Wilfred Owen (1893—1918) is considered the leading poet of the First World War. When he was a student, serving as an assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden, he became disillusioned with the Chruch of England because of the lack of care for the poor. Although he entered the war optimistically, his experiences — including shell shock — soon changed him.
He was critical of the European tradition of propagandist poetry that glorified war, and its naive acceptance by his own generation. He upheld a poetry of truth, criticizing the artists and intellectuals who chose to serve partisanship. He was also critical of national churches for betraying the Christian message, and twisting the teachings of Christ to justify politics. He interpreted one of Christ’s instructions as: “Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms...”.
His poetry is often characterized by irony and sarcasm: In “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” Owen has the angel tell “Abram” — “Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.” Owen then twists the Biblical story into a new parable, making the patriarch a parliamentarian:
-----But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
-----And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Similarly those who claim to represent God are portrayed in the following poem:
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.
In 1917 he wrote, “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...” and that it wasn't only the allies who heard that voice.
Wilfred Owen was killed by an enemy bullet, on 4 November 1918, just one week before the end of the war. The following, one of his best known poems, may suggest that the church had no place at the front lines, because it had sent young men to their deaths.
Anthem For Doomed Youth
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 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.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca