Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen

(for the text of the poem, click here for Poetry Foundation. You can also find it at The Academy of American Poets, which is wonderfully ironic, as he was not American; and you can hear it recited at Poem Hunter, even more ironically as the voice is not only American, but female.)

Wilfred Owen was perhaps the finest technician of poetry to have emerged, with all his passionate horror still intact, from the trenches of the Great War. The poetry abounds in assonance, alliteration, metaphor, simile - a schoolteacher's El Dorado; one could teach everything there is to teach about poetic technique from just three, any three of his poems: scansion, rhyme, enjambment - everything. But his passionate involvement in his subject is never undermined, rarely even threatened, by this determination to establish perfect structures for his writing; indeed, writing as he was about a world whose carefully constructed order had been so utterly exploded, perhaps those perfect structures of creative poetry were a bulwark, a deliberate, equilibrating response. Where, for Borges, for Beckett, form and content are of necessity unified, for Owen they are of necessity opposed. The act of poetry, of poetic creation, transcends the nihil of trench-warfare (while Auden, in the "Musée des Beaux Arts", sucks his thumb and dreams of a safe haven in America).

The images are starkly realistic, even when they serve as metaphors. No imagination here, no Biblical visions: Owen witnessed the apocalypse "live", participated himself (died on virtually its last day), and described in precise detail what he saw and heard and felt; his poetry is not pacifist propaganda, however, but merely testimony with shell-shock.

The pace and rhythm, the careful punctuation of the opening stanza, recreate the pace and rhythm of the trudging soldiers; the images an ipsissima verba, as inexorable as celluloid. This is what it was like: even the metaphor "blood-shod" is to be taken literally. This is what it was like: if you find the Truth about Reality upsetting - why, you could always read "Gerontion".

The poem trudges as the soldiers trudge; but then, as sudden in the poem as on the battlefield, we are shocked into a frenzy of hysterical activity as the gas shell explodes. Men have become monstrous, nightmare figures, whether through the mutilation of their limbs or through the demonic figures they resemble in their masks. Fire, lime, green light, screaming - surely this is none other than the Inferno that we have entered: Hell on Earth: a waking nightmare?

One hundred years after the outbreak of World War One, Owen's "message" has infiltrated the western consciousness, better than any CIA agent trying to get into the headquarters of al-Qai'da or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We now find war, all war, horrific, and regard even the killing of a soldier, even of a para-military combatant, let alone a civilian, as a crime against humanity. Yet was this really his message? No question that the perpetrators of the new Chalifah still believe "the old lie", though for them it is religion as much as country. But we who have rendered ourselves powerless-by-conscience of defeating them, we need to learn the deeper message of Owen's poetry, or at least to decipher its code more accurately, for he was not a pacifist, he was not anti-war per se. He was appalled by the horrors of war, and by the disingenuousness of the reasons given for that particular war that eventually took his life. And yet he fought, as we must fight, lest this other lie, the lie of the Chalifah, be transformed into our reality. It will not be pleasant, in either eventuality.

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