by Nathan Suhr-Sytsma
Born in 1893 in Oswestry, England, near the Welsh border, Wilfred Owen was killed in battle on Nov. 4, 1918, a week before the First World War ended. He was twenty-five years old. An aspiring poet since his teens, in the last two years of his life Owen produced some of the most haunting and innovative poetry of his day. Though he began in 1918 to assemble a volume of poems, tentatively titled Disabled and Other Poems, the first published collection of his work did not come out until 1920 and was simply called Poems. Edited by Owen’s friend and fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, Poems is a slim volume with a plain red cover, published in London by Chatto & Windus. It opens with a photograph of Owen in uniform, followed by a brief introduction by Sassoon, Owen’s own unfinished Preface to the book he had planned, and twenty-three of Owen’s war poems. Sassoon’s introduction stresses “the profound humanity” of the poetry over its experimental aspects before outlining Owen’s life and concluding with an “epitaph” in the poet’s own words: “Courage was mine, and I had mystery; / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery” (Poems v, vi).
This couplet is taken from the first poem in the volume, “Strange Meeting,” which is spoken by an English soldier who has “escaped / Down some profound dull tunnel” (Poems 1). Confronted by a man who rises in his path, the speaker abruptly orients himself: “And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, – / By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.” This inhabitant of the underworld speaks the last two-thirds of the poem, including both the “epitaph” that Sassoon gives Owen in his introduction and a phrase reminiscent of Owen’s Preface. While the shade regrets that being in Hell prevents him from spreading “the truth untold / The pity of war, the pity war distilled,” Owen’s Preface has just asserted, “My subject is War, and the pity of War” (vii). Thus it comes as a masterfully engineered shock when the shade declares to the poem’s English narrator, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. /… / Let us sleep now….” In a draft, the shade even more explicitly refers to himself as a “German conscript” (CP&F 307).
“Strange Meeting” demonstrates not only Owen’s daring sympathy for one whom war makes his “enemy” and his rhetorical ability to dramatize the similarly hellish plight of the erstwhile foes, it also showcases his most noted innovation in poetic technique. Each iambic pentameter couplet of “Strange Meeting” ends with the same consonant sounds, but Owen alters the vowel sounds—“hall” and “Hell,” “mystery” and “mastery,” “untold” and “distilled”—in order to create double consonance, or pararhyme. Owen’s pararhyme bends the poetic tradition, creating in the reader an uneasy sense of dislocation particularly appropriate for a poem whose speaker seems to find himself in the underworld of classical epic—the shade speaks, after all, of blood clogging “chariot-wheels”—and yet must confront there the unexpected consequences of modern warfare. Some of Owen’s contemporaries, however, were less sure about the technique. After his cousin Leslie Gunston responded with “blunt criticism” to the use of pararhyme in his poem “Miners,” Owen wrote back, “I suppose I am doing in poetry what the advanced composers are doing in music. I am not satisfied with either” (CL 531).
As it appears in Poems, “Strange Meeting” also highlights the complex textual history of Owen’s poems. Since Owen did not see a book published in his lifetime, editors have had to look at the surviving manuscripts of his poems and decide which count as the best texts. In a gesture to the uncertainty of this process, Sassoon includes “Another Version” of several lines from “Strange Meeting” as well as an “Alternative line” for one of those in the second version (2). Similarly, toward the end of the volume, Sassoon places “A Terre” (28-9) and “Wild With All Regrets” (30-31), a different version of “A Terre” dedicated to Sassoon himself, next to each other. At other points, Sassoon opts to print only one version. For “The Chances,” narrated by a lower-class soldier, Sasoon chooses a manuscript that emphasizes the speaker’s dialect by dropping letters. For example, where a different manuscript (used by the definitive scholarly edition of Owen) reads “and he’s seen” (CP&F 171), Poems has “an’ ’e’s seen” (22). Sassoon may have been trying to follow what he thought was Owen’s final intention, but his editorial choice also makes Owen’s poem sound more like one by Sassoon, whose poetry calls attention to such ordinary voices.
In “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” Poems departs surprisingly from Owen’s manuscript, beginning with the title, which in Owen’s handwriting is “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” While the shift from “Man” to “Men” may have been accidental, as with “The Chances” Sassoon’s change highlights the poem’s resemblances to his own poetry, which lashes out against the “old men” who remained safely at home in England while the young men died in the war. The poem retells the biblical story from Genesis 22 in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, directly echoing the Authorized Version of the Bible in phrases such as “clave the wood” and “both of them together” while also mimicking its repeated use of “and” (Poems 9). The reader senses something starting to go wrong as the vocabulary of the war slips into the poem; biblical fire and wood become in Owen’s poem “fire and iron,” and Isaac is bound “with belts and straps” resembling an infantry soldier’s gear. Fourteen lines long, the body of the poem suggests a blank verse sonnet, ending with an angel’s injunction that the father “Offer the Ram of Pride instead” of his son. A devastating additional line appears in Poems—“But the old man would not so, but slew his son….”—yet the even more devastating second half of the couplet in Owen’s manuscript—“And half the seed of Europe, one by one” (CP&F 174)—is absent.
It is perplexing that Sassoon, who had not shrunk from controversy in his own poetry, omitted this final line, even as the omission demonstrates the important role of editors in presenting Wilfred Owen’s work to the public. The next editor of Owen’s poetry, Edmund Blunden, printed the entire original couplet, though he retained Sassoon’s version of the title. Blunden’s general strategy was to add a series of Notes at the back of the volume, displaying alternate versions of several poems, and in the case of “Strange Meeting,” alternate versions of alternate version! The definitive scholarly edition, The Complete Poems and Fragments, includes an entire second volume transcribing the manuscripts, so that readers can see each poem’s journey to completion. Even more recently, images of the manuscripts themselves have become available online at The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive. Since Owen’s poems are often taken to be records of his direct experience with the war, it may be ironic that readers of his work have such difficulty experiencing his poems in any direct way, instead finding them mediated through conflicting book editions and now even webpages. To read Owen today is to encounter not only the unforgettable language of a young English soldier but also a history of others’ “strange meeting”s with his poetry.
Owen, Harold, and John Bell. Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters. London: Oxford UP, 1967. Cited as CL.
Owen, Wilfred. Poems. Ed. Siegfried Sassoon. London: Chatto & Windus, 1920. Cited as Poems.
—. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ed. Edmund Blunden. London: Chatto & Windus, 1931.
—. The Complete Poems and Fragments’.2 vols. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. Cited as CP&F.