A twenty-first birthday present, the complete poetical works of Shelley from his brothers and sister, was to provide the title for Wilfred Owen's most problematical poem. In Shelley's "TheRevolt of Islam" we read: Gone forth whom no strange meeting did befall.
STRANGE MEETING was written in the spring or early summer of 1918 and stands in the forefront of Owen's achievements. Siegfried Sassoon called it Owen's passport to immortality. On the poet's memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey is engraved the famous quotation: I am the enemy you killed, my friend which words continue to re-echo down the years.
Inspired probably by Sassoon's "The Rear Guard" and based on an earlier draft of Owen's "Earth's Wheels", STRANGE MEETING recounts a dramatic meeting between two dead soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of "the truth untold" and the need for the poet to proclaim that truth in the face of a world set to "trek from progress". In the words of Owen's famous Preface, "All a poet can do today is warn".
The opening line beginning "It seemed that……" ushers into a dream-like world in which a meeting for the two protagonists is for us a meeting with ambiguity. "I knew we stood in hell," says the first speaker. A strange meeting in an even stranger meeting place for what will become an act of grace. A strange meeting and an even stranger fate for ones who are war's innocent victims.
Who is the first speaker? We might assume it is Owen himself, the first-person narrator, yet the second speaker is one who delivers the message-Owen's message. There will be further ambiguities yet.
Structurally the poem comprises 44 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three irregular stanzas which do not correspond exactly with the poem's natural constituents. The pararhymed couplets, as with the metre, are subject to minor variations.
In lines 1 - 3 Owen sets the scene. Holes, caverns, tunnels - these form a recurring image in his mind and find their way into the poems. "Titanic Wars" imply not just Owen's war but conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale. At the outset we are made to realise that past and present interfuse as, later in the poem, will the future also. This is Owen reaching out to an altogether new dimension.
Lines 4 - 10. "Encumbered" by their uniform and kit but also they carry with them the burden of suffering. "Sleepers". More ambiguity here, for although one man springs up and lifts his hands his smile is dead while others are "fast in thought or death….." So often in this poem we find ourselves on the edge of certainty. The two men had already shared one terrible, intimate moment - the moment of killing. Now comes recognition. "Piteous" - not pitying of course but calling for pity which explains why ambiguity attaches to why the distressful hands are lifted.
Lines 11 - 13. Those "thousand pains" are the legacy of war inflicted in life not after-life. In this hell there is relief, "no blood", "no guns thumped or….made moan". War - hell. In what relation to each other do they stand?
Line 14. The narrator introduces their one-sided dialogue with a paradox - "strange friend".
Lines 15 -29. Whereupon there ensues a homily on the true purpose of poetry. Whatever hopelessness of the "undone years" it is a purpose they both share.
Whatever hope is yours Was my life also; A shared purpose. A shared identity also? Is the doppelganger theory valid here? Yes or no the "hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world" corresponds to Owen's high-sounding quest for beauty and truth which in former days he believed he had inherited from Keats and Shelley but which was really a substitute for thought and experiences he had not yet undergone. A continuation along these lines might have achieved something but not what was to be the core of his short life's work: The pity of war, the pity distilled.
Distilled. The pure essence. Pity without any emotional by-products. Meanwhile the poet-prophet faces a probable future when a world shattered by war is accepted as the norm and endures a further regression into "this retreating world" - a frightening, and accurate, prediction of events.
Lines 30-39. Here the two strands - the aim and rationale of poetry and the predicted course of events come together in a movingly expressed blueprint for the cleansing of the human spirit. As poetry's disciple Owen is able to claim the courage, mystery, wisdom, mastery to combat the march from progress and finally when the retreat can go no further, "when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels", to bring life-giving water from "sweet wells" and reveal "truths that lie too deep for taint". To this end, says Owen, I would have poured my spirit without stint.
Line 40 - 44. "My friend". Such a contrast to the former bitterly ironic "my friend" of "Dulce et decorum est". The conjunction of "enemy" and "friend" is another paradox but without a sense of jarring. This final section brings a change of tone with nothing high-flown but plain, mostly one-syllable language, the simplicity of fulfilment. Paradoxically again, blindness is lifted in the tunnel's dark.
"I parried", says the man killed. "As if to bless", had said previously the man who killed him. STRANGE MEETING brings with it many entanglements that make a final judgement improbable, perhaps inappropriate.
Does "Let us sleep now….." suggest a work unfinished? Maybe. At least the important message is clear, that mankind must seek reconciliation and "the truth untold" embrace pity and the greater love.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2000