Wilfred Owen: The Ram of Pride
Of all the promising young lives cut short by the carnage on the Western Front in the Great War, none was more promising or more tragically snuffed out than that of Wilfred Owen. His poetic abilities were considerable, and came to full flower in the appalling conditions of the trenches. He was scarcely out of childhood when he took up arms in 1914, and was killed by a sniper in 1918 at the age of 25, just a week before the armistice, when the war was all but over. He spent his entire adult life as a soldier in the war, and his poetry is a reflection of it.
He is best known for bitter and angry poems like “Dulce et Decorum Est”, but his work displayed a wide range of topics, moods, and styles. Sometimes his verse was traditionally florid and romantic, a throwback to the previous century; at other times it was spare and modern. But his were poems of grace and power, and English poetry is worse off for having been denied his maturity.
When confronted with the monstrosity that was the Great War, the natural reaction was to rage against God. Owen uses a specific scriptural parable in the following poem, reversing the outcome of the narrative in order to have Abraham acting against his God:
|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 stretchèd 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.
What other explanation could be found, except for pride, that would compel the nations of Europe to continue the senseless slaughter?
The soldier at the front tended to identify with Christ, with the innocent suffering and death of the Messiah. Taking a different tack with “Soldier’s Dream”, Owen presents Christ as acting in opposition to God, in order to show mercy to the soldiers:
|I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted bayonet with His tears.
|And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, nor even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.
Both these poems project outrage at a war that could not be explained except as “the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.” If such was the will of God, how else to respond except with a defiance of God?
Wilfred Owen’s poetry is too large a topic to be covered in a single post; there will be more on him later.