Tag Archives: Wilfred Owen

11 November: The Victory

The grave of a Royal Marine from the Great War, 1914-18.

I was led to Robert Southey’s poem which follows, by this paragraph from one of Charles Lamb’s letters to him. Lamb offers some observations to his friend:

I think you are too apt to conclude faintly, with some cold moral, as in the end of the poem called “The Victory”— “Be thou her comforter, who art the widow’s friend;” a single common-place line of comfort, which bears no proportion in weight or number to the many lines which describe suffering. This is to convert religion into mediocre feelings, which should burn, and glow, and tremble. A moral should be wrought into the body and soul, the matter and tendency, of a poem, not tagged to the end, like a “God send the good ship into harbour,” at the conclusion of our bills of lading.

The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb

A bill of lading is a list of all a ship’s cargo agreed between the Master of the vessel and the shipping line. A little prayer at the end could be sincere or just a form of words, though there was plenty of peril on the sea in those days. But here is Southey’s The Victory. Lawful violence would be the press gang, a posse of sailors who were allowed to abduct men off the street to serve in the wars against Napoleon and other enemies.

I disagree with Lamb on this. I sense the same anger as in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est of a century or so later, with the poem building towards its final ferocious prayer which was meant to change human hearts. What do you think?

The Victory

Hark–how the church-bells thundering harmony
Stuns the glad ear! tidings of joy have come,
Good tidings of great joy! two gallant ships
Met on the element,–they met, they fought
A desperate fight!–good tidings of great joy!
Old England triumphed! yet another day
Of glory for the ruler of the waves!
For those who fell, ’twas in their country’s cause,
They have their passing paragraphs of praise
And are forgotten.
There was one who died
In that day’s glory, whose obscurer name
No proud historian’s page will chronicle.
Peace to his honest soul! I read his name,
‘Twas in the list of slaughter, and blest God
The sound was not familiar to mine ear.
But it was told me after that this man
Was one whom lawful violence had forced
From his own home and wife and little ones,
Who by his labour lived; that he was one
Whose uncorrupted heart could keenly feel
A husband’s love, a father’s anxiousness,
That from the wages of his toil he fed
The distant dear ones, and would talk of them
At midnight when he trod the silent deck
With him he valued, talk of them, of joys
That he had known–oh God! and of the hour
When they should meet again, till his full heart
His manly heart at last would overflow
Even like a child’s with very tenderness.
Peace to his honest spirit! suddenly
It came, and merciful the ball of death,
For it came suddenly and shattered him,
And left no moment’s agonising thought
On those he loved so well.
He ocean deep
Now lies at rest. Be Thou her comforter
Who art the widow’s friend! Man does not know
What a cold sickness made her blood run back
When first she heard the tidings of the fight;
Man does not know with what a dreadful hope
She listened to the names of those who died,
Man does not know, or knowing will not heed,
With what an agony of tenderness
She gazed upon her children, and beheld
His image who was gone. Oh God! be thou
Her comforter who art the widow’s friend!

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11 November: Why do men go to War?

Remembrance sand art portrait of Wilfred Owen, 11.11.2018, Folkestone.

It is the late 1930s. War looks inevitable. We break into a discussion that Virginia Woolf is holding with herself – herself as an imaginary male lawyer – on how to prevent war. She asks, ‘Why do men fight?’ She sums up her previous few paragraphs thus:

Here, immediately, are three reasons which lead your sex to fight; war is a profession; a source of happiness and excitement; and it is also an outlet for manly qualities, without which men would deteriorate. But that these feelings and opinions are by no means universally held by your sex is proved by the following extract from another biography, the life of a poet who was killed in the European war: Wilfred Owen.

Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely, that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill … Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

And among some notes for poems that he did not live to write are these: The unnaturalness of weapons … Inhumanity of war … The insupportability of war … Horrible beastliness of war … Foolishness of war.

from “THREE GUINEAS: A book-length essay” by Virginia Woolf, via Kindle.

Quite what Wilfred Owen would have said in the face of the bullying, outrageous killers of the Third Reich is another question, but he would have had no reason to change his mind about war’s unnaturalness, inhumanity, foolishness and the rest. Has war ever been a contest between two groups of men with no involvement of civilians and their way of life? Of course not.

See also this post and search Agnellus Mirror for Wilfred Owen for more reflections on the Great War.

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11 November: A murky day in Manchester

gassed piccadilly

It was a murky day in Manchester last winter when I met this column of men from the Great War. The sculpture is based on John Singer Sargent’s painting in the Imperial War Museum, ‘Gassed’. He had been to the front line, though he was in his eighties, and seen the men, British and American, suffering blindness after a mustard gas attack.

They are led by a medical orderly; there is a skill to leading such a group: observing the terrain, being alert for mud, ruts, obstacles, exaggerated dropping of the left or right shoulder to lead the men to turn. There are many ways to love your fellow man: the column of men support each other in what the sculptor, Johanna DomkeGuyot calls ‘Victory Over Blindness’.

