Today is the birthday of Wilfred Owen. When I was an undergrad, I was taught that World War I writers like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were the first to tell the truth of war. I might make the same argument for some Civil War writers, but certainly World War I was a war like none other, and those writers, Owen and Sassoon, helped us discover what that war was like and what effect it had on people, especially the soldiers.
I've always been amazed by how many people were killed in World War I; if you were an English or French school girl in 1914, you'd lose most of your male compatriots by 1918. The war would have long term effects in terms of marriage rates and in terms of changing views of women and work.
World War I also changed art and literature forever. You could make the case that WWI made the Modernist movement possible. Would the work of T. S. Eliot have been possible without Owen? I could make the argument that we'd have had no "The Waste Land" without Owen and Sassoon paving the way. I'm still haunted by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and the soldier character in that novel is one of the most heartbreaking.
My students have always reacted favorably to the poems of Owen. "Anthem for Doomed Youth" is a great poem for teaching metaphor. Many of them are still astonished at the idea that war was once seen as a great way to turn boys into men. That idea seems to have died a permanent death.
Of course, we still seem to blunder into wars that we can't leave. I haven't taught Wilfred Owen lately, so it would be interesting to see if students' attitudes towards him have changed after almost a decade of war headlines. It would be interesting to teach Wilfred Owen beside the poems and movies about our current wars. Would he seem more elegant? Would we see him as still having a reservation, a hesitation? Would we see Wilfred as holding back some of the more grim details? Can the refining that comes with crafting a poem undo the message that war is a unique kind of hell?
Below is "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which is one of his more gentle poems.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
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