Here dead lie we because we did not choose
—To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
—But young men think it is, and we were young.
A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)
A. E. Housman and Wilfred Owen both have childhood connections to Shropshire, England. It is there alone, separated by a gap of more than 30 years, that their lives intersect beyond poetry. Wilfred only published 5 poems while alive and penned nearly all of his poetry in the 18 months prior to his death. His friend and fellow soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, oversaw the editing and publication of his work in 1920 following Owen’s death.
Owen is revered as one of the great war poets of World War I, his poetic talents heightened by his harrowing experience. Owen, in letters home, regretted returning to the front after recuperating in Scotland from injuries sustained in France the year prior, but kept his anti-war poetry to himself among the soldiers he fought alongside. He lost his life at the age of 25 in battle, by all accounts, a brave and loyal soldier.
I do not consider A. E. Housman a war poet. He lived comfortably, if unhappily, to the age of 77. He published only 2 volumes of poetry during his lifetime. His first volume, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, enjoyed critical success. Housman was an acclaimed Latin scholar and along with his success as a poet, landed several prestigious academic positions, which allowed him to retreat from the difficulties of life among the elite in Oxford. I don’t cast spurious judgement upon Houseman for being pampered, sullen, private and un-prolific, he earned his success. However, his poetry lacks the tension of Owen’s in part because of his lack of real world experience. Owen risked much more in the creation of his art or was it the risk that created his art?
I am unable to find a single sonnet from Housman in his collected works. He wrote several 4 line poems that follow 10 syllables per line that could be considered the start of sonnets but were clearly complete in their simplicity. He seemed to prefer a structure of 8 syllables per line, with many of his poems either 12 or 16 lines in length.
Owen’s legacy is as a voice of humanity in the insanity of war. Owen’s anti-war sentiments caution readers that governments will pander to men’s patriotic proclivity and entice them to enlist with promises of sacrificial glory. Though both wrote during a period of nearly endless conflicts and foreign wars in which recruits were needed for the ascension of the British Empire, it is Owen’s poetry which stands out for me in its brave clarity. To die for one’s country or fellow soldiers can be a noble act, but even the noblest of deaths are haunted by the questions from grieving loved ones if such a thing as a just war exists? The history of humankind littered with wars fueled by madness and vanity when the spotlight of history is finally lit.
I did not recognize Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est initally as a sonnet. On closer reading, the poem is 28 lines written as two sonnets back to back. The ending, Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori, translates roughly as “it is sweet to die for one’s country”.
Much has been written about the cruelty of mustard gas during World War I. It was in some ways the first weapon of mass destruction, though in the end it killed relatively few. Mustard gas instilled terror and was as much psychological warfare as an agent of death. Mustard gas was first developed by German chemists who falsely believed it would end the war quicker and reduce loss of life on both sides. 2017 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the use of chemical weapons in artillery shells and the rapid industrialization of weapons of mass destruction. Germany is not alone in its shame, with England and the United States both following suit, deploying chemical weapons as a precursor to the greater insanity of nuclear weapons. Our ability as humans to deceive ourselves as to what is justifiable is fathomless. Owen captures in Dulce et Decorum Est the inhumanity of chemical weapons. The poem is an anti-war testament for why no nation should ever deploy them again.
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.