From July to November 1917, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was a shell-shocked second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, under the care of W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital. There, he became close friends with Siegfried Sassoon, who became his poetic mentor and helped him revise the following poem, one of his most memorable:
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.
Owen was discharged to home duty in November 1917. The following July, before returning to active service in France, he wrote the sonnet below. It was published by Siegfried Sassoon after Owen’s death–without the last line.
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.
Wilfred Owen was killed in battle at the Sambre-Oise Canal on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice; he was 25. His mother received the notice of his death as church bells pealed across England in celebration of the war’s end.
These poems by Wilfred Owen, along with seven more, are included in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” which I am listening to as I write in honor of Owen’s life and death. This afternoon, I plan to watch Derek Jarman’s 1989 film adaptation, featuring the 1963 recording with Britten himself on the podium. Over the next two weeks, I will participate in a campus-wide commemoration of the end of World War I at the college where I teach; we will feature lectures, music, art, and a play in addition to the official observance of Veterans’ Day. I will give a talk on November 12 entitled “The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song,” followed by a concert beginning with a musical setting of “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon. The final event will be the stage play “Not about Heroes: The Friendship of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.”
So sad and war is so senseless. I understand the need if we are threatened, but we sacrifice our best for what?