Memorializing Our Lost Innocence

Memorial Day

To honor those soldiers who have been victimized by war, I am revisiting what I and many others consider to be literature’s greatest anti-war poem. Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is framed as a nightmarish hallucination where the speaker descends into “some profound dull tunnel”—it could be Dante’s Inferno but one thinks as well of the World War I trenches—and encounters the “enemy” he killed.

For me, the heart of the poem lies in its vision of wasted human potential. The speaker’s interlocutor talks of what could have been. As I look at television footage of Arlington National Cemetery, I see the “undone years, the hopelessness” that Owen talks about. When we are alive, we can imagine hunting the wildest beauty in the world and experiencing a hunger for something that, while it is always beyond our grasp, nevertheless gives our lives meaning. But we have to be alive. The omnipresence of death in World War I made Owens particularly aware of it.

The speaker hasn’t only killed another human being, however. He has killed something inside himself as well. He has become tainted by his jabbing and killing and from now on will live a diminished life. He will go forward being content with a spoiled world.

In that diminution I think of the way that the past two wars have desensitized Americans. We are no longer horrified by waterboarding or by how our drone missile attacks kill civilians. With all our advanced military technology we readily move with the swiftness of the tigress (what dread hands and what dread feet have forged it?), but this nothing more than a long trek from progress. “Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.”

The poem ends with discouragement, with depression, with utter fatigue: “Let us sleep now.” And yet perhaps we can hear, as Gatsby hears the tuning fork struck upon a star, Owen’s Wordsworthian vision of “truths that lie too deep for taint.”

Owen was 25 when he died at the very end of World War I. It is up to the living to honor his glimpse of something more.

Strange Meeting

By Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of the 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 fears 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 the 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 has 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 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 ..

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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