Up All Night With Wilfred Owen

As I mentioned before, I love horror movies, but I also have an overactive imagination.  To say the least, this combination often leads to disaster.  Growing up my bedroom overlooked a ditch, and I was convinced that La Llorona was going to get me.  I can’t stand to leave my blinds open at night, because of all those horror movie scenes shot from the point of view of the killer looking into the victim’s house (I’m convinced that half of all the victims in slasher films would still be alive if they had good thick drapes).

Right after I graduated from high school, my grandparents had me house-sit for them.  Now mind you this was the house I had grew up in, and my mother and I had only moved out a few months before.  Still, it was a creepy house, and somehow having my old bedroom empty made it all the worse.  I sat in the den, the TV on to keep my imagination engaged on something other than the half-human monster I suspected was waiting outside for me to open the curtains.

After midnight, cable fails to entertain.  I was stuck between infomercials, bad reality TV, and some forgettable old movies.  I ended up watching Behind the LinesBehind the Lines is a fictionalized account of the time that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen spent in a military hospital.  At the time, I didn’t know who those two poets were.  I just started watching because I was interested in World War I (All’s Quiet on the Western Front was a very important text for me during my teens).

Wilfred Owen

At the end of the film, when the Doctor learns about the death of Wilfred Owen, the poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” is read:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, Behold!

A Ram! caught in a thicket by its horns,

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

As soon as I finished listening to this poem, I ran around trying to find a piece of paper and pen.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find them until I’d forgotten most of the poem.

This poem, I thought, was lost to me forever.  I didn’t know the name of the poet, the poem, or even the film.  Mind you this was before I really started reading poetry.  I felt that I should—I’d been writing it for years—but nothing I read caught my attention.  Yet when I’d finally heard a poem whose very words cut through me, reverberated from my head to my finger tips and toes, it was lost to film credits, only chance would allow me to find it again.

Or the fact that the channel that showed the film, replayed it two more times that night.  I always feel that when a television channel shows the same movie repeatedly that they are being cheap and lazy, but that night I was thankful to the television executives.  I watched the film again, pen and paper in hand, so that I could record a few lines of the poem, enabling me to find it with a quick internet search.

There are three poets that I consider responsible for getting me interested in the craft; Wilfred Owen is one.

Often poetry is presented as this elevated art that contains only the highest emotions, the best people, the most beautiful scenery, and the deepest thoughts.  It is something that only us mortals can aspire to, but never hope to, truly understand, which, as any one who has read a lot of poetry can tell you, is bullshit.  However, this poem was a revelation.  In the last two lines when Abram slew his son, I heard the anger and bitterness that Owen must have felt, that thousands of young men felt, as they were sent to die in a war they did not understand.  This poem wasn’t some grand denouncement by some figure of mythic proportions, but real anger that a flesh and blood man felt.  At that moment, I discovered that poems could be about ugly truths.

Take the poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which has one of the best descriptions of both the exhausted tedium and the sudden chaos of war:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

This poem does not relent, making sure that you understand the horror this moment holds.  Then Owen finish it with the lines “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”  The Latin lines are from Horace and mean “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  Owen is calling bullshit on the perception that war is honorable and beautiful.

When morning came, I left the house that I grew up in changed, not yet understanding that one small poem had changed the world, well mine at least.


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