Only two of Wilfred Owen's war poems have to do with specific locations, HOSPITAL BARGE with its summer setting, and this one which most likely looks back to winter 1917 and Owen's first direct experience of war. He wrote on 4th January, "I have joined the Regiment, who are just at the end of six weeks' rest". (He joined the 2nd battalion Manchester Regiment which was shortly to see action near the River Ancre)
A Calvary, a model of Christ on the Cross placed appropriately at a crossroads, is a common sight in France, and seeing this particular one will have led Owen to re-enact in his mind the events surrounding the Crucifixion, adapting them as a metaphor for certain aspects of the war he was presently engaged in. Its tone is savagely satirical for the most part.
However hard it may be to chart the development of Owen's faith from orthodoxy in an institutionalised religion framework to a more modified one later, this was a man who having witnessed the horrors of war could make such declarations as "Christ is literally in no-man's-land, and "Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism."
The poem opens with a poignant representation of the crucified Christ overlooking the ravages of war, a symbol of permanence ("One ever hangs…..") in a world rent apart.
In this war He too lost a limb
The mutilated Calvary, caught by a shell, allows a degree of identification with the fighting troops, themselves victims, who in turn by line 4 have become aligned with the Roman soldiers who at Christ's Crucifixion "bear with Him." Meanwhile, His disciples, out of fear, have made themselves scarce. Does Owen intend "bear with Him" to mean sharing His burden? More likely that "bear" means put up with, be resigned to. The Gospel story has the soldiers quick to join in the fun, mocking, stripping Him, hitting, spitting, piercing His head with thorns, probably not best pleased at being put on fatigues, ('Right, three volunteers for crucifixion duty, you, you and you'). Only the officer it was who said after Jesus was dead, "Surely this was a righteous man". At the same time, the present-day soldiers were sharing the burden in a sense, by sacrificing their own lives. Different ideas, different interpretations.
In stanza 2, having dispatched the disciples and possibly the soldiers as well, Owen turns to the priests who stroll near Golgotha (Aramaic for Place of the Skull). "Stroll" suggests insouciance, indifference to Christ's suffering, and his use of the present tense brings the story up to date with his distaste for clergy more ready to subscribe to the sacrifice of lives in the patriotic cause.
And in their faces there is pride
Not of course the pride that is right and proper but, Owen thinks, sinful pride. "Flesh-marked by the Beast"? Here the virulence towards the Church Militant becomes uncompromising as Owen, biblical scholar, recalls the passage in Revelation:
If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives
his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will
drink of the wine of God's fury………
To deny "the gentle Christ", as did the priests in Jesus's day, and as many were in essence doing at the present time, is indeed, Owen implies, doing the Devil's work.
Next, in stanza 3 the scribes, men who occupy high places, brushing aside people of lesser degree; whose successors Owen sees in the politicians and directors of affairs, publicists for the doctrine of "pure patriotism" that Owen maintains Christianity will not fit in with it.
Finally, he allows negative thoughts to give way to the more positive one of "greater love" (a theme he was to develop in his poem of that title) the supreme example of which, calvaries such as that near the Ancre, provide a constant reminder.
Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001