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Poetry CritiqueWith An Identity Disc

British soldiers in the Great War were required to wear identity discs on a cord around their necks. Each was inscribed with the wearer's name and service number, and if he was killed, one disc was left with the body and another was taken to his unit as evidence of his death.

From No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station on 24th March 1917 Wilfred was writing to his youngest brother Colin, then sixteen.

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you. Adieu. Mon petit Je t'embrasse.

Wilfred copied the sonnet, which was of the English or Shakespearean type, into his notebook (along with one each by Shakespeare and Keats) and revised it six months later at Craiglockhart.

The one by Shakespeare was No.104 TO ME, FAIR FRIEND, YOU NEVER CAN BE OLD; that by Keats, WHEN I HAVE FEARS THAT I MAY CEASE TO BE, strike us as ironic in view of Owen's eventual fate, and an indication of how his mind was running at the time.

The three stanzas form a recollection of how he had once speculated on the way, after death, he would have his name remembered. Each stanza represents a stage in his thinking.

Stanza 1

If ever I had dreamed……..

We may take it that he had dreamed of the sort of fame that may elevate a poet to "a long sanctuary" in Westminster Abbey, Poets' Corner - a reference to Westminster in the original ms making the meaning of "High in the heart of London" plain.

By capitalising the abstract "Time", "Fugitive" and "Fame", and thereby personifying them, Owen emphasises the unforgiving qualities of time that swallows up all things mortal, and that fugitive, fame, that proves ephemeral in the end. Which makes sense except that at the same time he contradicts that by declaring the honoured place he aspires to, to be


By Time for ever….

Stanza 2

Later it comes back to him that no such memorial was vouchsafed for his idol John Keats. For Keats a "quiet place" in Rome, under that symbol of mourning the cypress tree. Better that he, Owen, should desire a grave in the same spot, to hide his name "from life's heats". Although that was then. Now such presumption is recalled with shame. To claim parity with Keats would be even worse than focusing on Poets' Corner.

Stanza 3

So selflessness, or something like it, finally overcomes vanity.

Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk

Of gravers scoring it with florid screed.

The pejorative "florid screed" shows how little he now values commemoration. What has brought about this reversal? Perhaps his realising that fame, which war will undoubtedly bring to some, should be seen for what it properly and ultimately is.

Why "no risk" of a lasting, tangible memorial? An early death and his work quickly forgotten will see to that, a death, moreover, one among millions. No matter, he says, let me be remembered for a while by my "sweet friend" and rest content with that, for just as on my identity disc, like all material things,

…….the name grow vague and wear away

so must the once living presence die with it. As Keats had written before him in the sonnet Owen copied,

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

How good is this poem? To be truthful, not very. Like the identity disc Owen writes about (though unlike his finer work) it may wear away with time and be forgotten about. The sentiment is without reproach, but nothing in the text strikes us as notable, which may be because his mind is still too much on Shakespeare and Keats and he has not quite yet found his real poetic voice.

Fortunately for the rest of us he hadn't long to wait.

Copyright Kenneth Simcox, 2002

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