A blog for Senior Project 1 about sonnets and trenches
Pro Patria Mori
Saturday, May 14, 2016
Plate from 'Poems by Wilfred Owen' by
So far, we've covered a number of poets with a variety of writing styles and
experiences of the Great War. One of the aspects of their poetry we haven't
covered is their technical expertise. For this post, our poet is incredibly
skilled in meaningfully structuring their poems.
Wilfred Owen was born March 18, 1893 near Oswestry, Shropshire to Thomas Owen
and Susan Shaw.
Owen's parents lived with Edward Shaw, Susan's father, in his comfortable,
spacious house. Susan's family had been affluent in her adolescence, but had
lost much of their wealth by now. When Edward passes in 1897, Owen's parents
sell the house and move to start a modest life in Birkenhead, Merseyside.
There's tension between Owen's parents, each feeling constrained by the
marriage. Thomas, a former seaman, limited to a boring, poor occupation of a
railway station master. Susan limited in pursuing academic and economic
ambitions. Owen was raised Anglican and a devout believer in his youth. Passing
the matriculation exam, but without honors, Owen was unsuccessful in obtaining
a scholarship to London University, the only way Owen could afford to attend.
Owen worked as a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading,
Oxfordshire. While at Dunsden, Owen assisted in the care of the poor and sick
in the parish and was able to attend some classes at University College,
Reading. Owen became disillusioned with the Church of England in it's failure
to care for the underprivileged. Two years later, Owen returned home due to a
respiratory infection from the damp, unheated room at the vicarage. At home,
Own's father encourages Owen to find steady work, yet Owen wants to pursue a
artistic career. Once Owen is recovered, he leaves to teach at the Berlitz
School of Languages and later tutor for a Catholic family in Bordeaux, France.
Nearly a year after Britain entered the war, Owen leaves France for England to
enlist into the British Army.
Siegfried Sassoon in uniform.
While fighting on the Western Front, Owen would experience a number of
traumatic experiences. Eventually, Owen will be diagnosed with neurasthenia
(shell shock) and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland.
At Craiglockhart, Owen would edit Hydra
, the hospital journal, teach at
Tynecastle School, research for the Edinburgh Advocates Library, and play in
the community orchestra. Owen meets fellow soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon,
who would encourage Owen to further indulge in writing poetry. Sassoon known at
this time for his letter Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration
and throwing his Military Cross in the river Mersey.
Rather than court-martial, Sassoon was found unfit for service, diagnosed with
neurasthenia, and sent to Craiglockhart. After their meeting, Owen would write
the majority of his poems. Owen's poetry would pull from his experiences in the
trenches, France, and the vicarage. One of the forms Owen was quite skilled in
writing was sonnets.
A sonnet is a fourteen lined poem that follows a specific structure and rhyme
An Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet has two parts, the eight lined octave and six
The octave introduces the conflict of the poem and follows a a b b a a b b
rhyme scheme. The sestet provides a comment or resolution to the octave
and has a variety of rhyme schemes. The volta (the turn, rhetorical shift, or
dramatic change) is the beginning of the sestet, coinciding with the change in
rhyme scheme and literary direction.
An English (Shakespearean) sonnet has four parts, three four lined quatrains
and a two lined couplet.
English sonnets follow a abab cdcd efef gg
rhyme scheme. The third
quatrain or couplet summarize the earlier quatrains and contain the volta,
offering a new view or dramatic twist.
In Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth
, we see theories from both Italian and
English sonnets. The poem is formatted into quatrains and a couplet, yet it's
also broken into an octave and a sestet. The first two quatrains in the octave
and couplet follow Shakespearean rhyme scheme. Yet, the third quatrain in the
sestet follows the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan octave. The octave introduces
the scene of soldiers dying amidst the chaotic conflict, and the sestet
concludes their story with their funeral service. The octave and sestet handle
death very differently, between the octave's "die as cattle" and the sestet's
honest morning. There's a stark contrast between the deafening noise in the
octave and the silence in the sestet. Yet, both are connected by similar rhyme
schemes and themes of a funeral. The third quatrain in the sestet referencing a
Petrarchan octave suggests that the sestet doesn't really conclude the
conflict. The funerals aren't going the conclude the war. That uneasiness leads
into the Shakespearean volta in the couplet focusing on a civilian scene,
the end of the day and closing the blinds. British civilians can retire to the
comfort of their homes and draw the blinds to the outside world. In one of
Owen's letters to his mother, there's a bitter tone towards to those “who might
relieve us and will not.”
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 goodbyes.
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.
Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise
Canal. The Armistice ending the war would be signed one week later, the same
day Owen's mother would be informed of her son's death. Owen was buried at the
Communal Cemetery in Ors, France.
From Owen's draft of the preface to a collection of war poems he hoped to
publish in 1919. It is also quoted in the Great War poets memorial in Poets'
Corner, Westminster Abbey:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.