Unliving Hands

Lyric Distance in Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

Adam Keller
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

In the preface to his then unpublished oeuvre, Wilfred Owen characterized his poems as elegies, a move that has sparked much debate among his few devoted critics about the generic boundaries of his work. Owen’s poems are elegies (if only because he says so), yet they often seem to probe, contest, and subvert the genre’s long-standing conventions. Owen’s generic changes have proved too discordant for some. W. B. Yeats was not among those inclined to read Owen’s poems as elegies. In fact, judging from his editorial decisions and correspondence, he preferred not to read them at all. As editor of the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats excluded Owen’s work and that of his contemporary “trench poets” on the grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry,” crassly dismissing it as “all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick.” The argument behind Yeats’s dismissal is worth noting. What it seems to imply is that elegies, at least those in the classical and English tradition with which Owen identifies his work, must transcend melancholic lament to achieve consolation. As many critics have noted, however, Owen’s poems seem to offer little such promise; indeed, his preface explicitly warns us that the poems to follow are “in no sense consolatory.”

Even readers who recognize a place for the anti-elegiac within the genre’s boundaries have found another significant problem with Owen’s verse. The contemporary critic Jahan Ramazani offers a nuanced reading of Owen’s work that recognizes his place as a generic innovator of the modern elegy. Yet Ramazani, too, levies a charge against Owen–and all war elegists–that, if more oblique, shares a tangential connection with Yeats’s blunt criticism. For Ramazani, the fundamental problem with war elegies is not one of poetic authenticity so much as of empathic resonance and universality. According to Ramazani, war elegies highlight the central obstacle with which all elegies must contend: namely, that they “are irreducibly occasional forms of poetry.” Ramazani’s objection could, I think, be developed further, since the occasional status of such poetry is only half of the problem. No less significant than the inherent irregularity of the genre is its transient affective resonance. Owen’s poems may preclude consolation, but they do arouse pity, which he takes to be his rightful subject. The contrast between these two sentiments is an important one for Owen in that consolation implies a permanence and stability that pity can never attain.

The wounds of war that these elegies attempt to dress are neither metaphorical nor transient.

And yet, I will argue that pity’s transience in time pales in significance before another limitation: its inability to survive without attenuation beyond the limits of an exclusive community of mourners, one predicated on the firsthand experience of combat. In this community, the wounds of war that these elegies attempt to dress are neither metaphorical nor transient. In very different ways, then, both Yeats and Ramazani have implicitly recognized the war elegy’s problematic claim to exceptionalism–that war (more specifically, the direct and unmediated firsthand experience of combat) represents a qualitatively distinct realm of human experience, the full knowledge of which is accessible only to a few. It is this notion of the unbridged epistemological gulf that exists in the highly fraught relationship between the combatant war elegist and his civilian audience that I wish to investigate.

This distance exists to some degree in all elegies and, one might even say, in all works of lyric poetry. Whether we conceive of the lyric poem as the dramatic monologue of a fictive speaker or as a patched-together collection of speech acts frustrating all attempts to perceive a unified speaking persona, all poems exist in a social register and must navigate the liminal space that separates poet and audience, speaker and listener, writer and reader. If these models represent the possible polarities of what we might call the lyric experience, the elegy–at least as it has been represented in the English tradition that includes Spenser’s “Astrophel” and certain eclogues of The Shephearde’s Calendar, Milton’s “Lycidas,” and Shelley’s “Adonais”–most often functions as a mediation of this space, construed as the affective and epistemological distance between poet and reader. Specifically, the elegy works to collapse this space by rendering the two as equal members of a unified mourning community comprising a number of voices, both human and anthropomorphized. Owen’s reaction against this tradition, I will argue, consists primarily in his manipulation of the distance he imagines between himself as a combatant elegist and his readers as members of a mourning community–yet a community that he views as alternately indifferent and hostile to the subject of his poems. In doing so, Owen radically diverges from English elegiac tradition. It is this that most fundamentally obstructs his poems’ achievement of elegiac mourning and turns his elegies into anti-elegies.

