Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wilfred Owen

Today is the birthday of poet Wilfred Owen, born March 18, 1893. From his childhood Owen was determined to become a poet and from the age of nineteen immersed himself in poetry. He was working as a private tutor in France when the First World War broke out. Feeling guilty about the calm and safety of his position, he returned to England in October 1915 and volunteered to fight. He was sent to France on the last day of 1916.

Immediately, Owen was overwhelmed by the reality of his situation. His letters home are full of blood and anguish, and his poetry quickly evolved into eloquent and bitter denunciations of war. In the spring of 1918, fully expecting to die at the front, Owen began to plan a volume of his poems. In a letter describing his work he wrote "...Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."

Wilfred Owen was killed by machine gun fire on November 4, 1918, one week before the end of the war.

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. --
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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