Her sculpture loves her fellow human beings: honouring the dead but challenging the living through portraying the gritty, grimy reality of unmedalled, unsought heroism. It is a bold but totally right decision to plant the men at ground level, not way over our heads, like the man on the Manchester cenotaph; an image that all but says, dulce et decorum est – how sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.

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Let us not forget that the victims of war, soldiers or civilians, are men, women and children like us and ours; that cruel things have been done in our name as well as against us. Let us do all we can to bring about peace and reconciliation between nations and peoples, and within our own communities.

Lord grant us peace.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

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23 September, Relics XXVII: de-faced, dehumanised

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We have not left our Welsh pilgrimage, although this crucifixion is in Saint Helen’s, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire, almost at England’s East Coast. When we showed this image in November 2016 it was in the context of a poem by Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting. There his opponent and himself are dehumanised by war

. This carving has literally been defaced by the iconoclasts, depriving Christ of his humanity. His arms rest upon those of the Father: the Spirit as Dove would have been above. Christ as human is the Image of God for us humans.

It seems especially sacrilegious after yesterday’s posting about the value to the owner of a portrait of the beloved.

The iconoclasts got as far as Saint David’s too.

This carved stone would, I guess, have been part of the reredos on the East wall immediately behind an altar. The zeal that went into shattering this image was surely akin to that of the so-called Islamists who have destroyed shrines, whether Buddhist, Christian, or indeed Muslim, in the name of a purer religion.

Yet this was discovered and given a place of honour in the cathedral, and at some date an unknown has scratched the words Jesus Christ in English at the back under his arms.

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15 November: Remembering a century on

 

Remembrance Sunday, 2018, 100 years since the Armistice brought an end to the fighting in the Great War. There was no question as to how I should mark the day, since my niece Jo was down in Folkestone to help create on the sand a portrait of Wilfred Owen, the soldier poet killed a few days before the war ended.

The big portrait was completed by the team in the early morning despite the rain that washed away part of the work; it was replaced in time for the public viewings.

Further along the beach people were invited to sketch silhouettes of dead soldiers in rows upon the sand. Hundreds did so; I imagine with some degree of solemnity. These images, and the portrait of Owen, were washed away by the tide.

But it’s never quite ‘Goodbye to all that’, is it?

As my mother, our poet SPB put it, ‘Bravo Danny Boyle for such a powerful forward looking impact involving so many who would not have taken part in services and parades.’ The crowds were great, but as I heard someone say to an acquaintance: ‘Everyone is taking it in turns up there (on the balcony where the best views were). And so it was. All seemed muted but glad to be there, part of the crowd, part of the people.

MMB

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11 November: Sacrifice in War II: Dehumanising the Enemy-Victim

 

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Neither war comics, nor old films nor computer games could remotely be described as subtle: the enemy does not appear as a fellow human being. The Great War poet Wilfred Owen’s describes a dream encounter in a Western Front tunnel:his  dawning realisation of the humanity of his visitant in ‘Strange Meeting‘ illustrates the dehumanising that allows industrial slaughter to take control.

It is not clear whether this enemy, the man he had recently killed, was a German or perhaps his peaceable true self:

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.

Wilfred Owen,  Strange Meeting

That ‘slaughter’ should be personified as taking control shows how war de-personalises, de-humanises people. War, conflict and death are seen as irresistible, superhuman powers, sweeping away combatant and civilian alike, powers that were indeed personified by the ancients, like John’s four horsemen (Revelation 6), or in Shakespeare’s play:

… Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,

With Atë by his side come hot from Hell,

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war …  Julius Caesar III.i. 270-273.

While War and Death are personified, the enemy is depersonalised. But for the industrialist selling arms to his own or any other country’s forces is a source of profit. The individuals whose lives are at risk do not enter his mind or heart.

MMB.

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November 7: Sacrifice in War II.

 

 

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Saint Helen’s, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire, MMB.

Neither war comics, nor 1950s films nor computer games could remotely be described as subtle: the enemy does not appear as a fellow human being. The Great War poet Wilfred Owen’s dawning realisation of the humanity of his visitant in ‘Strange Meeting’ illustrates the dehumanising of the other that allows industrial slaughter to proceed.  It is not clear whether his loathly opposite, the man he had recently killed was a German, or perhaps his own true self:

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.[1]

That ‘slaughter’ should be personified as the subject of a sentence shows how war de-personalises, de-humanises people. War, conflict and death are seen as a conjunction of irresistible, superhuman powers, sweeping away combatant and civilian alike, powers that were indeed personified by the ancients, like John’s four horsemen (Revelation 6), or in Shakespeare’s play:

… Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,

With Atë by his side come hot from Hell,

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war …  Julius Caesar III.i. 270-273.

While War and Death are personified, the enemy is depersonalised; he can then be sacrificed to Atë and Mammon and all false gods of War.

MMB.

[1]              Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’ in ‘Poems’, Ed. Siegfried  Sassoon, 1920. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poems, by Wilfred Owen, Produced by Alan R. Light, Gary M. Johnson, and David Widger, [EBook #1034] Release Date: August 10, 2008.

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