Owen’s generic transformation, then, is an explicitly antisocial performance in which he sets out to destabilize the communal nature of poetic mourning in the pastoral elegy, a genre in which both poet and reader must move together along an erratic psychological trajectory toward the promised consolation. In his landmark study The English Elegy, Peter Sacks argues that the elegy achieves this consolation only within the framework of a communal performance, and hence employs a variety of conventions and staging devices to move the mourning community beyond a mere expression of melancholic grief. As he writes:

The emphasis on the drama, or “doing,” of the elegy is thus part of the crucial self-privileging of the survivors, as well as a way of keeping them in motion, ensuring a sense of progress and egress, of traversing some distance. For a stationary poet that distance may be figurative and purely psychological, but it is crucial to any successful mourning. Indeed, few elegies or acts of mourning succeed without seeming to place the dead, and death itself, at some cleared distance from the living.

There are, thus, two types of distance at work in the elegy, although Sacks only mentions one. The first, which I have already described, is the epistemological distance between the elegist, who is represented as the most deeply affected of the mourners, and the reader, who is often envisioned as a disinterested voyeur of the mourning drama. This type of distance rarely figures prominently in the work of traditional elegy, in which staging devices and generic conventions–such as the “use of repetition and refrains,” the funereal procession, the poet’s outbreak of angry questioning and supplication, and “traditional images of resurrection,” among other features identified by Sacks–work to overcome the disjunction between the elegist’s firsthand knowledge of the dead and the reader’s relative ignorance. The elegist combines these tropes with more familiar manifestations of poetic artifice, such as the pathetic fallacy, to stage the elegy as a highly self-conscious performance that purports to master the trauma it laments. Having effectively closed the distance separating them, the poet can then lead the reader, along with the rest of his poetically conceived mourning community, to extend the second type of distance Sacks describes: the one we must maintain between ourselves, as survivors, and the dead, for the elegy to achieve its consolatory end.

But as a combatant-poet convinced of the singularity of his war experience, Owen is not a traditional elegist. He is not interested in closing the epistemological distance between poet and reader, but seeks rather to extend it, departing from the conventions established by his poetic predecessors. Unable or unwilling to move beyond the trauma of his war experience, Owen writes in the preface to his collected works:

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.
They may be to the next.

In the war poems he wrote before his untimely death–a mere seven days shy of the armistice–Owen appears to have become the sort of stationary poet that Sacks describes, stuck in the re-experiencing of his own trauma. Unable to traverse the space between war front and home front, combatant and civilian, poet and reader, Owen works instead to fortify its boundaries, to obstruct our entrance into poems that otherwise seem eminently accessible with language and imagery that are at once familiar and alien, inviting and estranging. His poems often promise, yet ultimately preclude, our participation in the elegiac performance, thus negating our claim to consolation.

However, though he rejects the traditional social model of poetic mourning, Owen nonetheless becomes a successful poetic mourner through a complicated series of displacements and replacements, which enable him to substitute the anxiety and fright of passive experience with objects and actions that transform passivity into agency. To put it another way, because Owen cannot effect his own psychological movement as an elegiac mourner, he displaces his readers instead, rejecting them, forcing them out of the mourning community only to summon them back and discard them once more. For Owen, this act of generic transformation allows him to modulate, on his own terms, the distance between himself as a combatant war-poet and his reader, envisioned as the disinterested and, thus, complicit civilian. Doing so enables Owen to restructure the passivity of his war trauma into another sort of elegiac performance–a partial reenactment of Freud’s fort-da game played by a child casting away and retrieving small objects–which enables him to stage his mastery of a trauma that has, until now, eluded him. It also enables him to control his readers’ access to the “pity” of his poems. In this respect, Owen’s poetry gradually yet systematically alters the elegy’s social purpose by impeding its historical function: the achievement of communal consolation in the face of mortal loss. What remains is an elegy that is anti-elegiac, anti-pastoral, and fundamentally antisocial: a work in which both poet and reader become implicated, to unequal degrees, in a trauma for which no adequate consolation exists, and which ultimately alters the tenor of every elegy in its wake.

