Monday, 17 March 2008

Wilfred Owen's birthday present

What to give a boy for his birthday is often a problem. Some men like the lawyer Atticus in the best-selling novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (memorably played in the classic film of the same title by Gregory Peck) will give a boy a gun. A gun turns a boy into a real man, a kind of super-hero figure, is the blunt message. But who can say where that first gun may lead a doomed youth?
Wilfred Owen, like 10,000,000 others, perished in the so-called 'war to end all wars'; killed in action, as the official saying goes. Tomorrow, March 18th, is his birthday. Owen, who refused to glorify war, was one of the leading poets in a position to speak about life, if you can call it that, in the trenches. His working motto was 'true poets must be truthful'.
P-i-R's grandfathers were both wounded but somehow survived the slaughter. Many of the young men who died in the rat infested trenches or 'going over the top' were in reality only boys. In one infamous battle 1,250,000 soldiers perished. 600,000 on one side and 650,000 on the other.
'Nothing New on the Western Front' is the original meaningful and poignant title of Erich Maria Remarque's book known in English as 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Why the difference? Why the mistranslation? A telling example of 'the fog of war' perhaps?

Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)


  1. powerful (and nice to remember)

  2. It's brilliant and I think also, as you say, powerful, even more so than some of his much quoted poems that you find in many anthologies.
    I think its strength lies in its brevity.


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