Weep, For You May Touch Them Not

Anthony Van Dyck, "Pieta"

Memorial Day

It’s time to once again honor all soldiers killed in battle.  Perhaps no poet is better at helping us remember than Wilfred Owen, who lost his own life fighting in World War I.

In his poem “Greater Love,” Owen describes two deaths.  One is the physical death of soldiers, which is tragic enough.  But the other death is also heartbreaking: the death of innocence that occurs when people become intimately acquainted with war. Here’s the poem:

Greater Love

By Wilfred Owen

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care:
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,—
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,—
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear,
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.

The poem uses a strategy of ironic contrast akin to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”).  In this case, romantic love goes head to head with war and it loses.  Sweet and tender feelings are drowned out by a greater love.

“Greater love” is a reference to Jesus when he says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  Owen does not mean for this passage to be read as a celebration of Marine Corps-like solidarity, however.  Nor should we read it as saying that the love between soldiers goes deeper than that between a man and a woman.  Nor is it a description of homoerotic love.  These would all be romantic interpretations, and Owen is not out to romanticize war.

As I read it, “greater love” is the love of death, and it is greater because life-affirming love pales in comparison.

The film The Hurt Locker introduced many of us to the notion of “adrenaline junkies,” people who discover that civilian life (including their married lives) cannot provide the intense vividness of battle.  Once one has seen “the stained stones kissed by the English dead,” how can a woman’s lips (or man’s lips if you’re gay) ever measure up?  In war, kindness becomes vapid, eyes glaze over, ears stop up, and the heart hardens.

The last line is probably a reference to Jesus’ instructions to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) on Easter morning: “Do not touch me [or cling to me] for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus is calling us to open ourselves to a greater love than physical contact.

But the crucifixion in Owen’s poem, the cross trailed “through flame and hail,” is about death, not about a love that transcends death.  If we weep for these men but cannot touch them, it is because they have moved beyond human feeling.  We weep because, even if they are still alive, we have lost them.

When I told my father, a World War II veteran who served in France and Germany as an interpreter, that I would be posting on “Greater Love,” he said that he can’t read the poem because the final line always makes him cry.  That made me realize that Owen is not only writing about non-soldiers.  Owen is mourner as well as soldier, weeping for his own scarring over.

“Greater Love” teaches us how to observe Memorial Day. To explain how, I first turn to a memorable passage in the introduction of Owen’s posthumously published collection:

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. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful

Owen will not allow us to turn war into poetry.  We cannot say (to quote the title of another Owen poem) that it is sweet and fitting–“dulce et decorum est”–to die for one’s country.  If we do, we will have failed to acknowledge war’s pity.

Owen is not here to console but to warn.  It is our job, on this Memorial Day, to face up to the hideousness of war and to do everything in our power to ensure that future men and women do not fall under the spell of this greater love.  If we fail to make an effort, their deaths will have been in vain.

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  • Insightful and thoughtful. Owen’s poetry has always been a favorite of mine. Thanks for sharing!

  • Robin, this poem is brilliant, very creative. I am sorta speechless, because my eyes have never seen this kind of war, and this poem helps understand the lives of those, very very insightful, thank you, much appreciated, WS

    P.S, I posted a memorial sonnet I wrote entitled:
    With This Dance You Are My Country (sonnet)
    Salute to All


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