To examine how Owen manipulates epistemological distance
to deny elegiac consolation, we must move beyond the tendency of many critics to divide his poems into an oversimplified thematic taxonomy. Perhaps critics are inclined to read his poems this way because, as Desmond Graham has noted, Owen himself used a rough classification system as he thought about his projected collection, identifying a “motive” for each of his poems. Taking a cue from Owen, critics like Jon Silkin have divided his “crucial poems–those concerned with war” into distinct thematic categories, which he claims “can be grouped under four headings, without violating their complexity.” These are: 1) “poems in which nature, if we exclude war, is the principal element”; 2) “Sassoon-like poems protesting against the war”; 3) “poems whose originating impulse is compassion or pity”; and 4) “poems which do not fit any of the others.” Unfortunately, such classifications do violate the poems’ complexity, since many poems include elements of all four categories. Owen’s “motive” labels enabled him to undertake the mental and emotional labor of a combatant-poet attempting to disentangle his messy and ambivalent feelings about war–feelings that often seemed inextricably welded to experiences tainted by a paradoxical impulse to simultaneously remember and forget. For Silkin, these classifications are tools through which “the poems may be helpfully explored.” We would do better, I suggest, to view them as Owen did, lest we be guilty of the oversimplification to which his poetry is so often subjected.

Owen’s sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” in particular, often suffers from such readings. One of the best-known poems of his early “mature” or “major” phase (the period of his greatest poetic production coinciding with his convalescence from shell-shock at Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland), it is also one of his most maligned works–a poem that many critics (Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill, and Peter Dale being the most vigorous) read as a declaration of the anti-consolatory ethic that Owen announces in his preface, yet rife with self-contradiction. This reading hinges on the last line of the sonnet’s octave, together with its succeeding sestet, in both of which memory seems to function as a means of achieving elegiac consolation. This interpretation requires reading the sestet literally, in contrast to the octave’s ironic tone. But if we read the entire poem as an ironic treatment of traditional mourning rituals, and (as Graham cautions) resist the urge to “read Owen slackly,” we can detect what I have suggested are the subtle and crucial barriers that Owen erects between himself and his noncombatant readers.

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 glimmer 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.

Reading the poem this way, as a reaction against the pastoral elegy’s consolatory mourning, is to see it beginning in medias res with the sort of impassioned question that often appears in the middle of traditional pastoral elegiac performances: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” As Sandra Gilbert notes in Death’s Door, this opening line effectively dismisses centuries of elegiac tradition, “declaring the bankruptcy of both religion and genre as sources of comfort.” But how precisely does it do so? Repeated questions are a significant convention in the traditional elegy. Peter Sacks explains their consolatory function as leading the mourner away from the object of mourning to reunite with the larger community. But unlike the questions found in traditional elegies, which the speaker often addresses to various deities, Owen’s question assumes no addressee. Its rhetorical nature restricts the movement of the question, along with its anger, to a single vector: away from the bereaved mourner. To be sure, the questions posed by traditional elegies to specific individuals often remain unanswered, frequently prompting the elegist to multiply his questions, whose “repetitive, incantatory nature,” as Sacks explains, “emphasizes the possibly exorcistic or expiatory element of the ritual.”

In an interesting inversion, Owen’s elegy casts its incantatory spell by multiplying answers rather than questions. The first question takes up the first line, and Owen devotes the octave’s remaining seven lines to answering it with a series of exclusionary repetitions: “Only” in lines 2 and 3, “no” and “nor” in lines 5 and 6. This single question, posed to no one, with its lengthy, negative response, precludes the possibility of an answer from another speaker. Owen thus makes it clear that he is the only one who can hope to answer such questions, however unsatisfactory his answers may be. This truncation of the mourning ritual, facilitated by the sonnet’s strict formal boundaries, allows Owen to increase the distance between himself, a poet possessing firsthand experience of war’s carnage, and the larger mourning community, whose voices he pointedly excludes from the communal act of mourning.

The exclusionary nature of Owen’s mourning becomes even more apparent when we examine the revisions he made during the poem’s composition. This sonnet underwent six complete drafts, and the changes Owen made to the first two lines alone reveal the extent to which he consciously manipulates the perceived distance between himself and his readers. As John Stephens and Ruth Waterhouse point out in a 1987 essay on Owen’s revisions, his original draft referred to the youth of the title as “these” in line 1. In the second, third, and fourth drafts, however, the third-person “these” becomes the second-person “you.” The first line of these intermediate drafts reads, “What passing bells for you who die in herds” (emphasis mine). The alteration betrays Owen’s ambivalence toward his own elegizing and his struggle to distance himself as a surviving poet from the object of loss.

