It seems fair to say that the poems of Wilfred Owen with the greatest impact are those confined in time and place: such as EXPOSURE, FUTILITY, ASLEEP - the trenches; DULCE ET DECORUM EST - on the march; HOSPITAL BARGE - the Somme river; THE SEND-OFF - railway station. The result is immediacy and realism.
When the perspective widens success is less certain. There is the early, and equivocal, '1914' in which the 'richer dust' of Brooke's THE SOLDIER now becomes 'sowings for new spring'. Later come SOLDIER'S DREAM and PARABLE OF THE OLD MAN AND THE YOUNG which focus on God's role in the war, and SMILE, SMILE, SMILE in which Owen satirises the gulf between two-nation Britain. The unfinished AN IMPERIAL ELEGY was drafted during summer 1916, most likely while Owen was on musketry courses at, first, Aldershot, then nearby at Mytchett. So busy was he that July and August, we wonder how he found the time; however, on 13 July he had just unburdened himself of a disliked room mate, and writing home, ' I am now alone and in peace.' Was it then that AN IMPERIAL ELEGY was drafted?
The eight lines we have, at first point to tragedy on a cosmic scale. Brooke's 'corner of a foreign field' which narrows the vision is quietly dismissed. 'A span as wide as Europe' says Owen, is a truer measure of the death toll; ' a titan's grave' or one of gigantic proportions 'a thousand miles long.'
It crossed all Europe like a mystic road (5)
The road, path, pathway metaphor spreads over the final four lines, suggesting that the journey the war dead take will lead to
This is the Path of Glory.
It looks as if Owen's apparent denial of Brooke's narrower perspective in no way negates that poet's idea of sacrifice. Glory is what those who die are seeking and will in the end attain to.
At this point we might suspect irony, or else remember the date of this short piece. In 1916 war to Wilfred Owen was still an idea not a reality. In addition he had recently become an officer and was proud of it.
'It is the finishing touch in my transformation as a soldier,' he wrote on 7 July. 'As a soldier I am glad to be here' (Aldershot). He takes pride in his superior marksmanship, in acting as company commander. In early August he found himself commanding forty-five men and two officers, 'ruling,' as he put it, 'this little family.' Of one 'pert bad young' subaltern who had travelled in the Far East 'at his will', Owen remarks patronisingly that he 'now travels over the Parade Ground at mine.' Next day he was deciding to give his men two hours extra drill. Owen was taking his new role very seriously indeed.
AN IMPERIAL ELEGY is obviously elegiac - but it is also imperial and contains within it a sense of grand purpose. Owen is where he is and doing what he's doing for a reason of which he approves. He may have only just embarked on the journey, on the Path, but it is a Path of Glory after all. This was not a period in his service when he was inclined in any way to be cynical.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007