The poet Owen plays a variety of roles - prophet (STRANGE MEETING, THE SEND-OFF), philosopher (INSENSIBILTY), surrealist (THE SHOW), agnostic (ASLEEP, FUTILITY). In GREATER LOVE, as in SMILE, SMILE, SMILE, he appears as spokesman for his fellow combatants, the Soldier's Champion.
But while Smile, Smile, Smile, is satirical and mordant, GREATER LOVE is quietly undemonstrative, its structure (4X6-line regular stanzas) controlled, its metre a series of iambs and trochees too well mixed to surprise, its rhyme scheme constant with little in the way of pararhyme to startle. The tone is dry-eyed, the pulse steady throughout.
Uncommon is the little we know as to where and when Owen drafted it. Craiglockhart? Scarborough? We assume Swinburne had a hand in it, indirectly, from the lines in BEFORE THE MIRROR:
White rose in a red-rose garden
Is not so white…..
Then we have Owen's May 1917 letter with its near quotation from St.John's Gospel:
Christ is literally in no-man's-land. There men
often hear His voice: Greater Love hath no man
than this, that a man lay down his life - for a
friend. Is it spoken in English only and French?
I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure
Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.
Which makes us pause when we come to line 2 of the poem:
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead
Such exclusiveness is not a part of the letter, or of that other poem AT A CALVARY NEAR THE ANCRE:
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate
Other poems may strike a chord. "Stained stones" (2) recall the line in INSENSIBILITY:
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers
"Piteous mouths that coughed" (18) reminds us of the gas attack in DULCE ET DECORUM EST and the "vile incurable sores on innocent tongues" and "froth-corrupted lungs", while the conclusion of GREATER LOVE -
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not (24)
makes us think of the final lines of APOLOGIA PRO POEMATE MEO:
These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment
But "weep, you may weep….." There's ambiguity here. Weep on account of finding themselves excluded from the corps d'elite? Or simply weep for the dead? If the latter why the sneer? Both poems end in scorn we may think unworthy of Owen at his best.
In general the diction of GREATER LOVE is derivative, a harking back to a younger Owen who had not quite found his genuine poetic voice. It is mannered, literary, self-conscious, for example the inversion "love pure" (4), the unnecessary repetition "rolling and rolling" (9), the convoluted "trembles not exquisite" (8) and "sings not so soft" (13).
Like all odes, GREATER LOVE is addressed to some one - or some thing. Who are all these "you's" and "yours"? A specific some one? Some epitome of sexual desire? More likely that Owen is thinking in abstract terms. The poem comprises a series of antitheses. On one hand the personification of physical beauty; on the other, beauty of an elevated, moral kind, a truer beauty. Wasn't it Owen's beloved Keats who wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"? (ODE TO A GRECIAN URN). A girl's eyes may entrance her lover, yet beside the example of men who sacrifice theirs in war, they "lose lure" (5). A "slender attitude" (7), a nice figure, is fine, but truer significance resides in "limbs knife-skewed" (7-8). Even "mouths that coughed" (18) before being stifled in the muddy ground count for more than the "gentle, and evening clear" (16) voice of the beloved.
Bringing together the kiss implicit in "red lips" (1) and the dead kissing the ground is a startling conjunction. Blood shed in the course of duty leads inevitably to the blood that sanctifies, to Christ's blood shed in the course of His duty, and symbol of Greater Love. All very neat and satisfying until we realise that the idea of conventional beauty being transcended, of real beauty inhering in, not appearances, but deeds that mirror the greatest deed of all, is the same idea put forward by those warmongering civilians whom Owen detested.
Trail you cross? Just what the militant clergy were exhorting the soldier to do. Kissed by the English dead? English of course. French possibly. But German? Not likely. Wasn't the Hun the embodiment of evil? Greater Love? A concept ideally designed to serve the jingoistic cause.
Was Owen aware of the irony of his position? Possibly there may be a clue in line 10:
Where God seems not to care
God was on our side, the troops were told, and therein lay their recompense. This was a war for God and country, good against evil, with hope of reward at the end.
But if God didn't care? Is this where Greater Love came in? Love that endures in the face not of hope but despair? To trail not the cross of militancy but of Him whose cry went up:
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Where God seems not to care.
On 13th August 1917 Owen wrote: -
There is a mote in many eyes ….That men are laying
down their lives for a friend. I say it is a mote; a distorted view to hold in
a general way.
That "in a general way" suggests that Owen himself is groping after truth, like poets do all the time, showing the rest of us the way.
Copyright : Kenneth Simcox, 2001