“What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” The poetry of those who fought in the trenches of World War One has now been a vital part of our literary heritage for a century. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ is among the most famous examples, with its powerful evocation of senseless suffering. And as with his bitterly ironic re-statement that “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori”, it is brimming with a profoundly subversive, anti-heroic sentiment.
It is an uneven poem, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. “The octave is full of sharp consonantal blows and images of violent chaos, and the sestet softens into a liquid gentleness – skilfully done, but at the cost of a slightly cloying romanticism. (“The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,/Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds.”) Yet the stark opening is justly thought of as one of the iconic statements of the war.”
Since Homer, writers have been recounting the horrors of battle. But the First World War, when the mechanisation of weaponry made individual acts of heroism “virtually meaningless”, gave rise to a radically new sense of futility in the face of a “production line of technologically crafted killing”, says Williams, reviewing a new biography of Owen in the New Statesman. The early, poetic realisation of the war’s inhumanity has been largely overlooked in the run-up to its centenary commemoration – as if such an anti-heroic reading only began with Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder. In reality, writes Williams, “the rot set in with the eyewitnesses” – above all the poets, including Geoffrey Stewart-Kennedy, Siegfried Sassoon and David Jones.
Williams draws attention to Owen’s conception of the poetic sensibility as “childish”, highlighting the poems addressed to Arthur Newbolt – a boy befriended at Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital – which celebrate the innocent state of being “not yet young”. For Owen, the experience of the trenches transformed men into helpless children “confronted with unmanageable adult trauma and not turning away from it”. Indeed, keeping in mind that many of 1914-1918 casualties were barely out of childhood themselves should be an important part of our collective attempts at commemoration.