War, war and more war. We pull out of one and another looms. It’s hard to call them wars anymore, the way they sneak up on us and we’re in them before we know, and then the endings are equally uncertain. It’s hard to watch the news. It’s hard to read how many have died and are dying. The tension of war, cities blasted to rubble, children dead in their parents’ arms, all this affects us even when we’re not directly thinking about it.
The soldier caught in the middle of a situation he didn’t cause, the fear of dying, have made for some very powerful poetry. Wilfred Owen wrote some of the best British poetry on World War I, all in slightly over a year, from August 1917 to September 1918, before he was killed in action in November of that year. He was 25, and it was one week before the Armistice. Only five poems were published in his lifetime.
“After great pain a formal feeling comes— / The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs,” Emily Dickinson writes. Those lines may explain why some of the finest of the war poets wrote in formal verse. The formality helps to contain what feels chaotic, out of control, hopeless. Owen’s poem is a sonnet. It haunts me with its beauty.
What will mourn the deaths of those young men? Not the monstrously angry guns firing over their heads. Not the shells. Only the bugles sounded from the “sad shires” they came from, that they will never hear.
Who’s left to mourn them? The younger boys whose eyes are glimmering with tears. The young women who’d waited for them, now pale with grief. What can they bring but patience? And that last line, see how slowly it needs to be spoken — “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds” — those d’s and b’s that stop each word, not sliding into the next. And the mournful “ow” sounds.
A poet doesn’t always deliberately choose to do those things. But a trained ear shifts the language in revisions so that it brings the feel the poet wants. Sometimes, with enough practice, it’s instinctive.
What does this poem say about war? It’s not a “political” poem. It brings us there, into the actual situation, its loss and its grief. And whatever we see clearly and are able to feel changes us.
A sad poem to bring you for a lovely winter morning? I’d say that it’s the same sadness we find in the blues — a joy of the making of the song from the elements of sorrow. The deeper the sorrow is felt, the deeper the song can go. And the song, the poem, makes us happy even when it’s sad. The great paradox.
Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
— Wilfred Owen