Friday, April 13, 2007
MARTÍN ESPADA'S POETRY MONTH PICK - Wilfred Owen
by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.
* Martín Espada Comments:
Wilfred Owen is a "Cassandra poet:" a neglected prophet. This World War I
poem is still relevant today, as we mark another anniversary of the war in
Iraq. "Dulce et Decorum Est" is a well-known work, yet its warnings
continue to be ignored. Like Cassandra, Owen has been heard, but not
heeded. Thus, the poem bears repeating here and everywhere.
Occasionally, a poem takes shape as an argument with another poet. This
poem began as an argument with two other poets. The Latin title comes from
the phrase, "Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori"--how sweet and decorous
it is to die for one's country--which, in turn, comes from an ode by the
Roman poet Horace. Owen's poem was originally addressed to Jessie Pope, or
a "certain poetess;" on the most literal level, she is the "you" in the
Pope produced several books of patriotic doggerel in England during the
Great War. Jon Stallworthy, in his definitive biography of Wilfred Owen,
cites Pope's poem, "The Call," as a possible provocation for Owen. This is
the first stanza of the poem, which Stallworthy calls a "disturbing
variation of the 'Who's for tennis' formula:"
Who's for the trench?--
Are you, my laddie?
Who'll follow the French--
Will you, my laddie?
Who's fretting to begin,
Who's going to win?
And who wants to save his skin--
Do you, my laddie?
An officer in the British Army and a veteran of the trenches, Owen
developed shell-shock and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in
Edinburgh, Scotland. There he was famously befriended and mentored by
another soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon; and there, in October 1917, he
wrote the first known draft of "Dulce et Decorum Est."
Owen revised the poem relentlessly. His message was urgent, but Owen was
as committed to his craft as he was to the message. The passage dealing
with shelling and poison gas was originally longer; the poet deftly
deleted some onomatopoeic language ("fup, fop, fup") that failed to
adequately evoke the bombardment for him. He tried several "g"
words--"gargling," "gurgling," "goggling"--before he settled on the word,
"guttering." Owen subjected his battlefield trauma to the demands of his
The poet bases his appeal to reason on an appeal to the senses. The images
are terribly vivid, the diction chiseled and exact. Soldiers march,
"blood-shod;" they wrestle with their gas masks in "an ecstasy of
fumbling;" a dying man's "white eyes" are "writhing in his face." The word
"gargling," previously rejected in favor of the word "guttering," returns
in the last stanza when "the blood/ comes gargling from the
froth-corrupted lungs." Words like "ecstasy" and "cud" are startling in
this context, yet apt. Writing of unbearable brutality, witnessed
first-hand, Owen is as meticulous as a bird feathering a nest.
According to Geoff Dyer, author of The Missing of the Somme, "the anger in
(Owen's) poems always comes from this: from the fact of having witnessed
what civilians at home could never conceive of seeing." At the same time,
this is a controlled anger, channeled into art.
After the barrage of metaphors and similes, Owen distills his language to
its essence, and calls "the old Lie" by its name. The simplicity of these
three words stand in sharp contrast to the ornate Latin phrase they
condemn. Indeed, Dyer writes, "the Latin has been so Owenized as to render
further satirical twisting superfluous." (Of course, a specialized
vocabulary of warmongering still exists.)
This is a poet's wrath: He is outraged at the corruption of language
itself, by Jessie Pope but also by a ruling elite inciting the majority to
cooperate in their own destruction. Instead, as Owen said in the preface
to his collection of poems, "the true Poets must be truthful."
That collection was published posthumously in 1920. Owen was killed in
France on November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice. The telegram
announcing his death was delivered to his family home as the Armistice
bells were ringing. He was twenty-five years old.
Last fall I visited the English Faculty Library at Oxford University in
the company of professor Jon Stallworthy. There I had the opportunity to
hold the first known draft of this poem in my hands.
For further reading, I highly recommend the biography by Stallworthy,
called Wilfred Owen (Oxford University Press/ Chatto and Windus, 1974),
and The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Stallworthy (Chatto and Windus,
1990). See also The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer (Phoenix Press,
MARTÍN ESPADA was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957. He has published
numerous books as a poet, editor, and translator. His most recent
collection is The Republic of Poetry. Alabanza: New and Selected Poems
1982-2002, received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement
and was named an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. An
earlier collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread, won an American Book
Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The
recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship as
well as the PEN/Revson Fellowship, Espada is a professor in the English
Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches
creative writing and the work of Pablo Neruda.
Our thanks to Martín Espada for today's special Poet's Pick: Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est"
The 11 Central Ave episode starts with the teenaged girl in the family coming across a picture of a young girl soldier on the cover of Time magazine who has had her legs blown off and it ends with her father reciting the Wilfred Owen poem. The actors are the great Will Lebow, who does Shakespearean drama at the ART in Boston, and Harper Kaye.
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