Wilfred Owen was brought up in a very devout household, and it wasn’t until he left his mother’s house that he became increasingly critical of the role that the Church played in society. Owen enlisted in January of 1917 and fought in the Battle of Somme until he suffered shell shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart hospital to recover in May of 1917. While in the hospital, he met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet, who influenced much of Owen’s later poetry. While in the hospital Owen experienced horrible nightmares due to the shell shock, and he would use these dreams as inspiration for his poetry. One image plagued his dreams, which was the idea that war was a sort of “mouth of hell,” and it was this image that inspired Owen’s poem Strange Meeting. Owen’s poem is also reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam, which also depicts a journey through a strange land. Wilfred Owen’s main objective when writing his poetry is to shed light on the gruesome and horrific reality of being a soldier, which counters the nationalistic propaganda that depict soldiers as honorable, proud, and heroic. Many soldiers came home mentally and physically disabled, which is the exact opposite of what people expected.
Owen was a master of poetic devices; he often used pararhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and assonance to fully involve his reader in the tone of his poem. Pararhyme is when the stressed vowel sounds differ, but are flanked by identical or similar consonants; the second rhyme is usually lower in pitch than the first, which produces the effect of dissonance, and failure. Examples of pararhme are: groined/groaned (lines 3-4), and hall/hell (lines 9-10). Half-rhyme is consonance on the final consonants of the words involved. Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession. Half-rhyme can introduce a slight note of discord. An example of Half-rhyme is: swiftness/tigress (line 28). Alliteration is the repetition of an initial consonant sound in the first syllables of a series of words and/or phrases, which helps to convey imagery and stress timing. It also helps to make a line more memorable. An example of this is: grieves/grieves (line 21). Onomatopoeia is when a word imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes. Examples of this are: groaned (line 4), sprang (line 6), and thumped/moan (line 13). Assonance is the refrain of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences. An example of this would be through/wounds (line 38).
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined. (lines 1-3)
The narrator begins the poem with “it seemed,” which connotes a sense of uncertainty, like it could all be just a dream. There are only a few ways to escape battle, which are: you are injured and sent home, you are killed, you are captured by the enemy, you become a deserter, or peace is declared; however, even if you manage to escape the war physically, the war will still be with you mentally. The way that
this poem is set up leads the reader to believe that the soldier is dead, and he is now descending the tunnels into hell. “Dull tunnel” refers to Siegfried Sassoon’s poem The Rear-Guard, which depicts a soldier groping his way along a tunnel that is pitch-black to get to the fresh air of the battlefield above. The fact that the narrator says that the tunnel is profound leads us to believe that there is something special about this tunnel. This tunnel serves as the “mouth of hell.” “Long since scooped” means that the tunnel was dug a long time before he went down into the tunnel. This journey through the tunnel is an arduous one, because of the granite that had been shaken loose by the “titanic wars” above. World Wars are characterized by their enormity in size, power, and force, which also happens to be the definition of the word titanic. “Groined” is used here in place of the word grooved; the walls of the tunnel had been grooved by the titanic wars displacing the granite.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. (lines 4-10)
The “sleepers” in the tunnel are most likely other soldiers that have died in battle. They are encumbered by not only their uniforms and kits, but also by their emotional sufferings; they were not able to rest in peace just yet, because they feel guilty about the things that they had done to their fellow human beings. These men were too caught-up in their own thoughts to rouse to action. It is almost like they are in purgatory. The narrator went along studying the men in the tunnel until he came upon one soldier that sprang up and stared at him. The other soldier recognized the piteous confusion on the narrator’s face. The soldier lifted his hands to the narrator in a desperate need to bless him, which makes us think that the soldier is thanking the narrator for some reason. The soldier smiles, which is an example of irony; the two men are in hell, which is supposed to be a dreadful place, but the soldier smiles, which indicates happiness. “Sullen hall” means that the tunnel is gloomily silent: morose; the tunnel is sort of like a lobby or waiting room to hell. “Dead smile” is an oxymoron; if one is dead then that person can’t smile, but the narrator uses it to describe how empty the soldier’s soul is. The war had caused his emotions to flip much like a soldier’s morality is flipped; in a civilized world killing is wrong and punishable, but in war it is expected, so a smile that once meant happiness now means sadness.
With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. (lines 11-13)
The “thousand pains” that the narrator is referring to are the number of bad things that the soldier had done or were done to him. The narrator equates the soldier’s face with a “vision;” a vision is defined as something seen otherwise than by ordinary sight (as in a dream or trance), which is further evidence that the narrator is dreaming all of this. The soldier’s face is described as being “grained” with wrinkles or worry lines much like the tunnel has been “groined” by the “titanic wars.” The upper ground refers to the battle field, which usually has wounded or dead bodies of soldiers. This “hall” is a sort of ironic haven from the war; they were free from the sounds and bloodiness of the war. “Flues” are passages (as in a chimney) for directing a current (as of smoke or gases).
