The First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen provide a comprehensive and emotional account of the violence he himself witnessed during his time served in WWI with the Manchester Regiment from 1914 to 1918. Owen wanted to express the reality, horror and futility of war. Although the imagery and form of his poems vary considerably throughout his poems, there are two main elements of his poetry in his descriptions of physical and psychological torture suffered by the soldiers in the war. He is quoted as describing his work. “Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry .My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.”
The draft of this poem “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” which translates as ‘Reason for my poetry’ or ‘Justification/Defence of my Poetry’ is thought to have been completed in November 1917. Owen had been encouraged by Robert Graves to adopt a more optimistic attitude to his poetry rather than the morose and glum tone portrayed in his previous poems.
“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” which consists of nine ordered quatrains with an alternating rhyming pattern is one of Owens more unfussy poems. There is a uniform rhythm which helps Owen repeat his message to the people who had no dealings with the war that they should try and understand the sacrifices being made by the fighting soldiers at the front and the comradeships that had formed in the trenches. The poem starts with a religious reference to God’s existence in the mud. Owen says “I, too, saw God through mud”. Although the use of the pronoun ‘I’ gives an indication that this may be more of a personal poem similar to Dulce et Decorum est’ or ‘The Sentry’ they are dissimilar, in that, “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” is not gleaned from personal experience and again it is unlike ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’ where Owen distances himself from the actions of the war but the overriding themes of these poems are similar, in that, they contain prophetic undertones.
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Owens referral to God may be interpreted as, either God is all around them or that the soldiers have become almost God-like because of their power to take life. The very mention of ‘mud’ in the first line conjures up the image of hardship in the trenches based on the fact that there is a hint that the mud must have been dry as it “cracked on cheeks” therefore the soldiers must not have washed for a long time and did not smile very often “when wretches smiled”. Owen continues by saying that the actual fighting by the soldiers brings more glory than death by the mere fact of being there. At the end of verse one Owen tells us how “War brought more glory to their eyes than blood”. Glory is not a word often used or found in Owens work giving us the impression that perhaps Owen is writing a less depressing poem than his others and that he is trying to present War as being very jingoistic.
On the other hand when Owen goes on to explain how soldiers were not supposed to feel remorse for killing we can surmise that there is no honour or glory in war. As well as bringing honour, the war had provided more meaning to their laughter which presumably did not happen very often, because when they did laugh, it was with gusto “And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child”. At the end of the verse Owen reminds us of how young the soldiers are, his mention of “glee” makes one think of their youth. The use of contrasting language such as ‘laughter’, ‘smiles’ and ‘glory’ are in conflict with the assonance of ‘mud’ and ‘blood’
In the second verse a sense of joyfulness continues “Merry it was to laugh there-“ suggesting that out ‘there’, there was more to laugh about than at home, perhaps because of the fact that it may be their last laugh! It is hard to believe that there was laughter in the trenches. It may have been the case that they appreciated laughter more. “Where death becomes absurd and life absurder” is Owens interpretation of the life of a soldier, as death gains you nothing but life is more absurd, as the men have the right to commit murder! “For power was on us as we slashed bones bare” Death is referred to as ‘murder’ not ‘killing’ showing how Owen viewed the task of the soldier. Yet again there is a contrast in the language where, on one hand we have the ‘merry’ men and on the other we have ‘murder’, this contrast is emphasised by the use of tender language throughout the poem using soft ‘s’ sounds eg. ‘seraphic’, ‘soft silk eyes’.
In verse three Owen states “I, too, have dropped off Fear” insinuating that he has lost any fear he may have had. The use of a capital ‘F’ in the word ‘Fear’ may imply that fear is a personification of a God-like status and that God is the fear, especially when read alongside the first line of the poem. Owen then creates a surreal image of being able to float above the battlefield where the barbed wire and the dead soldiers lie “sailed my spirit surging” this may represent Owens ability to come out of his surroundings and see that there is more to just life and death and that there is a anomaly, whereby, even in a hopeless place, happiness existed “And witnessed exultation”. Not forgetting that Owen was a very young officer and had been leading men with more experience than him. There may have been some resentment to him giving them orders but now this is all behind them “Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl” they are now all together as one and “Shine and lift up with passion of oblation”. Owen continues with the religious imagery “Seraphic for an hour, though they were foul”. The ethereal tone is broken by Owens’ reference to the men as being “foul” which probably refers to their hygiene and foul language. The religious overtones then cease as Owen goes on to refer to the more human aspects of the war and the relationships that formed “I have made fellowships” and compares them with the loving relationships that are more of the conventional and traditional style and then says that the friendships found in the trenches are more than this, “For love is not the binding of fair lips”. Owen does not make reference to death or wounding only that “the bandage of the arm that drips” the soldiers are united in there shared experiences. Even in such harsh surroundings Owen manages to find “beauty”, “music” and “peace” which, under normal circumstances would be out of place in the trenches.
Owens use of alliteration “Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate” provides an image of constant bombardment but this is tempered by the soft sounds which gives a contrast between the fighting and the emotions felt by the soldiers.
It is in the final verses of the poem that Owen changes the mood and attitude by referring directly to the reader, saying that, they, as civilians may eventually go to hell the soldiers are already there. He describes the horror in the trenches that the soldiers experience as one of “Whose world is but a trembling of a flare”. The mention of “hell” twice in quick succession in this verse only serves to emphasise the horror of war to the reader. Having previously described the soldiers’ experiences in soft and gentle tones as being happy Owen states that this should not be taken seriously “By any jest of mine”, the reader sitting safely at home will not be privy to the laughter of the soldiers “You shall not hear their mirth” nor should they believe that they are happy, as not only the dead soldiers should be mourned but the living as well. Owen is obviously disillusioned with the attitude amongst those at home by saying in the last line “These men are worth …. Your tears: You are not worth their merriment”. This compares with “But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns” in Owens poem”insensibility’”.
Owens use of direct speech and the present tense gives a sense of sincerity and urgency, his descriptive ability to promote the imagery of sight, sound and smell serve to emphasise the horrors of the war fought in the trenches. Owens’ use of half rhymes provides amplification to his subject matter which is both disturbing and dissonant.
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