Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For All the Wilfred Owens of the World

About twenty years ago, I became friends with a man who had more interests than I could possibly keep up with. It provided me with some new interests and made gift-giving a snap. He had mentioned someone named Siegfried Sassoon, who was a poet from The War. Now, of course, more accurately known as World War I. It was getting close to his birthday when I found myself wandering the aisles of a local used bookstore. There it was. A copy of Siegfried's memoirs.

I followed that up with The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. And that's where my love of war poetry began. It might seem odd saying you love war poetry, but it was a natural for me. I love poetry, and I love men, and men go to war. Yes, women, too. Plus, I was learning to have a deeper appreciation for the masculine mind, the male perspective on life, and nothing like war poetry to get to the heart of the matter. I was also falling for Wilfred. I have this tendency to fall in love with dead men. I'm not sure what that says and I don't intend to look into it. It started with Jack Kerouac, back in 1970. But, I'll write about him ... up the road.

Wilfred was, in his own words, "not concerned with Poetry." He said, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity ... all a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." There was nothing sugar-coated with Wilfred Owen. They stand even today, maybe especially today, as the ultimate anti-war statement.

He was born on March 18th, 1893 and died on November 4th, 1918, in the last days of the war. I'm not going to go into the facts of his short life here. I encourage you to do so, though. The Collected Poems ... is a good place to start. It's edited with an introduction and notes by C. Day Lewis, a poet laureate and Daniel's father. It contains interesting and insightful fragments of letters Wilfred wrote to family and friends during this time. I was particularly taken with this description, in a letter to a friend, while training troops in England and preparing himself to return to the front: "For fourteen hours yesterday I was at work - teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst till after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were not complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha." They say there are "no atheists in the trenches," but it's easy to see why a person's faith might be tested under such conditions.

I would love to quote some of my favorite lines, but in reading them now it seems inappropriate to take them out of context. Some of my favorite poems are probably everyone's favorites: "Anthem For Doomed Youth," "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," and "Dulce Et Decorum Est." It ends with these lines which, although taken out of context, stand in the strength of their conciseness.

"The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

The old lie? How sweet it is to die for one's country.

A few years ago I felt led to stop at a used bookstore in St. Paul. I was passing through to see a friend, just having flown in from Santa Fe. There I found another copy of The Collected Poems. I snagged it for myself. By this time, he had become a part of my consciousness.

He and his fellow war poets keep popping up in my life in unexpected ways. When I first moved to Santa Fe, I met a man who liked poetry as much as I and he had a book of World War I poetry that I quietly coveted. It honored several poets from The War, among them Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves, and of course, Sassoon and Owen. Their poems were punctuated by images of art in every medium and genre. In some odd way they were a beautiful counterpoint to the horror of the words. It's titled, The War Poets, compiled by Robert Giddings.

Just this last summer, I drove over to a small town in Wisconsin to visit an acquaintance and his dad, a veteran of WWII who had survived Normandy. When I first arrived, he showed me his music room with an extensive and eclectic collection of vinyl. He brought out several of his personal favorites, albums with beautiful eye-candy cover art. He suddenly pulled one from among the many and said, "I think you might like this one." He really didn't know me from Adam, as they say, but he was right. It was a recording by Country Joe McDonald (yes, of The Fish), reading poems by Robert Service, who served as an ambulance driver in WWI. These were backed only by the sound of his acoustic guitar. We sat in silence and listened.

Later, I had a conversation with his dad who talked about his life as a soldier. He shared some interesting and painful to relate stories. He said to me, "I've seen things that no one should ever have to see." By this time we were both trying to fight back tears. And not very successfully.

Wilfred Owens represents to me the countless men and women who have "died for their country." And I do mean countless. I want you to know him, too. And never forget him. There's too much at stake. Maybe everything.

"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 stretched 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

Mary Black and "My Youngest Son Came Home Today."


  1. Teresa, What you've written is beauiful, lilting, powerful...I've read much about war (my husband has a Silver Star from Vietnam; my father fought on Iwo Jima) but you hit a deeper chord...My husband's uncle survived the Invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Several years ago opportunity present itself where we could travel to Europe and follow, so to speak, in Uncle Frank's steps...for the Battle of the Bulge...as you can imagine, the trip was emotional...then, we visited Verdun...oh, Teresa, I lack the words to describe the horror of what must have been...the farmhouse where we stayed had stood during WWI...photos everywhere of the carnage...and about 20 feet outside the door was the battlefield with outlines of trenches everywhere...the distance between the opposing forces was (I'm not exaggerating) 3 feet...the men rose up in waves and charged each other, with the average soldier's life ending in seconds...photos showed piles and piles of the dead...all that youth, all those dreams lost in seconds...actually, I've goose bumps now writing about it...we visited several warm cemeteries, memorials...Wilfred Owen's poetry was consistently quoted...I bought a book...so haunting, so true...Thank you for this blog...you've said much so eloquently...and, as a PS, my husband spent 30 years in the USMC...it upsets many, many in the military that there is a perception that military people love war...no no no...war is nasty, nasty business that only happens when diplomacy fails...and this is one of the reasons I sometimes blog about the nightmares Baby Bush brought upon our country...none of what he got us into had to be...sorry this is so long but I feel so deeply about what you wrote...Blessings and Hugs

  2. Kittie, What an emotional journey you must have been on and to be right there with echoes of the battle right outside your door.I'm sure you and your husband have heard the saying, "The first casualty of war is the truth." Always applicable, but never more so than in Iraq. I'm very grateful for your comment.

  3. Wow! Your words are moving, rejuvenating. Just what I needed today.

  4. Thank you, so much, Lynn, for visiting this post. I'm glad it spoke to you. It's one of my own personal favorites. Have a good week! Teresa

  5. this was very helpful infomation that helped my daughter with her homework thanks again, sarah

  6. You're very welcome. I'm glad it could help and happy to hear that your daughter is doing homework that includes Wilfred Owen.