Strange Meeting

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 fast in 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 of 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 have spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with the 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 that 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.
I 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 . . . ."

["Strange Meeting", by Wilfred Owen, from "The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen", edited with an introduction by C Day Lewis, Chatto & Windus 1963, p35]

Here the central image is of Christ re-crucified (hands raised as if in blessing - hands up in surrender, stretched on the cross) and the transference of identity between the killed (bayoneted) and the killer (Owen the bayoneter). Owen records a totally literal account of a night raid, one of many he and his men surely made. This record is of a night raid into a German trench and on down into its underground shell shelter and sleeping quarters. The entire disembodied nature of the experience, a kind of ecstasy, pervades the account with the perfect poetic ambiguity of Owen's central image, of the probing (bayoneting) of the sleeping Germans and the impossibility of mercy without unacceptable risk to his own life. It is that moment of mutual recognition of their common inhumanity through the dialogue with the dead (I am the enemy you killed, my friend - literally my love) that illuminates their common humanity and that in killing another you kill yourself, you kill each other. Within this image lies the undeniable vision of sacrifice at the heart of the Christian superstition, drawn as it is from the primitive practice of such sacrifice beneath the druidic trees of prehistoric humankind. Yet, Owen reaches beyond the merely superstitious in Christianity and subtly merges his two figures, the enemy and friend the friend with the enemy, turning their dialogue by, inter alia, mix of tenses and pluralisation of the personal pronoun, so that the apparent dialogue becomes a monologue of both as one, such that we know not who is whom, "let us sleep now . . . ." together.

In writing "Lest We Forget to Forgive", Fox deliberately includes Owen's poem to ramify his own imagery and layering of ambiguity and to echo the empty rhymes, the dead rhymes (pararhyme). But Fox also refers us to the appalling brutality of Owen's own death and the death of those voiceless men sacrificed as means to 'good' ends. "Lest We Forget to Forgive" is not a poem seeking to rake up rancour or to blame 'someone' for it all. Not at all, the poem seeks to express the reality of the dead and their voicelessness as an empty (cenotaphal) perspective on the present, like the British Empire Cenotaph itself, an empty tomb from which the idea of the dead has risen. Fox is showing how this cenotaphal perspective is a void that is filled not by the dead, but by the living.

Fox is deeply sensitive to the brutal reality of Owen's death on 4th November 1918, and the appalling waste made more poignant by its closeness in time to the Compiegne Armistice which set the ceasefire on Owen's front for 11am on the 11th November 1918. Owen, under orders which specifically stated "There is to be no retirement under any circumstances", was killed leading his platoon of Manchesters in an attack to establish a crossing over the Sambre canel south of Ors. Under gas and heavy machine gun fire he was hit by fire on a raft in the canel and killed. Hibberd says:

"Owen was buried with the other dead in a corner of the cemetary at Ors, a green and peaceful place above the village. The grave was marked with a temporary wooden cross, recording him as still a second lieutenant. On 5 November the London Gazette announced his promotion to full lieutenant, backdated to December 1917. On the 8th the award of MC was recorded in the battalion diary. The permanent gravestone bears his final rank and a misquotation from his sonnet 'The End', supplied by his mother: 'Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul'. In the poem the second sentence is also a question."
[From "Wilfred Owen The Last Year" by Dominic Hibberd, ISBN 0-09-472900-x, p193. Hibberd provides a chilling insight into the realities of Owen's life during his last year.]

The End

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 he 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 [everlasting] 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."

["The End", by Wilfred Owen, from "The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen", edited with an introduction by C Day Lewis, Chatto & Windus 1963, p89]

Fox is interested in the way this tiny (accidental/incidental/monumental?) omission so radically affects the meaning we might read from Owen's gravestone (his memorial) about him and the poetry that he is, rather than what he truly wrote into the sonnet itself. Therefore, included is his true (Blakean) voice in full. Fox says we shouldn't worry about this tiny (catch?) in Owen's voice, should we (?). Or about, all those hugely multiplied catches in a nation's voice(s) on behalf of the dead it/they presume to speak for? Let us all with one voice . . . .

The memorial lines on his gravestone were supplied by Owen's mother who, perhaps, did not imagine the question mark meant much as it comes anyway at the line end, not at the end of the memorial quote. Fox thinks though that she knew full well its heavenly significance.  She simply wanted her son to be waiting for her in heaven, as did so many millions of mothers then. Who can blame them in wanting death annulled? Not me, but Wilfred Owen was not so sure, was he(?). But, how can we know when:

"The last thing we'll hear is their silence break;"

Back to NOTES on English Wounds

Back to "Lest We Forget to Forgive"

There are a number of useful websites on Owen. Try this one , it has many of his poems, together with useful links to other sites, including the Wilfred Owen Association.

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