The One remains, the many change and pass;
Shelley - Adonais L1 451
The One who remains in Shelley's mind is John Keats, but who in THE ONE REMAINS is the 'one' who remains in Wilfred Owen's? As in his other sonnet HAPPINESS, nostalgia permeates this one: nostalgia that originally meant homesickness but which in time has widened to signify a less specific sentimental feeling for the past.
The formal structure of a sonnet well suits the expression of private thought, and here Owen is reflecting on people and places across the borders of time he holds in reverence. The diction is heightened because these are grave matters, and so we get word order reversals (And often pore I….); uncommon words (countenance); the rhetorical utterance 'Adieu, we part'. The basic metre is iambic with occasional subtle breaks of rhythm to suggest a mind less than at ease with itself.
First, Owen fixes on the externals - fence, voice:
…those pale, perfect faces (1)
…countenances seen (5)
…voices that have said….(11)
which he 'looks upon' (2), 'pores' (4), loses as soon as they've manifested themselves (6); also'….landscapes whereupon my windows lean' (8).
Then the poet's vision turns inwards and he responds to visual stimulation with heart and mind: he expresses wonder (2), muses on 'the secret traces left in my heart' (4-5), remembers those 'long known and worshipped long' (9) confesses that 'their reminiscences would cease my heart' (12).
Until at last the focus is on one in particular, the One who remains, so that in the final couplet outward and inward vision come together in an urgent expression of yearning:
Except I still hoped find, some time, some place,
All beauty, once for ever, in one face.
That face may have belonged to a sixteen year old French girl Henriette Poitou whom Wilfred met at Castelnau during the Easter weekend of 1914 when he was living in Bordeaux. The previous month's 21st birthday gifts had included a complete Shelley, and in a letter of 15 April to his sister Mary in which he describes the encounter with Henriette and admits to writing fifty lines of poetry afterwards, he also quotes the same line from ADONAIS that gave his title THE ONE REMAINS. The date of the first draft seems fairly conclusive.
There's little doubt that Wilfred was smitten with Henriette. To Mary (and therefore to his mother as well) he was surprisingly free-spoken. 'Her beauty was of the stimulating and quickly-effective kind…..' He counted how often 'the marvellous eyes' looked in his direction. Exactly four times a minute. 'We walked arm in arm. I could scarcely have been happier.' '….the memory of those moments will remain sweet to me….'
Wilfred did not sleep well that night.
Back in the city from the pine forests of Castelnau - and Henriette, '….all people, all plants, all tasks, all books, appear to me far fairer than they did.' Two weeks later they met again in Bordeaux at a dance, but the attraction was fading; and when as much as three and a half years later Wilfred Owen came to revise THE ONE REMAINS, we wonder whether by that time it - she?- had remained at all.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007