Wilfred Owen: The News of All the Nations
One of Wilfred Owen’s gifts was the ability to turn from the overwhelming horror of the moment and look beyond the nightmare of the Western Front to higher things. A great inspiration for him was the comeradeship of men in the trenches. The idealism of 1914 was gone, bitter anger and resignation had set in, and still these men were fierce in their devotion to their “mates”. The war was viewed as a monstrous insanity; yet each man would kill — and die — for the man next to him in the line.
Owen contemplates this devotion in the following sonnet (an “identity disc” is what we would call “dog tags”):
Sonnet to my Friend
(With an Identity Disc)
|If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There seeking a long sanctuary at last, —
|Or if I onetime hoped to hide its shame,
— Shame of success, and sorrow of defeats, —
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That shade always the quiet place of Keats,
|Now rather thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed.
Let my inscription be this soldier’s disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But may thy heart-beat kiss it, night and day,
Until the name grow blurred and fade away.
Owen is looking here to the larger world, and does not seem to think it likely that he will survive to re-enter it. As it turned out, of course, his name was indeed unsurpassed among the poets of the Great War, though it was unknown in his own lifetime.
The larger world — the world that soldiers visited on leave, that they hoped one day to rejoin, that seemed so strange and irrelevant to the hell they lived in — was to be changed forever by the Great War. People went about their routines, children went to school, business was transacted, fortunes were made and lost, but an age had ended and a new one was about to begin.
There are intimations of this ominous new time in the following poem:
|Six o’clock in Princes Street|
|In twos and threes, they have not far to roam,
Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;
Those seek no further than their quiet home,
Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.
|Neither should I go fooling over clouds,
Following gleams unsafe, untrue,
And tiring after beauty through star-crowds,
Dared I go side by side with you;
|Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
And all their sorrows in your face.
When the war ended, the “news of all the nations” continued. Revolution, social chaos, financial ruin, dictatorship, and, of course, another war — these were the shape of things to come.
The next post in this series will return to some of the other war poets.