Ode: A lyric poem, an address exalted in feeling and expression invoking some person, thing, place or abstraction. URICONIUM, one of only two Owen wrote (the other is THE SWIFT) is in 8 x 14-line stanzas, the metre basically iambic with dactylic variations for emphasis. The rhyme scheme is also various, though, like a sonnet which shares the same stanza length, each stanza ends in a rhymed couplet.
Many times between 1909 and 1913 did young Wilfred Owen cycle, along with brother Harold or friend Stanley Webb**, the short distance from Shrewsbury to the Roman ruins at Wroxeter (Uriconium) there to find pleasure in digging out pottery fragments, coins and other artefacts. Probably written about July 1913, midway between his periods at Dunsden and Bordeaux, URICONIUM, if immature, anticipates important elements in the later poetry. It certainly bears the imprint of Owen the public poet, of Owen the prophet.
Archaisms may suit the subject but too many old grammatical forms become tedious: 'hath', 'hast', 'thee', 'thou', 'ye', 'yea'; also outmoded words such as 'chaunts', 'desponded', 'pelf', 'holp', and so on. All very far removed from Wordsworth's 'language of men', but all of which contribute to the appropriate 'grand manner' tone, and an ode's traditional inflated, solemn style. Didacticism too came naturally to the young Wilfred, and the didactic note is sounded loud and clear throughout the poem.
Stanza 1 : The opening mood is sombre as Owen lifts 'the gloomy curtain of Time Past'. What is uncovered at Uriconium he likens to 'a long-buried sin', for we of the present day
'Forget that in its death their sires had part.'
With treasures 'flung to fire' and dust wrapping 'the dead city's face like mummy-cloth.'
'All is as was: except for worm and moth.'
Stanza 2 is more neutral in tone. A glimpse of that earlier age when Rome held sway over most of Britain, and 'men of shaggy hair and savage jaw' and wolves, bears and boars roamed the land.
Stanza 3: A more wistful, almost nostalgic note enters signalled by 'Ah me!' Owen muses on time's passing, the 'weary moon's waxing and waning, the eclipse of ancient shrines by 'other temples' and in turn the wearing away of 'centurial chimes' when
'…..old age stiffened many a lively elf
And many a poet's heart outdrained itself.'
Stanza 4 concludes the Ode's first section with Owen continuing to
'….travel back to history's utmost edge.'
He imagines himself a part of it. Though only the 'husk' remains of this 'ghost of a dead city', he can walk its streets feeling guilt at so intimate a relationship with their past, as if by his invasion he has violated it.
'Me thought sage fancy wrought a sacrilege
To steal for me such godly privilege.'
Stanza 5. After four stanzas of rumination he turns to detailed description of archaeological finds, and the writing becomes tighter because of it. Vivid imagery brings Roman civilisation to life, 'remnants from a banquet table', pottery, works of arts and crafts, tools, weaponry. Then in the last four lines the pace quickens as flight and wild alarm overtake coherence and normality.
Stanza 6: Owen pays tribute to Roman skills which are our legacy. Just as where Uriconium once stood
'The village anvil rests on Roman base,'
'….is the glory of our artifice,
Our pleasure and our worship, but the flower
Of Roman custom and of Roman power.'
Stanza 7 muses on the memories. See it all in perspective, says Owen, to empathise with those now commemorated in 'sad sepulchral stones and ruins', and by so doing
'…. Feel ephemeral troubles soothed and curbed.'
Throughout he attaches a deeper meaning to the past's unfolding than mere excavation.
Stanza 8 : Owen brings his lesson to a conclusion. Heed the past and learn from it, he says. Be thankful for our heritage which is 'more than walls and words', for to destroy what is of worth is later to regret. In his talking of this 'reverend ground' (just as in stanzas 4 and 6 he cited 'sacrilege' and 'worship' respectively) we feel that considerations of a more profound kind are never too far away:
Stanza 1 has
'If thou hast ever longed
To lift the gloomy curtain of Time Past
And spy the secret things that Hades hath
Here, through this riven ground, take such a view.'
Uriconium wasn't the last riven ground that Owen was to encounter. Not during two spells of duty in the trenches. There he indeed spied Hades' secret things and took his view through ground that was riven, devastated, split asunder by shelling.
In URICONIUM, Wilfred Owen was knowingly looking back at the past and without knowing it looking forward at the future.
** 2Lt. Henry Stanley Webb 9th Bn. East Surrey Regiment killed in action 21st March 1918 near St.Quentin during the German "March 1918 Offensive" in which they advanced some 40 miles. He had lived at "Elmhurst", Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury. He joined the army as a private soldier in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was wounded at Monchy le Preux, subsequently being commissioned in November 1916. He was 23 years of age when he was killed and is buried at Fouquescourt British Cemetery located about 8 miles from Amiens.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2006