Continuing to think about the literature that emerged from the First World War, this week’s Featured Poem comes from Wilfred Owen, who is often the first name to come to mind when we think of war poetry.
Owen has strong ties to Birkenhead, where he lived with his family after the death of his grandfather. Not too far away in Cheshire was where his poetic vocation was realised, with strong influence coming from the Romantic movement. This may come as a surprise considering he is most famed for his verse which holds no bars against conveying the bleak and violent nature of war. His poetry was influenced by fellow soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon, whom he met at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh receiving treatment for shellshock.
Though his poetry shows disillusionment and heavy criticism of the nature of ‘The Great War’, Owen returned to the Front in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and leadership. He was killed in action exactly one week almost to the hour of the signing of the Armistice which would signal the end of the war in November 1918, also being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death.
This thought provoking and poignant poem about how we might consider the different interpretations of ‘beauty’ is particularly resonant as we commemorate those lost in battle.
The beautiful, the fair, the elegant,
Is that which pleases us, says Kant,
Without a thought of interest or advantage.
I used to watch men when they spoke of beauty
And measure their enthusiasm. One
An old man, seeing a setting sun,
Praised it a certain sense of duty
To the calm evening and his time of life.
I know another man that never says a Beauty
But of a horse;
Men seldom speak of beauty, beauty as such,
Not even lovers think about it much.
Women of course consider it for hours
A shrapnel ball –
Just where the wet skin glistened when he swam –
Like a fully-opened sea-anemone.
We both said ‘What a beauty! What a beauty, lad’
I knew that in that flower he saw a hope
Of living on, and seeing again the roses of his home.
Beauty is that which pleases and delights,
Not bringing personal advantage – Kant.
But later on I heard
A canker worked into that crimson flower
And that he sank with it
And laid it with the anemones off Dover