by Andrew Gates
The fateful morning of November 4, 1918 condemned to the ranks of a hiccough what might have been a revolution in English poetry. Yet, although the poetic career of Wilfred Owen was cut abruptly short, his legacy echoes not only through the English canon, but above all through the humanitarian—and Christian—ideas that he championed in his verse. Owen was undoubtedly a martyr for his cause, but, unlike so many of his compatriots, this cause was not the glory of bellicose England, but the restoration of the true Christian message, a message in which war has no place. Across the European continent, nations stood ready to deliver their young to the slaughter, and behind every trench stood intellectuals and politicians alike, preaching the righteous and sacred nature of their cause. Herein lay a double hypocrisy: the false glorification of war by romantically-minded artists and the willful blinkering of politics to merely pragmatic goals, without regard for the moral center of the society they professed to defend. Owen sought to combat the rhetoric of his day on both fronts, by recalling his countrymen to the true message of peace, love, and brotherhood that ought to underlie the politics of any avowedly “Christian” nation, on the one hand, and by overturning, with gruesome realism, the romantic lyrics of war and glory, on the other. By undermining the propagandism of the latter, Owen strove to compel a true examination of conscience in the former. No longer would the ideologues of the war be able to appeal exclusively to the awesome power of the Father over evil for their sanctification; they would be forced to contend with the interminable love and forgiveness of the Son, in the spirit of which, Owen asserts, they were fatally lacking. Thus, there exists in Owen’s poetry a twin intent: to oppose a destructive and purposeless war and to restore the true Gospel, wherein such a war can never find a rationale.
At the outbreak of the Great War, all the nations of Europe still affirmed themselves as strongholds of the Christian faith, if not legally—France had been officially secular since 1905—then certainly in spirit. Owen could not fail to see the utter hypocrisy behind such assertions; if the gospel was one, a single revelation, how could the competing aims of these warring nations appeal to the same source of inspiration? Clearly, the message and truth of Christ had been undermined by the vaunted “truths” of each nation’s political expediencies. If there is such thing as Truth in the world, it must exist beyond the “truths” that remain yoked to nationalism. In a letter home dated February 4, 1917, Owen writes, “Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and in French? I do not believe so” (23). If each side of the war thought that same God blessed their cause to the exclusion of the other, then either one side—or both—must be in grave error. The category of truth remained so tragically unquestioned by all concerned that Owen championed it as his cause and his duty, and thus his poetry refuses to conform to the undemanding rhetoric of his day; in the preface to his war poems, he declares: “these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful” (Preface, 31). A true martyr, Owen was willing to swim against the current of populist fervor to serve a cause integral to the very future of civilization. The institutional church of his day, filtered through the politics of greedy, old men, had betrayed its true commission and was ready to drag all the West along with it into factionalism, partisan politics, and hatred of one’s brothers. Owen illustrates the profound divorce between the pomp and rhetoric of the traditional church and the realities of the war that it was eager to endorse: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons” (Anthem for Doomed Youth, 44). The church has no place on the fields and in the trenches; it can say nothing of comfort to those whom it sends to be massacred. The creeds of the church are utterly complicit with the hellish brutality of the evil it abets.
