We hear a lot about Siegfried Sassoon's influence on Wilfred Owen, but what about the part played by that other famous poet, Robert Graves?
14th October 1917. Wilfred to his mother
On Sat. I met Robert Graves…… showed him my longish war-piece "Disabled"…. ..
it seems Graves was mightily impressed and considers me a kind of Find!! No thanks, Captain Graves! I'll find myself in due time.
18th October 1917. Again to Susan Owen.
I think I described to you my meeting with Robert Graves……
He carried away a Poem, or was carried away with it, without my knowledge. It was only in a Draft state. I was perfectly aware of all the solecisms.
On the 17th Graves had written to Wilfred,
Do you know, Owen, that's a damn fine poem of yours, that "Disabled". Really damn fine…..you have seen things; you are a poet; but you are a very careless one at present…. But I have no doubt at all that if you turned seriously to writing, you could obtain Parnassus while I'm still struggling on the knees of that stubborn peak.
Graves criticised Owen for not abiding by the rules of metre, and it is true that DISABLED seems loosely organised with its apparently arbitrary irregularities of stanza, metre and rhyme. Perhaps Owen felt, not unreasonably, that a poet was entitled to break the rules as long as he knew them first.
Drafted in October 1917 and revised at Scarborough in July the following year, DISABLED presents a poignant picture of a young soldier "legless, sewn short at elbow" ( a nice combination of brutal frankness and tactful circumlocution) which sets what he had been before against what he has left him with.
Supremely, he once had youth, energy, virility. Impelled to enlist under-age (line 29 "Smiling they wrote the lie: aged nineteen years"), with a fine figure of which "Someone had once said he'd look a god in kilts" (25), with girls glancing "lovelier", this young man would certainly have looked forward to a normal relationship with women.
That was then. Now, he is old; (16)
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands. (11-12)
Now there are only nurses who "touch him like some queer disease." (13)
While as for the rest
….he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men who were whole. (43-4)
In the park in his wheeled chair, "Voices of play and pleasure after day" (5) remind him of his own former play and pleasures. Strenuous activity, football for example, then; now just inactivity but immobility. Where once he could enjoy company, respect even hero-worship, knew what it was like to be carried off the football field shoulder-high then hear the drums and cheers when he was drafted out, what can he now expect but loneliness and neglect? Yes, "Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal" (37) until finally he is left to lament.
…..Why don't they come and put him into bed? Why don't they come? (45-6)
Self-esteem had been important to him. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks, of smart salutes,
And care of arms…… (33-5)
….. a few sick years in institutes
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole. (40-2)
Such stark contrasts are pointed up through metaphor and symbol. The "blood-smear down his leg" (21), a badge of prowess at football, may be thought life-enhancing, whereas the loss of colour (17) and blood poured "down shell-holes till veins ran dry" (18) is life-draining. The "light blue trees" (8) represent a carefree past when "Town used to swing so gay" (7), while "his ghastly suit of grey" (2) illustrates a joyless present. Evening time blossomed with enjoyment "when glow lamps budded" (8), but evening now means "waiting for dark" (1) shivering, resentful of "how cold and late it is." (45).
Does Owen identify with this tragic figure? There are certainly autobiographical echoes in the poem. Town (London) did swing gay for Owen when he first enlisted. Edinburgh's Mrs Steinthal did paint his portrait (which Susan Owen disliked so much she destroyed it). And the ambition for "smart salutes" recalls Owen's remark soon after his commissioning.
I had the misfortune to walk down the road to some Camp Shops when the men were "at large", and had to take millions of salutes.
Only the word "misfortune" may be queried.
Other echoes whisper of Wilfred Owen's personal dislikes.
……..to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. (26-8)
Those giddy jilts surely belong with such female patriots as mother and sister in S.I.W. or the ones who handed out flowers in THE SEND-OFF.
Other civilians isolated from the war incurred his wrath, such as the "artist silly for his face" (14) and the "solemn man who brought him fruits" (38) and who piously and impertinently
Thanked him and then enquired about his soul. (39)
Finally, an important feature of Owen's writing is his subtle insights through irony.
Voices of boys rang saddening like hymn, (4)
Like a hymn? But isn't a hymn a song of praise, and what's sad about that? Nothing except that what is supposed to be one thing may, and frequently does, have an opposite effect.
Only a particularly negligent individual would throw away his knees (10) or even pour his blood down shell-holes (18), and of course, this man committed neither folly, it was committed for him, unless we accept that it depended on his enlisting in the first place.
After all he did think "he'd better join" (24). Better? Better than what? For the better? "Better" here calls into question a range of topical and eternal issues.
And whatever pity they may dole. (42)
Is this the same pity that Owen decided contained within it the poetry? We cannot think so. So what is pity exactly? What, apparently, it isn't, is a single, discrete attitude or emotion.
Like all great poets. Owen doesn't half make you think!
Copyright : Kenneth Simcox , 2001