. With -

Peace would do wrong to our undying dead (9)

Owen brings out the insult in the suggestion that the dead would resent the survival of their fellows. Then in line 14 -

We rulers sitting in this ancient spot

It is all out in the open. We are the wise ones who'll decide what is what, the ones with the say. And just to remind us that Owen hasn't forgotten to mock the women at home, there's that clearly feminine voice in the final line -

…..How they smile! They're happy now, poor things.

But those being patronised and spoken down to have their own ideas, for history later to bear out. In THE SEND-OFF and STRANGE MEETING, the prophet Owen looked directly at the future. Here he does the same only obliquely.

Those who "smiled at one another curiously" (19) are, it seems, querying the assumptions - and presumptions - of their masters.

They read -

If we got nothing lasting in their stead (11)

So what did they get? Smouldering resentment, a mere truce and economic misery.

We must be solidly indemnified (12)

Were they? Where was the Armistice's solid base?

These smiling men, these"….secret men who know their secret safe" (20), like their rulers they have their own brand of freemasonry. They know the real England is no longer where it was but where they are. The people at home see one set of smiling men, for the camera. These others, the "sunk-eyed wounded", who shared their curious and secret smiles which were more of the wry variety, were men bemused by the message they were given. Yet they have the satisfaction and, in a sense, the security, of knowing that theirs alone is the truth of the matter.

Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001

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