More significantly, though, the change back to “these” in the final draft reveals a return to the poem’s original mode of address; in other words, the poem is no longer addressed to the dead and dying soldiers but rather to a nameless spectator. In this sense, Owen’s use of “these” in the first line functions in a manner both similar to and notably differing from the “this” in a posthumous fragmentary poem by Keats that has become, for the literary theorist Jonathan Culler, a touchstone for how lyric poetry “baldly asserts what is false” yet nonetheless incites us as readers to see it as “really present and perpetually held towards us through the poem”:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

Like Keats, who repeatedly makes use of this device to reinforce the illusion that we can actually see the “living hand” (“here it is– / I hold it towards you”), Owen seems to transport us to the site of slaughter so that we might see for ourselves “these who die as cattle.” But unlike Keats, who is heavily invested in his own illusion and wants us, as Culler argues, to believe that we can actually see the hand, Owen quickly dispels the poetic fantasy that we as readers can displace the temporal and spatial boundaries preventing us from viewing the trench lines in France or the bodies so often entombed in unmarked graves. Instead, Owen makes us aware of the illusion by extending, in the succeeding lines, the distance that the first line’s “these” so neatly closes. We see this most clearly in the draft changes of line 2, in which Owen’s phrasing oscillated between “our guns” in the first draft and “the guns” in the final revision. This move, as Stephens and Waterhouse note, “works in the opposite direction, to reduce the immediacy at this point by dissociating speaker and reader from the guns.” After pointing us toward “these who die as cattle,” Owen immediately pulls us back. Instead of gesturing toward these guns here or those guns there, he wants us to imagine a “monstrous anger” emanating from “the guns.” Though it normally functions as a definite article, “the” becomes indeterminate in this context, as the uninitiated spectator on the front lines might appropriately ask, “Which guns?” Such indeterminacy in identifying the precise agent of death is an appropriate mimetic representation of dying in this particular war–the first in which a vast number of combatants were killed by weapons they could hear but not see.

In fact, the sounds that we perceive in the octave represent another means by which Owen distances us as readers from the deaths his poem laments. In the octave, the only human voices are that of the poet and the “hasty orisons” of those waiting to die, both of which seem at times to be overcome by the deafening, persistent sounds of the mechanically induced and often impersonal deaths of modern war. The only sounds of mourning derive from the weapons, which, in Owen’s hands, become strangely personified implements that grieve for the very deaths they cause. In this way, we might say, the weapons mimic the guilt Owen associates with his own elegiac performance, both (as Ramazani has suggested) in potentially profiting from those deaths as a published poet, and also in mourning the soldiers for whose deaths he often felt responsible. (A letter to Siegfried Sassoon dated 16 January 1917 indicates that Owen, like many combatant officers, suffered a classic case of “survivor’s guilt,” indulging the sadomasochistic impulse to believe that he caused deaths in circumstances over which he had no control.)

But the weapon sounds also serve another psychic need, enabling Owen to silence the civilian mourners, a group contaminated by guilt for their ostensible collective indifference to the soldiers’ suffering. Such gestures, which render civilian readers as dumb as those “who die as cattle,” show with particular clarity the critical fallacy of treating Owen’s “Sassoon-like” anger as a transitory phase in his poetic trajectory, and a close examination of his work from June 1917 until his death in 1918 reveals a persistent hostility toward civilians. Whatever answer they might supply to Owen’s question, the “monstrous anger of the guns” and “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” would drown out the civilians’ distant voices, just as these weapons “patter out” the more proximal prayers of the doomed and dying soldiers, thus denying consolation to both mourner and victim.

Even Owen’s depiction of the weapons’ sounds constitutes a subtle and sardonic means of distancing his civilian readers from this unusual act of mourning. The characterization of the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” is a wonderfully realistic mimesis of the proper technique one must use to effectively employ a machine gun. The falling rhythm of “stutter-” leads into the extra stress (in this line of eleven syllables) on the velar-nasal phoneme “-ing,” forcing the reader to pause slightly before resuming the trochaic rhythm in “rifles’” and then proceeding quickly into the more strongly stressed alliteration of “rapid rattle.” The aural effect of this choppy line resembles the technique machine gunners have been taught to use since the weapon’s invention: a short, controlled burst of fire (to confirm proper sighting and appropriate effects on the target), followed by a more rapid and sustained burst (to suppress, neutralize, or destroy the target). As soldiers learn early in their military training, if the duration of the burst is too long, the barrel can overheat, thus rendering the weapon inoperable. The momentary pauses allow the barrel to cool just long enough to prevent the dangerous expansion of gas that could result in the melting and distortion of the metal. Owen’s careful versification of this line faithfully replicates the proper operation of the machine it personifies–a feature of the poem that may remain obscured to a reader untrained in the employment of a belt-fed, water-cooled, fully automatic weapon.

