Words of warfare from the trenches

Wilfred Owen was influenced in large part by his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon

Ed. Note: November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War I. The San Diego Reader will devote this month’s poetry columns to the poets who wrote about their experiences of that war.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

  • What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
  •       — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
  •       Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
  • Can patter out their hasty orisons.
  • No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
  •       Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
  • The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
  •       And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
  • What candles may be held to speed them all?
  •       Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
  • Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
  •       The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
  • Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
  • And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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,
  • 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.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an English poet and one of if not the best-known of the War Poets of World War I. His realistic depiction of warfare, especially in the trenches, was influenced in large part by his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, after the two poets first met in hospital recovering from their wounds. His use of half-rhyme and assonance set his poetry above that of many others working in verse at the time, including his mentor Sassoon. Owen served as a second lieutenant during the war and he was killed in action on November 4, 1918, exactly a week before the armistice was signed on November 11.

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I was in England in September where there is significant somber interest in commemorating the centenary of the end of World War I. Good for The Reader for running these poems from what seems so long ago, but whose messages are relevant to us today, with our endless foreign wars and walking wounded who return home to shoot innocents in country/western bars.

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