On 22 August 1917 at Craiglockhart, Wilfred Owen began work on THE DEAD-BEAT. A week later he was busy drafting MY SHY HAND, and it would be hard to find a greater contrast between the brutal realism of the one and what might be thought the sentimental make-believe of the other.
MY SHY HAND dates just two weeks into Owen's association with Siegfried Sassoon. Unlikely to think of Sassoon reading it, as he did, and then producing a similar piece of his own (VISION) which, perhaps wisely, he saw fit not to publish.
'Stiller than in the heavens of hollow flowers'
is echoed by Sassoon's
'But beauty breaking in a heaven of flowers'
and Beauty (one of the subjects Wilfred, Leslie Gunston and Olwen Joergens had agreed to write sonnets about) now becomes the speaker in MY SHY HAND, declaring at the outset,
'My shy hand shades a hermitage apart'
What follows is a seductive invitation by Beauty to engage with her and savour the fruits of her benevolence.
A sonnet despite its unconventional 4-4-4-2 stanzas instead of the usual 8-6, MY SHY HAND relies for its effect on a series of comfort images and a flowing, sensuous rhythm. Nothing here to jar the languorous mood or disturb the tranquil thought.
It starts by evoking a general picture of the retreat which Beauty offers to those in need. It is 'apart' (from a war-torn world?), 'large enough', in other words compact where
'Life…. is sweeter held than in God's heart' (3)
a presumptuous assumption and an example of the hyperbole that characterises the poem.
Assuming that Owen sees himself as the object of Beauty's charitable intentions, does the phrase 'thy brief hours' (2) take on prophetic overtones?
In stanza 2 Beauty's bounties are set forth. Like the wine at Cana in Galilee, 'Time shall not drain…..' (6) the wine that is 'gladder there than in gold bowls' (5) while the fact that 'my fingers feed all souls' (7) suggests that the Eucharist is not far from Owen's mind.
After bodily and/or spiritual nourishment stanza 3 allows for quiet contemplation and then
'….one deep pillow for thy brow's fatigues' (10)
Craiglockhart may have been for healing but it was no rest cure and there may have been times when 'languor' (11) and
For ever from vain untravelled leagues' (11-12)
would have seemed welcome.
In the final couplet we're presented with what we might suppose to be a nice cosy summing-up of a poem written as a set exercise, made rather than felt. It's true also that its call for inaction, inertia almost, if thought of as a state of permanency, is virtually impossible to imagine or even understand.
Seen, however, as a metaphor for that period of a relative calm in Owen's life between a first taste of war and the last, that we can understand. We might even recognise in MY SHY HAND a reaching down to areas too deep to be easily dismissed.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006