‘When I read that a shell fell into a group of 16 schoolboys and killed fifteen, I raved. Talk about rumours of wars and earthquakes in divers places… The beginning of the End must be ended, and the beginning of the middle of the end is now.’
Reading what Owen wrote to his mother on 21 December 1914 about the Germans’ shelling of Scarborough when sixteen died and 443 were wounded, to ascribe this sonnet to that same month seems entirely plausible.
Hibberd suggests it was Owen’s first poem about the war, while Stallworthy puts it among the batch of sonnets Wilfred showed Sassoon on 21 August 1917. But what did Owen himself think about it when revising it three years later?
Only lines 5 and 7 break the otherwise regular iambic metre. The rhymes too are conventional: no subtle pararhymes here. Of more relevance is how nearly its intention conforms to received opinion on the war at that time, as exemplified by such as Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell.
The contrast between the diction on the octet (lines 1 - 8) and in the sestet (9 - 14) is very marked. The octet has ‘whirled’, ‘rend’, ‘down-hurled’, words indicative of destructive force; then ‘famine’ and ‘rots’, destruction’s legacies: and ‘wails’, the human response; all results of that fearsome over-reaching word ‘tornado’. Here indeed,
‘…the winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.’
Owen knew his Shelley. He’d been given the complete poetical works for his 21st birthday on 18 March 1914. In THE REVOLT OF ISLAM, canto 9 stanza 25 he would have read
‘This is the winter of the world; and here
We die, even as the winds of Autumn fade…’
Which he was to recall in a letter written on his 23rd birthday,
‘Now is the winter of the world….’
words which might have been even more apt a year later during his experiences in the trenches.
How different when we come to the sestet which completes the metaphor of seasonal change. Spring blooms, summer blazes, harvest is ‘rich with all increase’ until spring ushered in once more. War destroys but peace follows and renews.
Unfortunately a price has to be paid, as Owen acknowledges in his final line and the allusion to ‘blood for seed’. If Brooke could hardly have written Owen’s lines 1 - 8, he might well have conceived something along the lines of 9 - 14. Brooke knew all about sacrificing one’s life for one’s country.
‘…There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed….’
he wrote in THE SOLDIER, a giving back that will lead to
‘….hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’
Are Brooke’s thoughts Owen’s too? Or is it possible that that little word ‘but’ beginning line 13 suggests a turning away from the spirit of hopeful self-sacrifice, and an interpretation of ‘blood for seed’ as a prescience of a very different, and as yet unfashionable, attitude to the war.
Whatever the answer, we may feel that the poem’s rather high-flown self-conscious tone differs markedly from those that have earned Owen his international repute; a ‘made’ poem perhaps, rather than ‘felt’; a period piece that allows for just a grain of ambiguity in that final line,
‘Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.’
Copyright: Kenneth Simcox 2005