Insensibility

Who is the happy Warrior?

Who is he

That every man in arms should wish to be?

asked William Wordsworth, knowing nothing of war but certain, nevertheless, of what the answer should be, while

Happy are men who yet before they are killed

Can let their veins run cold

replied Wilfred Owen a century and more later, knowing too much about war, nevertheless, to be altogether sure that he was right

No uncertainty in Shelley's mind when he wrote in his famous Defence of Poetry that the state of mind produced by delicate sensibility and enlarged imagination is at war with every base desire.

Which is fair enough except that Shelley had not been to war either. It was left to Owen to decide whether sensibility in war was a blessing or a curse.

Was he referring to INSENSIBILITY when he wrote from Ripon on 21 April 1918 to his cousin Leslie Gunston:

I have written, I think, two poems: one an Ode which, considering my tuneless tendencies, may be called dam (sic) good….

Tuneless tendencies might fit because the poem is not notable for its melodic harmonies. What rhythm it has is broken, the metre irregular as is its structure - 6 stanzas of 11,9,12,9,10,10 lines having irregular length. It is not a poem of any great beauty.

A remarkable feature, however, is the elaborate use of pararhymes. The poem is almost top heavy with them, and they effectively produce a downbeat feeling that recalls Mathew Arnold.

Stanza 1

Stanza 1 opens with Owen apparently propounding his opinion that the fighting man is better off having no sympathetic imagination, ("fleers" = mocks).

Lines 4 & 5's horrifying image

Or makes their feet

Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers

echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 -

They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls… (The German breakthrough of March 1918 when the British Army "had its back to the wall" being pushed back some 40 miles from St.Quentin to Villers Bretonneux. - See Owen web site Lancs. Fusiliers at Hawthorn Redoubt and Edmund Blunden web site for views of Beaumont Hamel.)

How easily then might an excess of imagination play havoc with men's nerves.

Lines 7 - 8 have

But they are troops who fade, not flowers

For poets' tearful fooling:

The troops are those who matter, those same heroes of whom Owen tells us in his Preface, English Poetry "is not yet fit to speak"; the same men who are thought of merely as " gaps for filling" (9), men "who might have fought longer" (10-11), bitter words that lead to an end-of-stanza dying fall like that in EXPOSURE ("But nothing happens")

……but no one bothers.

Stanza 2

And some cease feeling (12)

Well, some do. For the rest,

The tease and doubt of shelling (15)

means the grim reality of wondering who'll cop it next. It's

Chance's strange arithmetic (16)

Not mathematical probability that operates here, yet even that

"comes simpler" (17) than gauging the final reckoning, for how can that be quantified?

Stanza 3

The word "happy" crops up again. If to lose one's imagination (19) implies having had one in the first place, battle seems an unlikely occasion for its surrender. Owen suggests that with imagination "lost", physical burdens may be unavoidable but that the men's "spirit drags no pack" (21), that "having seen all things red" (23) spilled blood no longer has power to derange. Hearts remain unaffected, small-drawn" (27). Having seen men die "in some scorching cautery of battle" (28) minds are thenceforth immunised against further hauntings.

We may think, tell that to the Mental Cases.

Stanza 4

The expression "soldier home" (31) must mean repatriate not one who has not gone out. How then can he be "with not a notion" of the business of war. Who is the lad "whose mind was never trained" (34)? Trained in what? In sensibility?

Now comes the turning point. So far it has all been about our Happy Warrior. Suddenly in mid-stanza pronouns change from "they" to "we" and Owen slips quietly into another gear. We don't sing, we "march taciturn". (37), we who are fully conscious of the dusk and

The long, forlorn, relentless trend

From larger day to huger night. (38-9),

we for whom insensibility is not an option.

Stanza 5

Stanza 5 continues in the first person (we) (40-3) but then reverts to third (he, his). Seemingly Owen is arguing a dichotomy between us (the wise) whose thoughts of guilt

……..besmirch

Blood over all our soul, (40-1)

and the insensible ones, "not vital overmuch" (44), not even "mortal overmuch". (45) not sad, proud, curious. In other words, not much anything really. If this comes from losing imagination it's hard to see where happiness comes in. Perhaps after all we should not see the two states as polarised. Does the clue come in lines 42-3?

How should we see our task

But through his blunt and lashless eyes?

How, asks Owen, can we poets do our job properly and rationally without curbing our imagination? Against this, without a measure of sensibility, mind and spirit die. So what's the solution?

Stanza 6

In stanza 6 Owen seems to confute the arguments he started out with, that the soldier should abandon feeling in the interests of keeping sane.

Dullness best solves

The tease and doubt of shelling he'd written in stanza 1 while in stanza 6 we read

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns (50)

Can Owen have it both ways? Well, yes if we see the irony in that first quotation, see it not as advice but as a wry observation. The tone of the last stanza suggests that the kind of happiness achieved through suppressing feeling is achieved only at a price.

By choice they made themselves immune

To pity………..(54-5)

we're told. So does he condemn them? No, for he understands why they choose thus. He's told us in (42-3) that the poet must look at these issues through the soldiers' eyes. Yet to discard pity or whatever hurts or gives cause for lament, to whatever shares "the eternal reciprocity of tears" (and I take the "whatever" to mean an entity or quality beyond ourselves) diminishes us all.

Whether "eternal" simply signifies "timeless" or as containing a spiritual dimension is up to us to decide.


Copyright Kenneth Simcox, 2000

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