Writers Reviewed, Socialist Review, No.7, November 1978, pp-29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
It’s sixty years this month since the death of the poet Wilfred Owen, the close of the First World War, and the structuring of the world we still inhabit.
Owen was killed a week before the Armistice stopped the war. As the smoke drifted clear and the soldiers went home to the dole, a new, appalling but in some ways hopeful world emerged. Ten million dead, seven million missing and twenty-one million wounded marked the end of smug liberalism, of an unthinking faith in orderly progress. The smashed bodies scattered across Europe continue to haunt the memory.
They are still there, not just in the fact of the Somme veteran whose ulcerated leg wound my wife is bandaging as I type this article nor just in the sense that every year in. Flanders even now farmers stumble across ten or a dozen of those missing seven million. They are still there not just in the way that the names of Mons, Ypres and Passchendaele remain full of echoes that disturb but in the sense that they same system that brought the First World War is still poised, now with more deadly weapons, prepared to do it all again if its interests dictate.
And yet at the same time at the other end of Europe, in Russia in 1917, there appeared other possibilities, other alternatives, as the Bolsheviks swept to power.
Wilfred Owen’s road to this shambles began at Oswestry, where he was born in 1893. His early politics seem to have come from his father, a railway clerk later promoted to the post of Assistant Superintendent at Shrewsbury Station. Hence one of Wilfred’s schoolboy essays, The Imagined Effects on the Country of a Strike among Railway Workers, takes a dim view of union militancy.
From his pious mother, daughter of a wealthy former mayor of Oswestry, Owen derived his religiosity, so that one of his first jobs after leaving school was to work as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire from 1911-13.
Here, away for the first time from the shelter of his home and in close contact with farm labourers and their families, Owen was forced to begin rebuilding his view of the world. By 1912 he was writing:
‘I am increasingly liberalizing and liberating my thought, spite of the Vicar’s strong Conservatism ... From what I hear straight from the tight-pursed lips of wolfish ploughmen in their cottages, I might say there is material for another revolution. Perhaps men will strike, not with absence from work; but with arms at work. Am I for or against upheaval? I know not.’
But the final rupture with the values of his childhood was yet to come. When war broke out in 1914, he was teaching English in Bordeaux and wrote home to his brother Colin with the thoughtless enthusiasm of so many young men that summer: ‘I have almost a mania to be in the East, to see fighting, and to serve. For I like to think this is the last War of the World.’
One of his first poems after the war started is The Ballad of Purchase-Money, where the dismal rhymes precisely match the dismal ideas:
‘O meet it is and passing sweet
So it was that two years later, Owen, a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant, completed his training back in England and set out for the Somme front with the Fifth Manchesters, his head full of the jingoism of the press and the soft, noble lies of poets like Alfred Austin, Henry Newbolt and Rupert Brooke. At first, he wrote home cheerily to his mother: ‘There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France and I am in perfect spirits’.
But the Somme changed all that. The battle had started six months before Owen arrived and the first day, 1 July 1916, brought butchery unimaginable. Infantrymen were ordered to walk towards German trenches which contained about a thousand machine gun posts. By midnight, 21,392 lay dead and 35,493 were wounded – losses in less than fifteen hours that add up to more than all British casualties in the Crimean War, the Boer War and the Korean War put together.
On 12 January 1917, Owen led his platoon up to the Front for the first time at a place called Beaumont Hamel. Here they came under sustained fire. A sentry fell blinded at Owen’s feet, ‘eyeballs huge-bulged like squids’. All around him men ‘bled and spewed and ... drowned’ as the sentry chattered madly through broken teeth.
The scales didn’t just fall from Owen’s eyes, they were blasted away by that experience. Within a week he was writing home: ‘The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even’.
Within six months he was home himself, invalided out with a mixture of shell-shock and trench fever. During the long process of recovery he struggled to come to terms with what he’d seen in a series of poems. Disabled, written in October 1917 at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, is one of the best of these.
In it he describes the thoughts of a young Scot, both legs and an arm blown off, waiting in a wheelchair for nurses to come and put him to bed. In feeling his way into the horror of this situation, Owen’s homosexuality is both a help and a hindrance. A help in that it lets him identify with and re-create the crippled boy’s sense of sexual rejection by ‘normal’, healthy society:
‘Now he will never feel again how slim
But Owen’s homosexuality was of the kind that had him complacently writing to his mother: ‘All women, without exception, annoy me’, and that attitude comes through and hinders to poem. Those really responsible for the boy’s position largely escape his rage. Which falls in part on the women who encouraged him to enlist and in part on the nurses on whom he is now humiliatingly dependent but who turn from him with aversion:
‘To-night he noticed, how the women’s eyes
By August 1918, Owen had recovered physically and was posted back to France. He remarked to his brother Harold: ‘I know I shall be killed. But it is the only place that I can make my protest from’. In those last weeks before his death, Owen broke through to new dimensions of power and awareness in the handful of poems (such as Strange Meeting, The Sentry and Spring Offensive) that he had time so write.
Smile, Smile, Smile, dated September 23rd 1918, is one of these last poems and describes a group of wounded soldiers reading a piece of drivel from the Daily Mail with
‘The casualties (typed small)
The day before writing the poem, Owen had insisted in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon: ‘I don’t want to write anything to which a soldier would say No Compris‘.
So it is that here Owen pushes the poem as close as possible to everyday language and experience: quotes from Daily Mail headlines, from Minister of Labour George Roberts and from popular songs. The title is lifted from Pack up your Troubles in your old Kit Bag.
What is even more impressive is the way that the poem sees and makes links between the wounds of the soldiers and the lies of the Daily Mail and the politicians. Gone is the narrow if powerful self-pity of Disabled and instead effortless political analysis lets all the poem’s anger focus down on ‘We rulers sitting in this ancient spot’ droning on about ‘this nation’ – a term that simultaneously embraces the soldiers and tries to exploit them, as they spot at once.
Six weeks later Owen, still only 25, was killed by a sniper as he led a platoon across the Sambre and Oise Canal. Among his papers they found a hastily drafted Preface to the volume of poems he never published. It read in part:
‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
About this time Town used to swing so gay
There was an artist silly for his face,
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
SMILE, SMILE, SMILE
Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
23rd September 1918
Last updated: 11 March 2010