Wilfred Owen's letter home dated 25th April 1917:-
Immediately after I sent my last letter…..we were rushed up into the line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our "A" Company led the attack and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets.
By September 1918 the above had evolved into, arguably, a poetic masterpiece on different (though connected) levels of meaning.
An account of the action, its prologue and aftermath, and the men involved in it.
Events within the context of the natural world.
Events on a supernatural plane.
The six stanzas reflect phases of the offensive:
(1) Scene set. (2) Pause before attack. (3) Tension. (4) Attack. (5) Casualties. (6) Survivors.
Broken rhythm, a 10-syllable line with variations and a mixed iambic-trochaic metre together with irregular rhymes interspersed with couplets produce the necessary tension. Such verse requires attentive reading!
The tone is measured and solemn. Unlike, say, DULCE ET DECORUM EST in which Owen is personally involved, here he distances himself to achieve objectivity.
Immediately the landscape comes into view. "Shade" is nature in beneficent mood. "Last hill" though? Last before -what?
(Line 2) The troops, shaded, are also "eased".
(3) Bodily contact implies comradeship and trust and matches the sense of well-being. However, the break at (4) signals a mood change, and "a last hill" (1) takes on new significance. Some men stand, unable to sleep like the rest.
(5-6) "The stark blank sky" reveals nature suddenly less benevolent. That "last hill" may be their last. They stand on a metaphysical precipice, catching a glimpse of last things.
(7-8) "Marvelling" perhaps not just what lies at their feet but within themselves. Nature shows a smiling face again, the "long grass swirled" in the "May breeze" and Owen gives us that lovely Keatsian sound image "murmurous with wasp and midge". The whole stanza ebbs and flows between nature's grace on one hand and her disfavour on the other.
(9-10) A remarkable simile illustrates nature's healing power. "Oozed" - another onomatopoeic word straight from Keats.
(11-12) The soul grows sharp when healing stops and capricious nature signals menace.
More of a piece. Pastoral, idyllic. Calm before storm but pathos too with Gospel-like image of the brambles (Christ's crown of thorns). Did Owen intend a link with the victims of war? The simile "like sorrowing arms" is almost beatific, like the "distressful hands" in STRANGE MEETING. "Blessed with gold" fits too. This image is supposed to have originated on an occasion when the Owen family returned across the fields from church one Sunday evening before the war. Wilfred, noticing the luminous effect of buttercup petals on brother Harold's boots, announced piously, "Harold's boots are blessed with gold."
(18) "They breathe like trees unstirred." The sense of man and nature in communion is strong in this stanza.
(19) That "little word" of command, and the "May breeze" becomes " a cold gust".
(20-1) With the introduction of the soul, a spiritual dimension to the poem is confirmed.
(22-3) Minimal fuss or gesture mark the onset of attack. No longer the bringer of summer's balms, the sun is "like a friend with whom their love is done."
(25) The "O" in "O larger shone that smile against the sun" suggests an act of real significance. In war, men, as well as spurning their fellow creatures, also reject nature.
"whose bounty these have spurned". In war, man and nature share a flawed relationship.
(27 The start of military action. Owen says in a letter of 14th May 1917:-
"The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you."
Outlaws would take to the heather to hid. No hiding in this heather and no cure from the heather either.
(29-30) The sun having been turned against, in retaliation "the whole sky burned with fury against them" (Ruskin's Pathetic Fallacy).
(30-1) "Earth set sudden cups in thousands for their blood" might suggest the Eucharist, ("This is my blood of the New Testament….."). though cups must surely be a metaphor for shell craters? War as a travesty of religious sacrament?
(31-2) That "green slope", earlier an aspect of nature's grace, now "chasmed and deepened sheer to infinite space" and what therefore? Promised eternity? threatened extinction?
Heaven and hell in contraposition.
(33) "A last hill" (1) now "that last high place". A place in the topographical sense or, historically, as a place of sacrifice?
(34-5) "Hell's upsurge" seems to suggest a hell below as well as on the surface, just as
(36) "this world's verge" might imply the existence of some non-physical region on the other side.
(37) The stanza ends with perhaps the most problematical line of all. "Some say……" Some say but don't? It is possible that…… or a wry expression of assent?
The survivors are about to put the final question.
(40-2) The Hell of war and an infernal hell seem indistinguishable. War is the Devil's game and they have taken him on at his own game, winning by dint of "superhuman inhumanities". Which is puzzling if "superhuman" cannot be reconciled with "inhumanities".
And what are we to make of an action that yields both "long famous glories and immemorial shames? "Crawling slowly back" reminds us of those who "creep back, silent" in the SEND OFF; the "cool peaceful air" of the healing water of "village wells". nature once more restorative of bruised bodies and minds. Why are they silent about their dead comrades? Can it be that the pity of war, the pity war distilled, is too concentrated an emotion to bear discussion or even rational thought? There seems to be troubling issues here that are unresolved and unresolvable. One problem we face is not knowing how Owen's religious thought was developing as the war went on. Did we know that, much that is unclear about SPRING OFFENSIVE might become clearer.
(Early on the morning of 14th April 1917, Owen's battalion, the 2nd Manchesters left Savy Wood with orders to attack a trench on the west side of St.Quentin, part of the British and French armies Spring Offensive against the Hindenburg Line. In order to reach the "Start Line" for this attack, the battalion took a circuitous route involving a halt in the shade of a valley before receiving further orders to move on. Leaving the valley they reached a ridge and racing down the other side were immediately exposed to artillery fire from the Germans in St. Quentin, suffering some casualties. At 2.30 p.m. they commenced an attack on the final objective charging up a slope only to find that the Germans had fled as they reached the trench. That evening, Owen was in the party of Manchesters which went back to Savy Wood for a rest.
Source:- "St.Quentin 1914-1918" by McPhail & Guest. Leo Cooper. 2000. 47 Church St. Barnsley, Yorkshire. S70 2AS ISBN 0850527899.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2000