Owen therefore seeks to estrange himself completely from these traditional creeds, demonstrating their complete bankruptcy; his is not merely a remedy, nor even a reformation, but a revolution in the Christian message. This project defined nearly the entirety of Owen’s poetic career and is evident in his thought even before the outbreak of the war. In a letter to his mother, dated January 4, 1913, he declares, “I have murdered my false creed. If a true one exists, I shall find it. If not, adieu to the still falser creeds that hold the hearts of nearly all my fellow men” (17). This is especially significant in the light of his own religious upbringing. Owen’s mother was a staunch Calvinist and raised her children accordingly. This theological tradition emphasizes the ultimate power of God the Father; no part of the universe escapes the purview of his will, which predestines with equanimity some of his creatures to salvation and others to eternal suffering. The God of Calvin is above all a God who punishes evil, sparing only a limited and undeserving elect. Therefore, an equally merciless instantiation of human politics could find, while not an explicit scriptural commission, at least some moral support for its existence. Owen offers a scathing critique of this neglect of the Christian virtue of love through the ironic beatitudes of his poem “Insensibility,” showing what Christ’s Sermon on the Mount has become “Happy are men who yet before they are killed/Can let their veins run cold./Whom no compassion fleers/Or makes their feet/Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers” (Insensibility, 37). The ‘saints’ of the fallen church are those who can “courageously” empty themselves of love and compassion, not only not mourning their lost brothers, but forgetting them entirely. In the final stanza of the poem, Owen makes clear, however, that it is not the heartless soldiers that he condemns, but rather the cruel and deceitful institutional leaders who have led them to this unfortunate impasse; they have not only sinned themselves, but have implicated the unsuspecting sons of the Europe as well: “cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,/That they should be as stones;/…/By choice they made themselves immune/To pity and whatever mourns in man” (Insensibility, 38). Indeed, it would be better for them if a great millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea (Luke 17:2).
Nevertheless, Owen sees this betrayal of the Christian message as not only the result of corrupt and self-serving institutional ambition, but also the fault of the artistic and intellectual community itself. Artists and intellectuals are the trustees of the heart and mind of their society, and if they choose to serve propaganda and partisanship rather than the truth, they do more than deceive themselves. For this reason, Owen combats the romantic and lyrical celebrations of war produced by his countrymen with a brutal and gruesome realism that demonstrates the true horror of war so vividly that no one would dare call it glorious. In a letter from the front, he unequivocally affirms “the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language…everything. Unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious” (22). If poetry is to remain anything more than shallow propaganda, it must not shy away from the reality of war that it has hitherto glossed over in the service of the state’s political ambitions. This entails a rebuilding of poetry itself equal to the ideological reformation he sought to effect. Poetry, as it was, had lost its vocation to show the truth of reality; as he states in the preface to his poems, poetry lies not in the artifice of creating a reality that we would like to believe but in faithfully rendering the reality that is: “This book is not about heroes…Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” (Preface, 31). True poetry—that is to say, poetry committed to truth—will no longer be able to serve the cause of contingent political ambitions, but will serve only those “truths” which can be called universal. Herein, Owen reveals the complete coextensiveness of his poetic realism with his quest for a truly Christian creed; in the matter of war, neither can flinch from the human and divine necessity of demanding unconditional pacifism.
For centuries, poets have praised the glory and honor of war and have generally done so from the comfort and security of the home front. This attitude is perhaps most pithily distilled in that celebrated verse of Horace: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“it is sweet and suitable to die for one’s country). Understandably, Owen struggles to undermine this very verse in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” arguing that war ought always to be condemned. Nevertheless, this poem does not merely attack the romantic trappings of Europe’s classical past, but also the willful blindness of his own generation; although the final version of the poem is dedicated to “a certain poetess,” Owen originally dedicated it explicitly to Jessie Pope, who had written a series of jingoistic poems calling on the youth of Britain to join in the honorable fight for the glory of the fatherland. To such woefully narrow-minded artists of his day, Owen presented the death of a young man by gas, contending that
“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in…
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…
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
(Dulce et Decorum Est, 55)
Mere humanity, aside from any ideological motive, calls upon the witnesses of such a gruesome and pathetic death to condemn utterly the belligerence that brought it about. If we are to seek the truth, we must face the bitter reality of violence, instead of remaining satisfied with the celebratory lyrics of those who have never seen a war; if we face this loathsome and grisly reality, we must condemn war—or excuse ourselves entirely from the ranks of humanity. Owen pursues this pacifist position, however, not only on the basis of modern humanitarian values, but also through the teachings of Christ, which have for centuries been twisted to justify countless atrocities. Owen sees such atrocities not as the consequence of the Christian message itself, but as the result of its corruption by worldly, partisan interests; writing home on May 2, 1917, he declares “Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill…” (22). The truth of the Christian gospel is simply inaccessible through the diseased institution of the national church; to understand what Christ commands—and thereby to rescue modern civilization from its path of certain destruction—one must effectively reverse the conversion of Constantine, that fateful moment wherein the church came to know itself as the state.
