Experssing the horror of war
Wilfred Owen and his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon were two poets who eloquently described the horrors of World War I. They met in a military hospital, after both had been wounded in the war. Owen had been writing poetry since the age of 11, but not about war. When he became friends with Sassoon during their hospital stay, Owen was inspired by Sassoon’s example and realized that the horrors of trenches and gas warfare deserved to be described realistically in poetry. Against the strong advice of Sassoon, Owen insisted on returning to active duty in France, where he wrote the eloquent and bitter war poems for which he is remembered.
Owen was killed in action exactly one week before the end of the war. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.
Here are two of Owen’s poems:
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 out 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.”
The parable of the old man and the young
“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretch`ed forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Wilfred Owen, eloquent opponent of war, tragic victim of war, we need your voice today!
This article is a chapter of John Avery’s new book “We Need Their Voices Today”. Rest of the chapters can be read HERE
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm.