In one of his lesser poems Owen refers to "the night before that show", and "show" is the word he chooses for the title of one of his most startling works. It doesn't of course mean an entertainment for the troops but is army slang for battle. He drafted it at Scarborough in November 1917, finished revising it the following May, and Edith and Osbert Sitwell included it in their 1919 edition of WHEELS (a miscellaneous collection of contemporary poetry) which they dedicated to Wilfred's memory.
His own recent reading has left its mark on the poem. UNDER FIRE, for example, by Henri Barbusse, which he read at Craiglockhart. This is a graphic account of a Europe at war with the dead looking down on terrible scenes of crawling things dwarfed to the size of insects and worms. (It is likely that Owen would have seen a similar scene on 3rd April 1917 as he crossed the battlefield near Savy village on his way to join the 2nd Manchesters in the front line at Francilly-Selency. The field was strewn with the bodies of the Lancashire Fusiliers (200 casualties) as the wounded soldiers had made their way to the doubtful shelter provided by the hundreds of shell-holes where they had died and in doing so had left a trail of their discarded equipment. Viewed from the higher ground this could well have prompted his observations in lines 4-13 of THE SHOW).
Worms too figure in Hardy's THE DYNASTS along with creeping caterpillars, writhing, crawling. Then there are the lines Owen borrowed from fellow poet W.B.Yeats which stand at the head of this poem:
We have fallen in the dreams the ever-living
Breathe on the tarnished mirror of the world,
And then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh.
To Siegfried Sassoon, Owen wrote on 27 November, 'My "Vision" is the result of two hours leisure yesterday - and getting up early this morning'.
Back in January 1917, soon after he arrived at the front at Serre, Owen was likening the scene to "the eternal place of gnashing of teeth…..The Slough of Despond could be contained in one of its crater-holes, the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it…. It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease….crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness."
Then from a hospital bed at No. 41 Stationary Hospital at Gailly on 14th May 1917, after the searing experiences on the Savy/St.Quentin battlefields with the 2nd Manchesters that were to cause his being invalided home, "….I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies."
The genesis of THE SHOW, therefore, is obvious, and we can be sure that when writing it Owen did not exaggerate. Personal involvement is clear from the outset.
My soul looked down from a vague height, with Death. (1) And later, "I saw their bitten backs…." (21), "I watched those agonies…." (22), "I reeled and shivered…." (24).
His motive in writing it? Almost certainly to shock. He was based in Scarborough at the time, from where he would not be averse to wishing (as he expressed it), "the Bosche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the Pleasure Boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war profiteers now reading JOHN BULL on Scarborough sands.
So how does he achieve his effects? By using the plain language of specifics and avoiding abstractions. By heavy use of half-rhyme to give a harsher edge (like dissonance in music). By breaking it up into irregular and illogical stanzas: for example lines 10-13, though separated on the page, form one half-rhyming stanza, and 19-22 similarly. And finally by employing three repellent images - an environmental hell, bodily sickness and humans seen as less than human.
The result is terrifying, an extravagant vaporous portrayal of a living hell that subsists
on the edge of reality where the vision is from "a vague height" (1)
As unremembering how I rose or why (2)
Not all is how it was but "as it seemed" (8), almost defying description or explanation.
Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean
I reeled and shivered earthward….. (23-4)
which replicates that common nightmare experience of falling. Throughout, the observer has a close and alarming companion: Death, by his side in line 1, at the end "….fell with me, like a deepening moan." (25).
But surrealism is not the whole story. The "slimy paths" (10) and migrants "intent on mire" (18) remind us that soldiers in the Great War lived and died in mud. As Owen wrote on 16th January 1917 (after his experiences at Serre), "I was mercifully helped to do my duty and crawl, wade, climb and flounder over No Man's Land." They also negotiated a subterranean world of "hidden holes" (13), ground "cratered like the moon with hollow woe" (4) and "foul openings" (14) that exuded, as Owen put it in a letter home, "the breath of cancer". What was the Western Front but a wasteland, barren, all beauty gone - "…a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth" (Death - dearth, a particularly striking half-rhyme). Line 12 starts, "From gloom's last dregs…." Dawn follows the gloom that is night's darkness, but, ironically, the gloom that is despair, that remains.
The second image is that same "sad land" prefigured through disorder in the body. "Myriad warts" (11), sweats of dearth" (3).
And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues (5).
Here are links with Owen's subterranean fears: pitted - pit hell, and (ironically) its homophone "pitied". Then, pocks, eruptions from beneath the flesh. "Deepening moan" (25).
The third image, equally disturbing, is of creatures no longer identifiable as men, of grotesque appearance, creeping "long-strung" (12), "brown strings"…. With bristling spines" (17), "a manner of worm" (26). "Migrants" should apply to the animal kingdom not humans. Movement and action seem subhuman, the caterpillars that abhorrently "slowly uncoiled" (7) and "writhed and shrivelled" (9).
By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped (10)
Indeed a long, long trail a-winding, but to the land, not of dreams but nightmare, a trail of men crawling, heads to the ground ("intent on mire") men scarcely distinguishable in their transmuted state, (and from "a vague height") from their abandoned equipment.
The poem ends with Death personified, and the one who looks down, and the army of wounded all merging into one bizarre image in which Death, in the manner of Salome holding aloft the head of John the Baptist, is manifestly the winner.
Certainly THE SHOW is a tour de force but do we allow it the status of belonging among Owen's best works? Maybe it is too negative for that. Perhaps Owen's greatness lies where his vision is broader, in the likes of SPRING OFFENSIVE and STRANGE MEETING, poems in which he reveals himself not only as a war poet but as - a poet.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001