Owen, a British officer, composed poetry in the final year of his life, 1917-1918. He seems to have begun writing in earnest whilst confined at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh with “neurasthenia,” aka shell-shock (or as we say today, PTSD). He had become a pacifist by his experience of war, and through his deep Christian faith. But after meeting Siegfied Sassoon, a war hero who wound up in Craiglockhart after disrupting Parliament with a pacifist demonstration, Owen formed the idea that he “must get some reputation for gallantry before I could… declare my principles.”
He returned to the Front in September 1918, telling his brother, “”I know I shall be killed. But it’s the only place I can make my protest from.” His statement was prescient: Owen, the Christian turned warrior to secure a platform from which to redeclare his Christian pacifism, quickly established a reputation for bravery, but was shot and killed on 4 November 1918, a mere week before the Armistice. The site War Poetry UK calls him “The greatest of the war poets who have written in the English language,” which is all the more remarkable for his very short span of work, and the few poem he wrote (perhaps thirty in all), of which only five were published before the end of the war, three anonymously. His letters are quite as engaging, and as poetic in their language as anyone else’s self conscious poetry. He wrote to Sasson, enroute to the front: “This is what the shells scream at me every time: ‘Haven’t you got the wits to keep out of this?'”
The death of Owen, the brief flash of his talent, is a microcosm of the loss to humanity that was the First World War. While he is best remembered for the bitter “Dulce et Decorum est,” this less-known poem is presented for your consideration. -Ed.
Arms and the Boy
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
We shan’t say much about the poem itself, except that the alliteration/consonance/vowel-shift rhyme scheme (the specific term for which appears to be “pararhyme”) is unusual and vaguely disturbing, and that the poem was likely inspired by (or contrapuntal to) Sassoon’s The Kiss, which we discussed back in 2013. -Ed.