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” (line 14)
This line marks the beginning of the dialogue between the narrator and the soldier. Aside from this line, the narrator is the listener and the soldier is the orator. This lines introduces the paradox (a statement that seems contrary to common sense and yet is perhaps true) of “strange friend.” The narrator tells the soldier not to mourn, because he probably feels that hell is better than having to endure the ravages of war.
“None,” said that other “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled. (lines 15-25)
The soldier begins his monologue by saying that he has cause to mourn, because of all the years that he does not get to live. The soldier states that he and the narrator share a similar purpose and identity; they both had grand hopes for their lives, but were cheated out of their futures. He “went hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world,” which corresponds to Owen’s quest to find both beauty and truth when he was younger. Owens early poetry was greatly influenced by two English Romantic poets: John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Keats was known for his sensual imagery, and Shelley was known for his idealism. (Side note: Shelley was married to Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein). The soldier (and on some level Owen) realizes that the romantic world view that he once had was false. Boy’s dream of girls with braided hair, and they mindlessly flint from one task to another seeking out the “wildest beauty;” but the beauty they seek mocks them for their naïveté, because the world is unpredictable and grotesque. Other men laughed at his innocence, but he quickly learned the horrors of war and his innocence was lost. One thing to keep in mind here is that many soldiers during WWI were only eighteen years old, and some were even younger; so they went from the sheltered life of school and parents to one where they had to fight and kill to survive. The war distilled (purified) pity; Owen’s preface to his poems stated “my subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Owen wanted people to empathize with what the soldiers had to go through, instead of treating them like they were Greek Gods or superhuman. Killing and feeling like your life is in peril every day wears on men; people back at home expected these men to come home unchanged, but that was often not the case. Many men came home with psychological disorders or with broken or missing limbs; propaganda glorifies war when it is actually not as heroic as the government wants people to believe.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, through nations trek from progress. (26-29)
Soldiers are the ones who fight for a country’s freedom, and those at home don’t really think too hard about how their freedom is achieved; instead they are “content” (satisfied) with what the soldiers have “spoiled” (robbed, pillaged) for them, namely their freedom. The men that the soldier is referring to could also be his fellow soldiers, who were proud of what they had done to their enemies, and for their country. Or these men could be unsatisfied by what they had accomplished. Their blood boils, which is an indication that they are very angry, and blood would be spilled whether it was theirs or their enemies. They are killing machines, natural predators like the tigress hunting her prey. The soldiers will
stick together, even though they are far from home, and the modern world; all they have to rely on is their fellow soldiers, they need each other to survive.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. (lines 30-39)
In this section, poetry and reality collide; the soldier begins by romanticizing who he was before the war, and about the things he would have done, but he is abruptly brought back to reality. The Romanticism Era was between late 18th century and mid-19th century, and it rejected “the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality” (Encyclopedia of Britannica). The soldier (and Owen) embraced this movement in his youth. His youthful ideals made him courageous, and gave him mystery; they also made him wise, which gave him mastery. “March” alludes to soldier’s marching the “retreating world.” “Retreating world” can have a few meanings: the world is dying, loss of civility, or the loss of humanity; war causes immeasurable consequences on the world, bombs don’t just kill humans, they kill nature. The world becomes like a “vain” (worthless) “citadel” (a fortress commanding a city; stronghold) that has no protective barrier; the world becomes unsafe. “Chariot wheels” references an ancient vehicle, which was often used in war. When the blood became too thick and prevented them from traveling any further, the soldier says that he would wash away the blood from the wheel wells. This is a metaphor for cleansing the soul; the soldiers kill to stay alive and therefore they amass large quantities of blood, which bogs-down their souls, and washing the wheels helps them to recover their souls. “Even with truths that lie too deep for taint” refers to William Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”: “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (line 203). The soldier states that he would have given his all to the war, but he did not sign up for all of this death. “Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were” perhaps means that the soldiers killed so much that they were metaphorically sweating the blood of their victims.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….” (40-44)
This last stanza solidifies the narrator and the soldier’s bond. There is a change of tone; and the language is mostly monosyllabic. The two enemies become friends, and forgiveness is evident. The dark tunnel becomes light, and they can see each other. The narrator killed the soldier the day before. “Parried” means to ward off a weapon or blow; the soldier tried to avoid being stabbed, but his hands were reluctant to do the deed. The final line is further evidence that this poem is describing a dream, because you dream when you sleep. Some could also interpret this line as these men joining together in death, but the ellipses indicates that there is more to come and if they died that would be the end.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Twentieth Century and After. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 1971-1976.
"Romanticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 04 Aug. 2011.