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Poetry CritiqueFrom My Diary

On 31 July 1914 Wilfred Owen arrived at the Villa Lorenzo, Bagneres de Bigorre in the French Pyrenees for a two-month stay as guest of the Leger family, Monsieur and Madame and young daughter Nenette. For both the budding poet and the future soldier it would be an important stage in his development and a delightful period of marking-time before the sterner times to come.

Fast-forward three years to Craiglockhart War Hospital Edinburgh where Owen is being treated for neurasthenia by Doctor Arthur Brock. Dominic Hibberd suggests that FROM MY DIARY was drafted at this time at Brock's behest as part of a programme of ergotherapy in which patients worked at their particular specialisms. What emerged in this case were an important exercise in pararhyme and a recapturing of past joys during the last days of peace and the beginning of war.

Memory served Wilfred well, details in his letters home being reflected in the poem.

31st July 1914

The garden is wildish but rich in leafage


Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees (1-2)

1st August 1914

I may have to do harvesting.

6th August 1914

Monsieur and I will undertake the harvest between us.


Singing of summer, scything through the hay (7-8)

10th August 1914

I have found a spot to bathe…. An enchanting stretch of water in an alder-glade….. I go down every day… vaunt my coolness and freshness.


Bursting the surface of the ebony pond


of swimmers carving through the sparkling cold (11-14)

31st July 1914

A few yards from my door a brook keeps up the noise of a hidden stream….

Two charming rivulets leap across the garden.

A mead

Bordered about with warbling waterbrooks (17-18)

1st August 1914

I am immensely happy to be in the company of Nenette.

8th August 1914

(Nenette) has come for kisses and hugs at intervals.

Her heart

Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek (23-24)

10th August 1914

The stars are twice as brilliant than I have ever seen them before,


Expanding with the starr'd nocturnal flowers (31-32)

The poem has several unusual features: sixteen couplets with single-word initial lines that announce the theme, and the line following enlarging on it; a less than regular metre and rhythm together with the seemingly random order of the couplets suggesting that what drives the poem may be less the recapturing of memories and rather more the attempt to demonstrate how pararhyme can aid the poet's craft. But it's a moot point.

Still, the memories are there retraced elegantly, for example of nature in her finery; 'shimmering trees' (2), 'ebony pond' (12), 'warbling waterbrooks' (18), images that trip off Owen's pen in which alliteration and metaphor also come across as an exercise in figurative language. The poetic atmosphere is nicely maintained so that we may excuse the odd cliché - birds 'cheerily chirping' (6) or heart 'quivering with passion' (24). Vivid is his recollection of the swimmers though we may wonder who are these boys who burst the pond's surface (11-12). No mention of them in the Letters, so wishful thinking perhaps? On the other hand Wilfred's preoccupation with the pretty and vivacious Nenette is real enough, Nenette who has diverted him from the obvious attentions (and intentions) of the amorous Mme. Leger. His pride in attracting the interest of mother and daughter is plain to see in the poem as well as the Letters.

A maid

Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of looks (19-20)

In the context of his short life, a small conceit as easy to understand as it would be churlish to misconstrue.

FROM MY DIARY 1914 is surely both personal statement and formal exercise, a product of the private poet as much as the public one of universal acclaim, one that would have struck chords that only the man himself was vouchsafed to hear.

Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006

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