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Poetry CritiqueAsleep

Early in November 1917 Wilfred Owen left Craiglockhart Hospital and went on leave, to Shrewsbury first, then London and finally to Winchester to meet his cousin Leslie Gunston. Afterwards on 16th November he wrote to Leslie, "Good of you to send me the lyric… I can only send my own… which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs."

The poem was ASLEEP (originally KILLED ASLEEP) which he revised at Ripon in the following May.

It comprises two irregular stanzas of nine and twelve lines respectively. Like DULCE ET DECORUM EST and FUTILITY it describes one soldier's death in war but without the harsher reality that characterises the former poem.

Stanza 1 portrays the man's death while asleep. Stanza 2 looks at the wider setting and puts the questions which are in Owen's mind. Two stanzas but four parts: description, reflection, question and conclusion. The structure of the text does not accurately reflect the poem's agenda, while the rhyme scheme also is idiosyncratic and the rhythm is disjointed within lines of variable length and stress.

It is one of Owen's most "poetic" poems. There is much figurative language consistent with its metaphysical slant before Owen ends with a personal statement.

Stanza 1. lines 1-3. At the beginning sleep is literally that, but personified as a creature of benevolence bestowing rest on the exhausted soldier, a blessed relief after the stresses of war. "Working" and "waking" are a familiar Owen device, the half-rhyme functioning like a minor key in music.

4-5. First sleep "took him by the brow", then death "took him by the heart". The repetition suggests a natural, seamless process which the usual phrase "no time" augments.

5-6. The man's death spasms bring a momentary disturbance to the poem's flow until-

Life ebbs away and stillness ensues. Asleep….sleep…sleeping…sleepy, so much thematic repetition, and in the next stanza we shall get more: sleep…sleeps…sleeps, all enhancing a sense of peace.

8-9 "Intrusive" seems a mannered, understated word in relation to the savage penetration of flesh, but such restraint accords with the general tone, while "slow, stray blood" again underplays the enormity of the act. Not for the first time Owen uses blood as an ambiguous symbol; blood defiles but in Christian terms it also sanctifies.

Stanza 2 Lines 10-12. Owen asks what happens after death. Divine intervention or extinction? His thoughts first turn to the mystery of Christian doctrine and tradition and the hope that death may be transcended.

13-14. This in contrast to the war's miseries, the merciless rain, the cutting winds (scimitar - very sharp curved sword) which reminds us of the opening line of EXPOSURE, "Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us".

15-18. Owen considers the alternative to religious belief. Death the end. Destiny no more than a body that rots and becomes part of the earth. Note the offence against nature implicit in "grey grass" and "finished fields" and think of war-scarred landscapes where nothing grows. Another parallel - Rupert Brooke's THE SOLDIER and that rich earth in which a richer dust is concealed.

Owen's dilemma he brushes aside and introduces a note of-what? Bitterness? Cynicism? Irony? The staccato beat makes an abrupt change from the poetic diction that had gone before.

20-21. If not survival, oblivion. At least he's better off than the rest of us who are still cold and frightened and go on enduring the hell of war.

As in DULCE ET DECORUM EST and FUTILITY, ASLEEP is about a single death, a man perhaps known to Owen, who could yet stand for all who die in war - the Unknown Soldier whose tomb may in the end be truly empty for the best of all possible reasons.

Despite Owen's revision of the poem in 1918, six months after writing it, the last line seems disappointing after the deep feeling and vivid images created in the earlier lines. Perhaps "alas" felt stronger in 1917-18 than it does now, perhaps he would have reworked the line to provide a stronger ending. As it stands, it offers what seems like an unlikely word to utter in such circumstances, either flippant or merely banal.

Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2000

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