One of the Great War poets, Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918), was instrumental in developing poetry as a truthful witness to atrocity and chronicle of horror rather than a means to buttress morale and feed patriotism.
His famous line “poetry is in the pity” exemplified a belief that poetry must portray the horrors, the inhumanity, the pathos of war. This collection of war poems contains his greatest verse.
Like many British youths, Owen was called to serve in WWI, and, although terrified, he drew strength knowing he was perpetuating a grand fabric of English existence. He wrote to his mother:
Do you know what would hold me together on a battlefield? The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!
John Keats, who died almost exactly a century before Owen, would have found beauty in Owen’s moral exactness. From his first-hand view, Owen observes and renders both intimate and landscape shots of the horrors of war. From the cramped and lonely trenches where wounds and illness seem to bleed off the page, to attacking the flocking of men to a glory that will never withstand the slaughter. From “The Next War”:
Out there, we walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and ate beside him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, –
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets, and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused if he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Human consciousness is a major theme of Wilfred’s work, and he deals with it on so many levels. Collective conscious—do we as a society know what it means to wage war? Individual conscious—do we know what it means to march towards death and let him “shave us with his scythe”?
Owen’s poem “Conscious” is a close-up of a dying soldier who slips from a hospital ward back to a trench and, finally, to nothing.
The trench is narrower. Cold, he’s cold; yet hot –
And there’s no light to see the voices by…
There is no time to ask…he knows not what.
Tragically—and it feels inevitably—Owens died on the battlefield in France at age twenty-five. He only saw five poems published. He was tremendously instrumental in changing the nature of poetry as witness, influencing, among others, the Beat poets, whose work was so intimately affected by what they saw in their lives.
“I was indeed shocked with this sight; it almost overwhelmed me, and I went away with my heart most afflicted” wrote Danie Defoe in his account of the great plague of 1665, he was speaking specifically of the mass graves which entombed plague victims. Defoe would have nodded silently at Owen’s verse.
Many have played the role of witness over time, some more intentionally than others. Elie Wiesel believed witness must carry the past into the future, whatever the burden. George Orwell immersed himself in poverty to write about what he saw. For more on the practice of seeing others and bearing witness, read Carrying the Burden of Witness.
For a deeper read on consciousness and death, I recommend Irving Yalom’s Staring at the Sun, an empathetic book that argues death anxiety is the price to pay for self-awareness.