Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Poems I Journey With 6

Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918) from early on became one of my favourite poets.  Firstly, as a young boy and as a teenager I was always fascinated with wars, especially World War 1 and World War II, not from the military point of view solely, but primarily because of the havoc it had wrought on the world through the destruction of human life and property on such a vast scale.  Such wanton destruction on such unprecedented scales amazed and astounded me. That humanity veered so quickly and so spontaneously towards war, rather than engaging in political debate and conflict resolution was also an intriguing feature that seemed to suggest that there was something rather corrupt that stank to high heaven within the human make-up.  Then, I discovered the War Poets from both world wars, and those from the first of these wars were the more moving for me as that war in particular involved  the first widespread use of machine guns, air power, submarine operations, armoured vehicles, bigger and more powerful guns and the use of poison gas and, of course, the mad rush of opposing troops against each other across NO-MAN'S-LAND, all of which led the poets to describe the horrors of war in such graphic detail that I was hooked forever and still moved, often to tears, by their words and images.  To them we owe a great debt of gratitude for highlighting these horrors.  Wilfred Owen was only 25 when he was killed on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal exactly a week before the signing of the Armistice that ended the War.  In a rather ironic twist of fate, his poor mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day just as the bells rang out in jubilation at the cessation of hostilities.  He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

Lieutenant W. Owen
Owen is the foremost poet of the Great War and his poems are much anthologized. Therefore, I will not publish any of his more popular ones hereunder as the reader will be almost too familiar with them.  Instead, I will quote here another powerful, but less well known poem from his pen:

The Parable of The Young Man and The Old

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 the trenches there,
And stretched 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
There is no need for commentary on this wonderful little poem save to say that it is crafted with care and based on the famous Old Testament story of God's command to Abraham to slay his son Isaac by way of offering to appease Him.  Those of us, au fait with mythology will know that such an image of God as a rather cruel task-master, who seemingly has no concern for morality as He is somehow beyond all such standards of proper behaviour, will realize that this is pure story, a story with a moral or a message - a story composed by priests or scribes simply to teach us lessons.  The lesson here is simply that God often tests our loyalty in strange and even cruel ways.  Whatever about Old Testament times the twentieth century unleashed the wrath of a most bloody God or Gods - Gods of greed and hate and vengeance - that slew "half the seed of Europe, one by one."  As an officer, the young Lieutenant Owen would have witnessed so much bloodshed and so many horrible deaths of his soldier comrades that it must have surely felt that some bloodthirsty gods somewhere were slaying the young men of Europe one by one.  This is not one of his famous poems, but I feel it is beautifully written, and most solemnly so as it practically repeats the beautiful English of the King James Bible and interweaves in the story images from the horrors of the First World War: "fire and iron," "belts and straps" (soldiers would have had many of these about their uniforms) and "parapets and trenches."  However, it is the last two lines that are the most effective for me as they sum up the horrors of the Great War:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one. 

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