Sunday, 25 November 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry: 'Strange Meeting'

Following George Laver's commentary on Book 24 of 'The Iliad'George Neame explores Wilfred Owen's haunting poem, 'Strange Meeting'.

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped   
Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
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.
With a thousand fears 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.
"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the 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,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
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, though nations trek from progress.
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.
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 . . ."
                                                Wilfred Owen (1918)

 World War One marked the beginning of the end of hand-to-hand combat. Although individual skirmishes were made, the majority of fighting took place either side of ‘No Man’s Land’, with each army occupying their own trench facing the enemy. In some places, the distance between them was only a few hundred yards, in others miles, but, as those of you who have seen or read War Horse will know, the use of swords and horses was limited and, in many cases, useless, the soldiers being killed by machine gun fire before even reaching the enemy.

As detailed in this image, the killing was not completely impersonal. The soldiers could still see the men whose lives they took, could still fire a shot and watch them fall to the ground. But no longer would you stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and look into their eyes as you fought them to the death.

Wilfred Owen’s poem begins with the narrator escaping from the battlefield down a tunnel, where he encounters injured or wounded soldiers, waiting to die. ‘Then,’ he says, ‘as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared with piteous recognition in fixed eyes’. One soldier stands up and recognises him. He tells the narrator how they share the same hopes, the same dreams and lived similar lives; how they both share the same hatred for war and the spilt blood and ruined lives.

The soldier’s speech is personal and hard-hitting; he uses repetition to emphasise the horrors of war, ‘if it grieves, grieves richlier than here’, ‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’ and contrasts words to highlight their difference, ‘laughed’ with ‘weeping’, ‘sweet’ with ‘taint’.

Then the dying soldier tells him ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’. The soldier recognises the narrator as he was the one who attacked him the day before and left him wounded and dying. Although not the same honourable, personal fight as is documented in The Iliad, the soldiers in World War One still saw the consequences of their actions and still felt that connection with the men they killed, as Owen makes clear.

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