In terms of the poems of Wilfred Owen, 1916 was not a big year, it being devoted to his learning the soldier's trade rather than the poet's. But he did write the occasional sonnet in conjunction with his cousin Leslie Gunston and their friend Olwen Joergens: TO -, PURPLE, STORM, MUSIC - and A NEW HEAVEN (alternatively TO - ON ACTIVE SERVICE or TO A COMRADE IN ATHENS -FLANDERS in brackets).
Which comrade did he have in mind? With September a given date and Witley camp a probable place, the likeliest candidate has to be (as Dominic Hibberd suggests) Lt. H.B.Briggs, the two having first met at Romford. Wilfred described him on 14 April as 'quite my closest chum'. They were together for several months, then on 23 August he wrote 'Briggs went this morning to be attached to another regiment.' And on the 27th, 'Briggs awoke one morning and found himself gone. He is attached to some Lancashire Regt. and goes out in a month's time.' So unless Owen had no particular person in mind Briggs was probably the man.
There is ambiguity in the octet which comprises the impressions of Wilfred and his siblings/friends of their childhoods. But childhoods unfulfilled or childhoods rendered poignant for having been lost? Classical allusions abound which gives a sense of artifice rather than art. For reminiscences of childhood the language is too weighty, inappropriate. Lethe, Styx, Asgard, Nirvana, paradise, acropole are a series of metaphors too far, designed more for effect than to enhance and illustrate genuine emotions.
These first eight lines are grammatically a clause not a sentence that at line 8 leaves the dialectic hanging. Because such-and-such happened, or didn't happen,….and only then does Owen lead into the final six lines, which mark the crux of the poem.
From the flowery excesses of the octet we find ourselves with an early war poem on our hands.
On the evidence of the poems and the letters, Wilfred Owen spent little time in 1916 thinking about war's big questions. As he wrote on his birthday that year,
'The Army as a life is a curious anomaly; here we are prepared - or preparing - to lay down our lives for another, the highest moral act possible, according to the Highest Judge, and nothing of this is apparent between the jostle of discipline and jest.'
In other words he had other things to think about.
'Let's die home, ferry across the Channel! Thus (9)
This staccato opening to the sestet is dramatic enough to have come from the pen of Robert Browning; such a stark contrast to the vapidness of what went before. Owen has given his diction a good shake-up. Past regrets are just that. A new spirit is (literally) abroad, the metaphors clearer, the metre and rhythm more urgent.
'And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first
heaven and the first earth were passed away.' Revelation 31.1.
Forget the old heaven, says Owen, the new one lies in France and, alive or dead, 'Shall we live gods there.' (10). The final four lines anticipate ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH with its ritualised mourning and sacrifice finding consolation and redemption through the minds and souls of those the dead have left behind.
'There our own mothers' tears shall heal us whole.' (14)
It may not have been a thought that Owen would hold up to the end, but in context it should not be beyond justification (and our understanding) either.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007