If, as modern readers, we furthermore read the pun on “wailing shells” as an obvious one (the shells wail for the dead as part of the elegiac mourning party that Owen ironizes in this octave, but also make a literal “wailing” sound as they descend toward their target) and take it for granted that Owen’s “shrill, demented choirs” are the telltale sounds of incoming bombs or artillery shells, this is largely as a result of the ubiquitous black-and-white documentary footage of the amphibious landing operations and incessant bombing campaigns of World War II, with its largely accurate, though sometimes exaggerated Foley-sound reproductions. But for Owen’s original audience, reading his poems in this terrifying new age of industrialized warfare, the distinct whistling or wailing sound of incoming projectiles was relatively unknown, and would remain so to the majority of British civilians until the German Blitz on London in 1939. (The Zeppelin bombings of World War I were neither ubiquitous nor destructive enough to familiarize the majority of British civilians with the sound.)

If the poem’s first seven lines work to obstruct “our” experience of the mourning performance by denying the vision, eliminating the voice, and confounding all perception of war’s destructive sounds, the octave’s final line and the succeeding sestet seem, for many critics at least, to signal a shift in the sonnet’s tone away from irony to the more traditional consolatory function of elegy. Jon Silkin identifies Owen’s move here as one of the “weaker elements” that contaminate his poetry: a type of “saccharine pity” that he refers to as “the sad shires syndrome.” According to Silkin and others, Owen’s apparent acceptance of melancholic mourning as an adequate compensation for the war’s senseless destruction threatens to undermine the anti-consolatory ethic outlined in his preface. But if line 8 functions in its traditional role as the volta ( turn) from octave to sestet, then Silkin’s reading makes it less a subtle shift in tone than an outright course reversal, an abrupt about-face from an ironic to an empathetic mode of mourning. Ramazani, by contrast, perceives this discordant shift not as a weakness in Owen’s poetry but rather as part of his conscious subversion of elegiac practice. Like Silkin, Ramazani reads the sestet as consolatory in tone but suggests that it represents a deliberate choice on Owen’s part, in which he purposefully reverts to a “compensatory economy”–precisely so as to demonstrate its deficiency.

Ramazani’s, to my mind at least, is the more convincing reading. But we might, in fact, go farther and read the sestet as a continuation of the octave’s ironic rejection of elegiac solace. Paradoxically, Owen’s apparent capitulation to the redemptive claims of traditional mourning practices further attenuates the already strained relationship between combatant and civilian that we find in the octave. Like the octave’s overtly ironic subversion of the pathetic fallacy and its conspicuous exclusion of human voices, the sestet subtly ironizes the children’s mourning rituals and their thwarted attempts to attain solace in the absence of the material tokens of death. There are no “candles … to speed them all” to eternal repose, nor are there flowers with which to “strew the laureate hearse” as is the case for Milton’s beloved Lycidas. Rather, the absence of these outward symbols of bereavement reflects the peculiar nature of mortal loss and remembrance in this war, a conflict in which so many corpses remained unrecovered and often unburied.

