Friday, November 4, 2011

Wilfred Owen: Soldier Poet & Hero

Nov. 4, 1918

Just one week before Armistice Day (the first Veterans Day) is declared during World War I, the soldier poet Wilfred Owen dies in battle on the Western Front.

Owen was one of the great English voices who wrote about war from the battlefield:

I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.
Poet, soldier and hero, Wilfred Owen
~ Wilfred Owen 

In 1917, Owen lead his platoon on an attack on German trenches. Though he was not harmed in the attack, he was nearly killed by an exploding mine immediately thereafter. In an army hospital for recuperating officers, the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, he was diagnosed with "shell shock", the WWI terminology for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

At the hospital and before his return to duty, Owen met another great English war poet, Siegfried Sassoon. The two would become friends. Both would return to the war. Sassoon, however, is one of the few from a generation of poet soldiers that would survive the war.

Owen always loved poetry and wanted to be a poet. Sassoon's encouragement, however, is what motivated him to write about his experience of war. It should be noted that all of his poetry about WWI was written in a mere 15 months.

In September, 1918, Owen won the Military Cross for his courage in capturing a German machine gun and successfully turning it against the enemy. He was in boot camp for one year in England before arriving at the war. And when he arrived, like so many, he was placed on the front. 

Perhaps this description from summarizes Owen's and his generation's experience of war as the soldiers landed fresh from training in England to the combat fields of Europe:

Within a week he had been transported to the front line in a cattle wagon and was "sleeping" 70 or 80 yards from a heavy gun which fired every minute or so. He was soon wading miles along trenches two feet deep in water. Within a few days he was experiencing gas attacks and was horrified by the stench of the rotting dead; his sentry was blinded, his company then slept out in deep snow and intense frost till the end of January. 

Owen's mother learned late of her son's death – when the bells for Armistice were ringing. 

Two poems by Wilfred Owen

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 sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young  
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together, Isaac the first-born spake and said,
My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. 

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Let it fly! remembers the voice of solider, poet and war hero, Wilfred Owen.

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