Owen began THE SENTRY while he was receiving hospital treatment at Craiglockhart in 1917 and he continued it the following summer. Finally, it was completed in France that September. For its origins we go back to a letter to his mother dated 16th January 1917.
In the platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing. One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected. If I had kept him he would have lived, for servants don't do Sentry Duty. I kept my own sentries half way down the stairs during the more terrific bombardment. In spite of this one lad was blown down and, I'm afraid, blinded.
A very personal poem, therefore, the eighteen month gap between the experience and its translation into words suggesting an experience of great intensity.
The verse is basically iambic but trochees at significant points disturb the rhythm and effectively accentuate the unrest and tension, while the break at line 10 suggests that Owen is looking for his readers to pause and maybe gasp.
The parallels with DULCE ET DECORUM EST are quite noticeable. As in DULCE a young soldier suffers a tragic fate in horrifying circumstances and in Owen's presence. Remembering how the war preyed on Owen's mind to the extent that he experienced nightmares, a symptom of the condition for which he was treated at Craiglockhart -
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids'
Watch my dreams still….
I try not to remember these things now. (THE SENTRY)
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea I saw him drowning. (DULCE)
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And one who would have drowned himself for good, (THE SENTRY)
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime…… (DULCE)
To beg a stretcher somewhere, and flound'ring about (THE SENTRY)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-need, coughing like hags……(DULCE)
Those other wretches……(THE SENTRY)
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face……….(DULCE)
Eyeballs, huge-bulged, like squids', (THE SENTRY)
In both poems Owen shows us men under unendurable stress. Like the men in ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH who "die as cattle", these are "herded from the blast". A whine is one of the least manly of sounds but our sentry, all shreds of dignity lost, whines, "O, sir, - my eyes,- ". He sobs, needs, child-like, to be coaxed, which also points to another of war's features - the paternal role of the junior officer.
Those such as Owen in effect became surrogate fathers to the young men under their command, and the care that Owen shows in this poem typifies those acts of succour without number that punctuate the insensible business of war. At the same time Owen conscientiously tells the entire truth. "Yet I forget him there." Even moments of selflessness give way. Not to indifference, but simply to life as it is, to the need to, as it were, get on. And so it is here, Owen "half-listening to the sentry's moans and jumps" as he goes about his other duties.
The poem opens almost conversationally, though with understated menace in "and he knew". (line 1). But this is an occasion when Owen will not draw back from presenting truth in its most graphic form. Thus, THE SENTRY takes its place alongside, for example, DULCE ET DECORUM EST, THE SHOW, MENTAL CASES, and relentlessly unveils the full scale of war's horrors.
One of his techniques is to make use of onomatopoeia (words echoing the sound of what he is describing). A succession of identical vowel sounds (u): "buffeting", "snuffing", "thud", "flump", "thumping", "pummelled", "crumps" which suggest hard-hitting assault and battery and ruthless punishment. We also find "mud", "ruck" (repeated), heavy, ugly words that match the situation. Then, "shrieking air" to denote both the sound of bombs and the terror that goes with it.
And one who would have drowned himself for good.
Here is double ambiguity, as to the identity of "one" and "for good" as a final act simply, or as leading to some better existence; while for a combined visual-aural image, "And the wild chattering of his shivered teeth" is horrifying and unforgettable.
How powerfully Owen conveys the conditions they live - and - die under. "Waterfalls of slime" (4) is almost an oxymoron, for our notion of a waterfall is surely of a pure, clear cascade. We see "the steps too thick with clay to climb" (6) and that awful olfactory image, "What murk of air remained stank old, and sour." (7).
Atmosphere is heightened by examples of what Ruskin called Pathetic Fallacy, the practice of attributing human emotions to inanimate objects - a form of personification. In line 2, "Shell on frantic shell" and the whizz-bangs that "found our door at last" (11) both add a layer of malevolence to the enemy action.
Lastly, "lit" in line 3, though meaning "alighted" not "showed light", seems an interesting choice of word in view of the poem's "light" motif - the candles, the sentry's cries of "I'm blind", the flame held against his lids. That last line "I see your lights! - But ours had long gone out" makes a terrifying conclusion, not only underlining the personal tragedy but on a wider front reminding us of the famous words of Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of war:
The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2000