Wilfred Owen: In Remembrance (March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918)

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It is nearly two years ago,  that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France, with breaking hearts ~ when he,  my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours ~ beginning at ‘When I go  from hence, let this be my parting word’ ~ and when his pocket book came back to me ~ I found these words written in his dear writing ~ with your name beneath. …” – Susan H. Owen’s letter to Rabindranath Tagore (August 1, 1920)

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was the eldest son of a railway worker from a relatively humble background. Although a bright student with keen interest on poetry, his parents could not afford to enroll him in a college. Instead, he went to France to teach English at Berlitz school. When the Great War broke in 1914 he was still at his work and continued teaching until 1915. Feeling guilty of his inactivity, he returned to England and enlisted in Artists’ Rifle Regiment. He received his commission as a second lieutenant and sailed for France on December 30, 1916. What he experienced there (vividly described in a letter to his mother – “I have suffered seventh hell. – I have not been at the front. – I have been in front of it. …”) would later become the subject for all his subsequent poems. Diagnosed with “shell shock” after spending twelve days under intense bombardment, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in June 1917- an event which would change him as a poet.

In Craiglockhart, he met with Siegfried Sassoon – a fellow soldier who was already famous because of his valour in war (he won a Military Cross for his daredevilry at the front). His first meeting with Sassoon is touchingly described by Pat Barker in her novel “Regeneration”. Owen was shy to the point of being self-evasive. His stutter, made much worse by the experience of shell shock, his working class background compared to Sassoon’s wealthy upper class upbringing, his initial inferiority complex, and even his struggle with his own sexuality, might all have contributed to Owen’s reticence. It took him two weeks to introduce himself to Sassoon and another few days to declare that he too was a poet. Sassoon, on his part, was immensely impressed by his talent, and offered suggestion to improve upon and perfect his craft. Also, listening to the suggestion of his physician, Dr. Brock, he plunged himself in literary work to relieve himself of traumatic experience of war. All his substantial poems were written from 1917 onward. After four months of respite, Owen was discharged from the hospital.

On November 3, 1917 he and Sassoon dined together for one last time. Owen then boarded the midnight train to London and met his mother, Susan H. for the last time.  He went back to the trench in September 1918, received the Military Cross in October and was killed on November 4.  His parents received the news on November 11, the day Armistice was declared.

I discovered Owen’s poetry when I was sixteen and instantly fell in love with his works, and from then on, not a year has gone by when I have not re-visited his poems. His first poem that I came across, titled “The Send-Off”, is not as well-known as “Anthem for Doomed Youth” or “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, but it has the same haunted feel to it, the same sense of loss, trauma of war and impending tragedy, that has become hallmark of his work.

But what made me love his poetry so much in the first place? What could I, a boy from a corner of India, who had never experienced war (and in all probability, never will), have possibly found in his poetry? In those early days of adolescence, when life presented itself with so much promises and so much possibilities, when the first torrent of spring made me realize the gift as well as ordeal of keeping alive the flame of humanity, did Owen’s poetry strike a chord in me and make me realize the tragedy of a life unfulfilled, futility of war, limitation of patriotism, limits of mass sacrifice? Did it also make me realize how precious every soul is and how fragile it is? How lucky we should feel to be alive? How suspicious we should be of nationalistic jingoism? I don’t know the answers. Maybe all these factors made me love Owen’s poetry.

I have now grown old; older than Owen would ever be. It is a strange sensation. It is something that the protagonist of Albert Camus’s “The First Man” felt when he realized looking at his father’s grave, who died in the First World War, that he was now older than his father.

With each passing year, I feel, not pity but admiration and something more, for men like Owen. They wrote under roar of cannons and flashes of thunder, their mind went to pieces, but they still found courage and fortitude to come back to the trench to do their duty towards their Motherland which had sent them to their certain death. After reading Owen all I can possibly hope for is that when a mother and her child look together across the sun-glorified sea, may they not think about war and pity of war but audacity of life and promises that the future holds.

As a homage to Owen on his hundred and nineteenth birthday, I re-typed my favourite poem below:

Futility

Move him into the sun –

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,-

Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,

Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

-O what made fatuous sunbeam toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

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