In October 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart, "Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one's country. Sweet! and decorous!"
While the earliest surviving draft is dated 8th October 1917, a few months later, at Scarborough or Ripon, he revised it.
The title is ironic. The intention was not so much to induce pity as to shock, especially civilians at home who believed war was noble and glorious.
It comprises four unequal stanzas, the first two in sonnet form, the last two looser in structure.
Stanza 1 sets the scene. The soldiers are limping back from the Front, an appalling picture expressed through simile and metaphor. Such is the men's wretched condition that they can be compared to old beggars, hags (ugly old women). Yet they were young! Barely awake from lack of sleep, their once smart uniforms resembling sacks, they cannot walk straight as their blood-caked feet try to negotiate the mud. "Blood-shod" seems a dehumanising image- we think of horses shod not men. Physically and mentally they are crushed. Owen uses words that set up ripples of meaning beyond the literal and exploit ambiguity. "Distant rest" - what kind of rest? For some the permanent kind? "Coughing" finds an echo later in the poem, while gas shells dropping softly suggests a menace stealthy and devilish. Note how in line 8 the rhythm slackens as a particularly dramatic moment approaches.
In Stanza 2, the action focuses on one man who couldn't get his gas helmet on in time. Following the officer's command in line 9, "ecstasy" (of fumbling) seems a strange word until we realise that medically it means a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied solely with one idea. Lines 12-14 consist of a powerful underwater metaphor, with succumbing to poison gas being compared to drowning. "Floundering" is what they're already doing (in the mud) but here it takes on more gruesome implications as Owen introduces himself into the action through witnessing his comrade dying in agony.
Stanza 3. The aftermath. From straight description Owen looks back from a new perspective in the light of a recurring nightmare. Those haunting flares in stanza 1 foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, dying, "plunges at me" before "my helpless sight", an image Owen will not forget.
Another aspect again marks Stanza 4. Owen attacks those people at home who uphold the war's continuance unaware of its realities. If only they might experience Owen's own "smothering dreams" which replicate in small measure the victim's sufferings. Those sufferings Owen goes on to describe in sickening detail.
The "you" whom he addresses in line 17 can imply people in general but also perhaps, one person in particular, the "my friend" identified as Jessie Pope, children's fiction writer and versifier whose patriotic poems epitomised the glorification of war that Owen so despised. Imagine, he says, the urgency, the panic that causes a dying man to be "flung" into a wagon, the "writhing" that denotes an especially virulent kind of pain. Hell seems close at hand with the curious simile "like a devil's sick of sin". Sick in what sense? Physically? Satiated? Then that "jolt". No gentle stretcher-bearing here but agony intensified. Owen's imagery is enough to sear the heart and mind.
There are echoes everywhere in Owen and with "bitter as the cud", we are back with "those who die as cattle". (ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH). "Innocent" tongues? Indeed, though some tongues were anything but innocent in Owen's opinion. Jessie Pope for one perhaps, his appeal to whom as "my friend" is doubtless ironic, and whose adopted creed, the sweetness and meetness of dying for one's country he denounces as a lie which children should never be exposed to.
A poem seemingly written at white heat. Harsh, effective in the extreme, yet maybe too negative to rank among Owen's finest achievements: those poems in which he transcends the scorn and the protest and finds the pity.
Copyright: Kenneth Simcox , 2000