I’ve written elsewhere on here about the role Owen’s poem Futility played in my decision to jettison study Geography, and to take up Eng Lit instead. Thanks to my wonderful A Level teacher, Mrs Jones, I was introduced to the idea that literature can reflect (and challenge) the concerns of its time. I knew the dates of the Great War – my time as a Brownie meant I’d marched through the village to the war memorial – but it was Owen’s poetry which made the historical real to me.
In a way, I’m glad it was Futility, and not the more anthologised Dulce et Decorum Est, that I came to first. It’s a more wistful poem, and the question, ‘Was it for this the clay grew tall…? carries all the futility we need. It was the first time I’d encountered a poem that switched voices, and I was fascinated by the blunt opening directive, ‘Move him into the sun –‘. It’s a simpler poem in some ways, but the big question it raises, ‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?’ had a real impact on me as a 17 year old.
Later, I taught Dulce et Decorum Est to many GCSE students, a poem coming out of Owen’s own experiences in 1917. It was often the first poem that surprised them with its level of graphic violence – they hadn’t thought that poetry might be able to create visceral imagery, as found in the lines, ‘If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs…’ and again we see Owen switching between voices, bringing in the desperate order, presumably from an officer, of ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!’ to show the chaos and fear of the battlefield.
A poem my students found deeply poignant was Disabled, which focuses on the loneliness of a badly maimed young man, back from the war and sitting alone, waiting for someone to ‘come / And put him into bed.’ I think it was the contrast between the brash confidence of the youth, who signed up ‘after football, when he’d drunk a peg’, and the lost figure sitting in the shadows at the end. Notably, Owen’s sense of the ‘lie’ being told in Dulce appears here in a form too: on enlisting, this young man ‘didn’t have to beg; / Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.’
I’ll have to confess that, as a younger teacher, I sometimes sighed at the idea of teaching the ‘same old’ texts – but, as we approach a hundred years since the armistice in 1918, and mark the fact that Owen died 100 years ago today, it strikes me more and more that it’s so important that the distance of time is bridged by these poems, and all the other literature produced by those who lived through the Great War, is being read by new generations.