13 November 2012

‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks ... All went lame; all blind’

‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent (1918). Imperial War Museum

Patrick Comerford

We held our annual Remembrance Day service in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this morning [13 November 2012].

During the service, I read the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by the English war poet Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) is one of the greatest war poets in English literature. Owen, who was brought up to be a deeply committed Christian and active Anglican, wrote out of his intense experiences during World War I.

Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, on 18 March 1893, and was educated in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. From the age of 19, he wanted to be a poet, but he wrote almost no poetry of importance until he saw action in France in 1917.

He was a committed Christian and became a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading from 1911 to 1913, when he taught Bible classes, led prayer meetings, and assisted in pastoral visits.

Owen had moved to France, where he was working as a private tutor, when World War I broke out in 1914. Initially he was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. But he returned to England and volunteered to fight on 21 October 1915. He was sent to France on the last day of 1916, and within days was facing the horrors of the frontline.

He saw much frontline action, and was blown up, concussed and suffered shell-shock. In hospital in Edinburgh, he faced the difficulty of conflicting principles: his role as a soldier and patriot demanded one thing; his Christian faith demanded another. Knowing and believing Christ’s teaching, with absolute clarity he felt compelled to act in complete contradiction to his convictions.

There too he met Siegfried Sassoon who inspired him to develop his war poetry. He returned to the trenches in September 1918 and in October was decorated with the Military Cross for bravery in battle.

He was shot and killed near the village of Ors on 4 November. Seven days later, the war was over. Church bells rang throughout the country. As they were ringing in Shrewsbury, Susan and Tom Owen received a telegram with the news of their son’s death.

All Owen’s great war poems were written in a mere 15 months. Some of his poems feature in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, and he is commemorated in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The title of this poem is taken from the first words of a Latin saying – “Dulce et Decorum Est, It is sweet and right” – found on an ode by Horace. The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of World War I, and the full quotation ends this poem: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country.”

The poem describes a mustard gas attack on a group of war-weary soldiers. Owen’s painfully direct language combines gritty realism with an aching sense of compassion. His despair at the crumbling of the moral order are expressed in phrases such as “froth-corrupted lungs,” “sores on innocent tongues” and his description of the dying man’s face “like a devil's sick of sin.”

This short poem is just 28 lines, but the poet’s vivid imagery creates a lasting and disturbing impression on the reader.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge, Dublin, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, are dedicated to the 49,400 Irish soldiers killed in World War I and recall the 300,000 Irishmen who fought in that war (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen

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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.

Soldier’s Dream, by Wilfred Owen

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.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Anthem For Doomed Youth, by Wilfred Owen

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.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

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