'Went on a Cross Country Run last Wednesday, from which my calves are still suffering. Have seldom enjoyed any exercise so much'
These words which Wilfred Owen wrote from Scarborough on 1 July 1918 set the background for his short three-stanza nine-line poem TRAINING, unique in that it depicts Owen taking in sport.
It may not be too fanciful to find the variation of metre and consequent broken rhythm matching the laboured way a novice such as Owen would have run. '….clean beauty of speed and pride of style' (line 6) may well describe the runner's aim but scarcely the reality. The smooth balanced style of the skilled athlete would have been quite beyond him. Apart from a lack of specialised skill he had little intense physical exercise in the past twelve months. Craiglockhart had been easeful; of Scarborough where he was officer i/c Officers Mess he could write, 'In truth I am very comforted in Scarborough'. At Ripon certainly he 'did' physical, walked, played tennis and swam having written on 1 April, 'I must buck up and get fit,' but anyone who goes cross-country running from cold soon knows how unfit he really is. In the light of what he achieves, emotion recollected not so much in tranquillity as self-satisfaction.
In stanza 1 of the poem pleasure in performance gives rise to a determination henceforth to resign the easy life.
'In languor under lime trees or smooth smile' (2)
'Love', surely a metaphor for a range of sensuous feelings
'…must not kiss my face pale that is brown.' (3)
Rigour and attaining the peak of health must be the aim.
We can sense the return to France beckoning.
In stanza 2 a single word 'shall' establishes a metaphorical link between the physical and mental training he has just undergone and the different kind of proving ground he will patrol in days to come. 'Strong meats must be my hunger….' he says, and 'My renown be the clean beauty….' If the supplication sounds almost prayer-like, it is a prayer that we know in the end was answered for him.
Resolution again marks the third and final stanza. The antithesis - 'cold winds' (7) and 'shall thrill my heated bareness' shows an inexpediency (the cold) realising a sensation of exhilaration and liberation, after which comes the culminating declaration (boast?) -
'None else may meet me till I wear my crown.' (9)
Crown? Not I think, a major's badge of rank. A prize for finishing the course might be considered. But can we rule out a crown even more honourable run over a different course altogether?
The tone is somewhat rhetorical suggesting a purpose more serious than an impromptu cross country run. The title is TRAINING and training is a means to an end, not an end in itself which in turn directs our attention to what Owen and his comrades were being trained for.
Wilfred Owen was a soldier as well as a poet.
Copyright Ken Simcox 2005