We may search in vain for a context to this poem, manuscript-dated October 1916. During the first eighteen days of that month Wilfred Owen was in camp at Oswestry, then being posted to Southport. At Oswestry he had his mother staying nearby and had no occasion to write to her, while after the 18th all the correspondence we have are two brief postcards from Southport and one from Birkenhead.
A hybrid of a sonnet with its rhyme scheme a mixture of the Petrarchian and the Shakespearean, its meaning seems to be an interlacing of the naturalistic and the metaphorical.
This is Owen at his loftiest and most poetic, the voice highly charged and the syntax drawing attention to itself. 'So must I tempt…' (5), 'And happier were I….'(9). 'Glorious will shine….' (10), 'What matter if…..'(12). Unusually the verb 'consume' is used intransitively.
Whose face is referred to in line 1 we don't know, only its effect on Owen himself, for this we can be sure is a very personal poem in which sexual passion and the poetic imagination are mysteriously joined. That effect, of a face '….charged with beauty as a cloud/ With glimmering lightning' (1-2) we can take to be hazardous mentally and physically - also alluring.
'When it shadowed me
I shook, and was uneasy as a tree
That draws the brilliant danger, tremulous, bowed.' (2-4)
'Tremulous, bowed' acknowledges submission to and the attraction of a force fearful like lightning in its potency. Uncommonly the sonnet's octave breaks here, perhaps in order to emphasise the change from negative to positive reaction to this overwhelming experience.
'So must I tempt that face to loose its lightning' (5)
Then at line 6, 'Great gods' who 'will laugh above' shows that notwithstanding his determination, like Hardy's Tess he's being made a plaything. No matter, he thinks, and the octave ends with the unequivocal promise to himself,
'I shall be bright with their unearthly brightening.' (8)
The sestet opens seemingly with a paradox, two conflicting statements linked by virtue of a semi-colon,
'And happier were it if my sap consume;
Glorious will shine the opening of my heart' (9-10)
So, will it be surrender or liberation?
'The land shall freshen that was under gloom;' (11)
we read, and with the storm's end will come not just nature's calm but the kind of calm that comes with resolution and a reconciliation of the supposed paradox. What if other men draw back in fear or women 'hide their faces'
'At those hilarious thunders of my fall' (14)?
Here Owen has turned the word 'fall' with its negative connotations into a ring of triumph, a gesture of defiance.
A poem may not always connect with the everyday life in which it is born, but did something occur during Owen's daily routine to produce this rather resounding statement of intent? That we shall never know.
Copyright Ken Simcox 2006