The historian John Keegan estimates that at least half of the bodies of those who died on the Western Front were irretrievable. Even bodies that could be recovered (the ones not bloated and rotting in the middle of No-Man’s Land) often weren’t. As Paul Fussell notes, “Dead horses and dead men–and parts of both–were sometimes not buried for months and often simply became an element of parapets and trench walls.” As bodies faded into this ungenerative landscape, loved ones at home sought to restore traditional mourning rituals by any and all means available, to indemnify themselves from the social and psychological rupture of thwarted burial rites. Seeking some degree of finality and closure, one Anglican minister went so far as to suggest that an unidentified dead soldier be disinterred and reburied in a memorial “place of honour,” with the first such reburial occurring at Westminster Abbey on the second anniversary of the Armistice. This tradition gained traction in later years as both the French and the Americans created their own mausoleums of unidentified, disinterred, and reburied bodies and fragments. Such practices remind us how important it is to confront the materiality of death; we want to see it–the body, the casket, the gravestone–for ourselves. To do so is, on one level, to objectify the person, divested of humanity, as a mere thing and in doing so to assert our defiance of mortality by distancing ourselves from its outward manifestations. The construction of these non-anthropomorphic memorials, like the highly artificial tropes of Milton’s elegy for a body lost at sea, mark an attempt to thwart death’s ultimate negation of materiality. As the multinational popularity of these memorials demonstrates, a substituted body in the form of a mausoleum or cenotaph is better than no body at all because we simply cannot attain distance, or the consolation it promises, from something that we cannot see, perceive, or experience.

Or can we? In Owen’s poem, the mourning children’s pursuit of consolation in the absence of death’s visible manifestations hinges on their ability to attain this distance through an act of substitution. Like the burials and reburials occurring in villages and capitals across Europe, the mourners in the sestet procure their own memorial corpse for burial, albeit nonmaterial, conjuring it through an imaginative act of apotheosis. By eliminating the materiality of death in this poem, Owen allows the mourners–both the children of the sestet and his readers–to indulge a fantasy in which the dead soldiers become embodied in memory. But these memories do more than merely objectify the “doomed youth,” reifying the absent materiality of their deaths in “the holy glimmers of goodbyes,” “the pallor of girls’ brows,” and “the tenderness of patient minds.” In carrying out a memorial function infused with an overabundance of sentimentality and pathos, the mourning children do not merely turn dead soldiers into objects; rather, such mawkish sentimentality turns them–as Elizabeth Samet suggests in her recent article “Can an American Soldier Ever Die in Vain?”–into fetishized objects. As such, they become commoditized symbols of loss and sacrifice, devoid of any greater human context, that propagate that “old Lie” of Horace and their fathers: “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” And while these memories may appear to be more intimate than the material mourning rituals they replace, they ultimately position the dead soldiers at a far greater remove from the civilian mourners than we find in traditional funereal rites and elegiac practice. The memorializing process suggests, in fact, that these soldiers became objects long before their deaths. Dehumanized as “cattle” in death, they were little more in life than mere symbols, idealized anthropomorphisms of abstract and imprecise notions like duty, honor, sacrifice, and gallantry as depicted in the reductive readings of English public school boys. But this act of distancing–unlike the sort performed by the mourners in conventional elegiac performance–is not a victimless crime. The consolation that these mourners seek requires a sentimentality that obfuscates reason, and without reason there can be no meaningful examination of the true motives, costs, and outcomes of war.

Perhaps this is why Owen selected the sonnet, the most traditional of English poetic forms, to ironize such traditional and increasingly archaic modes of public grieving. As the critic Peter Howarth convincingly argues, Owen’s decision to attach the strangely inappropriate title “Anthem” to a fourteen-line poem indicates that he wished to give “this public, elegiac role to the sonnet to emphasize its littleness–and oddness–amid what should have been the huge cathedral ceremonies of national grief.” The reverse is also true: Owen wished to give this sonnet’s elegiac role to the public to emphasize the “littleness,” “oddness,” and absolute inadequacy of their grief. Such mourning, like true pity or a nation’s collective memory, is short-lived. In the poem’s final couplet, the apparently sincere, well-intentioned mourners seek to prolong the compensatory claims of their sentimental remembrance, replacing “their flowers” with “the tenderness of patient minds.” But even as this penultimate line extends beyond the pentameter’s constraining boundaries, naively hoping to reverse the gradual recession of memory and its redemptive promise, the poem concludes as it began: refusing to yield to the false sentiment and artifice of generic convention. Owen’s mourners remain blind to the paradoxical logic which insists that “peace would do wrong to our undying dead,” just as they remain blind to the fact that the doomed youth were un-living long before they were actually dead–murdered by an objectification that places sentiment above reason. And just as “each slow dusk” brings about “a drawing-down of blinds,” so too does it hasten the recession of memory and any hope of consolation it may portend.

