On Veteran's Day, here are another couple of poems from the great World War I voice Wilfred Owen. I've mentioned Owen on this date before, along with his poem "Strange Meeting."
Wilfred Owen is the iconic WWI poet; there are other great poets from that war, such as Siegfried Sassoon. Owen was not recognized at the time of his death, in battle in WWI, but his reputation as a great war poet has grown ever since.
In 1962, Benjamin Britten included the texts of several of Owen's poems in his War Requiem, adding further resonance to Owen's legacy. The War Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England, which had been destroyed in World War II during a German firebombing raid. Britten, a lifelong pacifist, was given the freedom to do what he wished with the commission, and produced what many (myself included) feel is one of the greatest anti-war artworks of the 20th C. Perhaps of all time.
I have been to the restored Coventry Cathedral. I was there in 1978. I also climbed what's left of the belltower from the original 14th C. cathedral, one of the saddest ruins I have ever visited. I was visiting with the Michigan Men's Glee Club; we were on a European tour that summer. At many of the great cathedrals of Europe, when we were touring as a group, we often asked the local rector or deacon if we might sing in their beautiful spaces. And so we sang two spirituals in Coventry Cathedral. I remember working hard not to cry while performing "Deep River," one of my favorite spirituals. The cathedral was mostly empty, and the music rang through it—it is a "tuned" space, very beautiful but also designed for sound. There was a deep silence afterwards. We were all moved, and the deacon of the cathedral was effusive in his appreciation.
Coventry Cathedral to me symbolizes how we come back to life despite death, destruction, and all the horrors of war and its aftermath. It is a cathedral of Peace, one of those rare places that memorialize human peace, rather than human wars, scattered around the world. Most such places are made by local peoples, a small group or a single artisan; war memorials tend to be more famous than peace memorials; the latter are all magical places. Listening to Britten's 1963 recording of his War Requiem, it is easy for me to hear what the music must have sounded like at its premiere in the cathedral, and how it must have affected the audience. The ending of the closing "Libera Me" movement, with its dialogue for tenor and baritone acting out the two voices in Owen's "Strange Meeting," has always been particularly moving. The two soloists braid together the last line of the poem, saying it to each other, and to us, "Let us sleep now. . . ."
On this day, when we remember all of those have served in all of our various wars, I am reminded of how important it is to also remember the peace.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
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 glimmers of good-byes.
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.
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the truest poets must be truthful.
by Wilfred Owen
If it be very strange and sorrowful
To scent the first night-frost in autumntide;
If on the moaning eve when Summer died
Men shuddered, awed to hear her burial;
And if the dissolution of one rose
(Whereof the future holds unnumbered store)
Engender human tears, —ah! how much more
Sorrows and suffers be whose sense foreknows
The weakening and the withering of a love,
The dying of a love that had been dear!
Who feels upon a hand, but late love-warm,
A hardness of indifference, like a glove;
And in the dead calm of a voice may hear
The menace of a drear and mighty storm.