To allow the church to pursue its aims through institutionalized bodies of governance, yoked to the ambitions and political expediencies of the moment, is inevitably to privilege the power of the Father over the mercy of the Son; it is to sacrifice wholly half of the Christian message. Owen portrays this unnatural bifurcation of the church’s teachings by showing how this effectively puts Christianity at war with itself: “I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;/And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;/And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;/And rusted every bayonet with His tears./…/But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;/And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs” (Soldier’s Dream, 84). Of course, this poem is ironic at its heart—for the most basic of Christian teachings asserts that the will of the Father and the Son are completely coextensive—but it poignantly illustrates the failure of morality in any avowedly Christian society. Nowhere in the gospels can one find a justification for the brutality and inclemency of war, except by being ignorant of its teachings or by willfully perverting them. For Owen, the guilt of the politicians and intellectuals of his day lay squarely in the latter offense. The old men making policy back in London are not innocent, but rather choose to ignore the higher truths to which they are called by both God and their humanity in favor of personal greed and ambition. This accusation is perhaps most explicit in Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” which also draws more directly on biblical inspiration than any of his other war poems. Therein, he tells us of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac; the fact that the poem insists on calling him “Abram” throughout, although God had already bestowed on him the new name of “Abraham,” seems to imply a willful rejection of the covenant on the part of the patriarch. The poem concludes with a radical perversion of the biblical tale: “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 thorns;/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” (The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, 42). These old men of Parliament ignore the merciful commands of both God and their own paternity, choosing to spare their own pride at the price of the blood of an entire generation. Owen’s poem is not one of idealized glory and divine mystery, but an account of true and bitter reality of his day.
In the face of these tragic circumstances, Owen dreams of a revived Christianity that will replace the corrupt institutions of the national church. Indeed, the realities of the Great War so utterly belie the platitudes of this corrupt and political faith that it cannot but crumble before them: “So the church Christ was hit and buried/Under its rubbish and its rubble./In cellars, packed-up saints lie serried,/Well out of hearing of our trouble./One Virgin still immaculate/Smiles on for war to flatter her./She’s halo’d with an old tin hat,/But a piece of hell will batter her” (Le Christianisme, 83). It is not Christ himself who is buried by the hell of warfare, but “the church Christ,” that is, the artificial Christ who has been propped up by politicians and ideologues as justification for the defense of civilization through its very destruction. Only a true poetry can help us to regain the true Christian message, which condemns violence and preaches love and brotherhood. In order to find this true Christianity, we must look past the priests and clerks who purport to speak in the name of God to the figure of Christ himself and to the innocents who suffer with him—for Owen, these are the unknowing young men of Europe who are led by their elders to the slaughter; Owen remained in the war rather than return home so that he could speak on behalf of those alone who know the true and real horror of warfare. Their sacrifice calls the nation back to its task of building a society in which no such sacrifice is necessary or even justified, and he shows the distance that remains between a true Christian society and the Europe of his day: “Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,/And in their faces there is pride/That they were flesh-marked by the Beast/By whom the gentle Christ’s denied./The scribes on all the people shove/And brawl allegiance to the state,/But they who love the greater love/Lay down their life; they do not hate” (At a Calvary near the Ancre, 82). The only men who have the right to speak of killing are those who are killed; the only men who can preach love are those who do not hate; and the only men who are fit to rule society are those who dispense with lyrical propaganda and look the truth in its ugly, mangled face.
All above citations refer to the following edition of Owen’s poetry: Lewis, C. Day, ed. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. New York: New Directions Books, 1965.