If, like so many of Owen’s poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is less ambivalent in its tone than many critics have supposed, it is perhaps worth thinking about why a poet whose work is so ostensibly accessible would exclude the majority of his readers for their perceived failure to apprehend the war’s realities. In one sense, of course, this is nothing new; as James Campbell has noted in an essay on the concept he calls “Combat Gnosticism” (1999), veterans of nearly every nation have long claimed access to a privileged and ineffable knowledge of war that remains hidden from those who have not experienced it directly. One need not look far to find evidence of this belief in the letters, memoirs, poems, and fiction written by veterans of World War I (and many wars since). In 1969, more than forty years after publishing his memoir A Subaltern’s War (1929), Charles Carrington composed what is perhaps the most direct expression of this exceptionalism: “We are still an initiate generation, possessing a secret that can never be communicated… . Twenty million of us, of whom perhaps 2,000,000 are still alive, shared the experience with one another but with no one else, and are what we are because, in that war, we were soldiers.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter this sentiment from a veteran of such a destructive war, one that merged the nationalism of the Napoleonic wars with the large-scale mechanization and production of the Industrial Revolution to generate an unprecedented capacity for killing. But how does this exceptionalism, which we find throughout the literature and correspondence of World War I veterans, give way to the exclusionary impulses of Owen’s non-consolatory elegies? How do we account for poems that exclude the very audience for whom they were presumably written? On one level, at least, this paradox is endemic to any elegy. That is, the elegist must always, to some degree, mediate between the genuine impulse to mourn a death and the guilt that inheres in producing an imaginative work that profits from that death. In this sense, the exclusion of Owen’s civilian readers is one way to mitigate the guilt he probably felt about writing poems that, as Ramazani notes, promised to gain from the loss of his fellow soldiers.

But some historians have suggested that the anger World War I veterans felt toward civilians was a product of the unprecedented conditions of that particular war. Citing a 1923 psychological study of trench warfare by W. M. Maxwell, Eric Leed, in his No Man’s Land, notes that “it was the frustration of aggression in war, due to the disappearance of the enemy and the necessities of entrenchment, which …, forced the combatant to turn his hostilities against ‘improper’ targets: officers, the staff, or the ‘home.’” This explanation is suggestive on a number of levels. Like the elegist who engages in an act of imaginative displacement, replacing the dead with an object of mourning to thwart the onset of melancholia, so, too, must the combatant direct his anger toward a proxy in the absence of an enemy that he can see. The targets of the displaced anger that Leed identifies share one common characteristic: with the exception of some of the officers, they all were physically removed, in varying degrees, from the fiercest fighting on the forward-most lines. This lack of proximity precluded them from sharing in the privileged knowledge of combat, and the anger that combatants felt toward them was often directly proportional to their distance from the front and the concomitant failure of knowledge that accompanied such distance.

Owen’s rejection of his civilian readers in “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and his expression of anger toward civilians elsewhere in his work was not a new sentiment in 1917, and echoes of it certainly remain in the minds of many who wage our current wars. More than 80 percent of the post-9/11 veterans surveyed in a recent Pew Research poll reported feeling disconnected from the broader public. It would be easy to attribute this alienation, and the resentment that sometimes results from it, to the unlikely similarities between the post-9/11 wars and World War I–namely, the absence of a persistently visible enemy and the temporal “entrenchment” inherent in seventeen years of continuous conflict–but to do so would be to ignore the more central and problematic issue. Like Owen’s anger toward, and exclusion of, his civilian readers, the ambivalence that emerges from our current generation of veterans seems, in many cases, to originate from the central paradox of “combat gnosticism”: that civilians do not have a knowledge which they cannot possess. Tautologies aside, this belief is problematic not only because it fetishizes trauma but also because it presumes a failure of imagination. As a veteran and recovering combat gnostic, I continue to subscribe to the belief that there are many aspects of combat (a word that is, as Paul Fussell notes, itself a kind of euphemism) that cannot be replicated beyond the narrow boundaries of this somewhat singular experience. But those boundaries do not–indeed, must not–obviate the function of imagination on both sides of the divide. It may just be the case that poetry, as a more than mimetic vehicle of imagination, can offer us the best hope of adequately representing the ineffable qualities of war.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Adam Keller is an active duty Army officer in the rank of major who previously taught first-year composition and literature in the department of English and Philosophy at the United States Military Academy. He is a graduate of West Point and holds a M.A. in English language and literature from Yale University.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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