On the 12th of January 1917, together with his men, he found himself in a half-swamped shelter in no man’s land. Pinned under the earth for almost two days, whilst enduring violent bombing, the detachment managed to maintain his position. Injured by a piece of shrapnel, a sentry had lost his sight. A year later, Wilfred was to write this verse in The Sentry.
«Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout
'I see your lights!' - But ours had long gone out.»
A few days later, the platoon was forced to remain long hours, lying in the snow and in the bitter cold, virtually uncovered and protected from the enemy only by a gentle undulation in the terrain. The hallucinated memory of this event was to lay the foundations of Exposure, one of the great poems of maturity.
«Ours brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent...»
In March 1918, second lieutenant Owen was transferred to the Ripon depot. In order to take full advantage of his rare periods of leisure, he rented a room in a quiet cottage in Borrage Lane. He wrote, among others, Futility and The Send-Off. His inspiration was unfaltering.
«So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.»
Wilfred was stationed with his company staff at the Maison forestière, whose tiny cellar was a safe shelter. On the 31st of October, he wrote his last letter to his mother, marked with a benevolent, however forced, optimism, «There is no danger down here - or if any, it will be well over before you read those lines».
Apart from his family and his close circle of literary friends, Wilfred’s death went unnoticed as for many like him. Late 1918, the loss was neither measured nor measurable.
On her son’s gravestone, Susan had two verses of The End engraved. But in truncating the text, particularly by removing the final question mark, she transformed its desperate meaning into a message of hope.
«Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?»
Dulce et Decorum Est
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
Ans towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shot. All went lame ; all blind ;
Drunk with fatigue ; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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
Strange Meeting (1918)
It seemed that out of 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 fastin 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 pains 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 that 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 had 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 taht 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.
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...'
With an identity Disc
If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life's heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That keep in shade the quiet place of Keats
Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed,
But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it, night and day,
Until the name grow vague and wear away.
After the blast of lightning from the east,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne ;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall Life renew these bodies ? Of a truth,
All death will be annul, all tears assuage ?
Or fill these void veins full again with youth,
and wash, with an immortal water, age ?
When I do ask white Age, he saith not so :
« My head hangs weighed with snow »
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith :
« My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried. »
To Susan Owen
Thursday 31st October 1918 6.15pm
[2é bat.Manchester Regt]
So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 ins away, and so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges and jolts. On my left the Company. Commander snores on a bench : other officers repose on wire beds behind me.
At my right hand,Kellet, a delightful servant of A companyin The Old Days radiates joy and contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller, to whose left ear is glued the receiver ; but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal, who appears at this distance away (some three feet) nothing [but] a gleam of white teeth and a wheeze of jokes.
Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels ans drops potatoes into the pot.
By him,Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with the damp wood.
It is great life. I am more oblivious than alas yourself dear Mother; of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells.
There is no danger down here; or if any,it will be over before you read these lines.
I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; and that you think of me never in bed as resignedly as I think of you always in bed. Of this I'm certain you could never be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.
Ever Wilfred x