Wilfred Owen, the finest English war poet, was born in Shropshire, the eldest son of a minor railway official and a refined, puritanical and possessive mother. He spent a commonplace and uneventful youth in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury, and between school and the army was lay assistant to a vicar in Reading, Berlitz teacher of English in Bordeaux and tutor to wealthy children in the Pyrenees.

In September 1914, still in France after the war broke out, Owen visited a military hospital that treated the wounded victims. In a kind of exorcism to see how much he and his correspondents could take, he wrote his younger brother: ‘I need not fear to see the creepiest operations. One poor devil had his shin-bone crushed by a gun-carriage wheel, and the doctor had to twist it about and push it like a piston to get out the pus. Another had a hole right through the knee …. Another had a head into which a ball had entered and come out again …. Sometimes the feet were covered with a brown, scaly, crust – dried blood. I deliberately tell you all this to educate you to the actualities of the war.’ Owen pathologically identified with these men and later carried photos of the mutilated and the dead – the visual confirmation of his poems and constant reminder of what he could never forget.

In a strikingly similar fashion Walt Whitman, during his time as a nurse in the American Civil War, dressed wounds and dealt directly with the worst horrors – with shell-shocked, wounded and dying men. Like Owen, more than half in love with easeful death, he developed a morbid interest in both bodies and body parts, in members both attached and severed. In his autobiographical Specimen Days (1882) Whitman carefully recorded the horrific details: ‘some [have] bullets through the breast – some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out …. I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for one horse’s cart.’

Owen, though morbid, was strongly influenced by Keats’s sensuous poetry. He dated a sonnet ‘On a Pilgrimage to Keats’s House’ and wrote a poem ‘On Seeing a Lock of Keats’s Hair.’ Like Keats, he died at the age of twenty-five. He published only four poems in his lifetime, and also feared (as Keats wrote) that his name would be ‘writ on water’ and he would disappear into obscurity. But the battlefield charred his senses and transformed Owen, as illness had transformed Keats. Forced into sudden maturity, he moved from a Keatsian richness to an ironic yet compassionate sympathy with human suffering, from stoicism to lamentation. In September-October 1917 his style evolved from the dreamy and derivative,

A thousand suppliants stand around thy throne,
Stricken with love for thee, O Poesy,
to the confident and characteristic,

Under the mud where long ago they fell
Mixed with the sour sharp odour of the shell.

At the end of 1916 Owen was sent to France as a young officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers and his attitude to war changed as dramatically as his poetry. On January 1st, 1917, before coming under fire, he naively wrote home, ‘There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France, and I am in perfect spirits. A tinge of excitement is about me, but excitement is always necessary to my happiness.’ Only a month later his views shifted radically. His description of the front matched the content of his new poems and he ended with a bitterly ironic comment on patriotic verse: ‘Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.’ By May his feelings had become more complex. He was thrilled by his own heroic bravado and, after observing the grim effects of battle, could still rejoice in his surprising survival: ‘There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly …. When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.’

On March 19th Owen suffered a serious concussion after crashing through a crater made by a bursting shell and banging his head while falling down a fifteen-foot well. A more serious wound – sustained a month later while he slept – and its psychological aftermath, compounded his physical injury and sent him into shell-shock. He wrote that ‘a big shell lit on the top of the bank, just two yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank.’ Just afterward, he was trapped for several days in a heavily shelled forward position with the blown up body parts of a fellow officer. ‘It was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives,’ he explained, ‘but it was living so long [with his comrade] … who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!’ The medical officer found Owen’s body shaky and tremulous, his memory confused and impaired, and sent him back to a hospital.

From June through to November 1917 Owen recovered in Craiglockhart hospital for nervous diseases, near Edinburgh – the most formative months of his life. The intense stress of war and mental shock, followed by a period of reflection under the kindly care of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and the inspiring influence of a fellow-patient, Siegfried Sassoon, propelled Owen’s rapid advance to self-revelation. Sassoon, who’d won the Military Cross and earned the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for his reckless behaviour, had been declared mentally ill and sent to Craiglockhart to save him from being shot for publicly opposing the war while serving in the army. In Siegfried’s Journey (1945) he recorded his rather condescending first impression of Owen: ‘my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry.’ Sassoon had written the same kind of brutal anti-war poetry that Owen himself was writing, and had the same inspiring effect as Verlaine had on Rimbaud. Sassoon encouraged Owen, edited his work and offered gratifying recognition. He helped Owen repair his shattered life, provided a living link to the English poetic tradition and confirmed his belief in the redeeming power of art.

In November, after their intense discussions, Owen gratefully acknowledged Sassoon’s influence and told him he was now ready to strike out on his own: ‘you have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.’ Noting his sudden artistic maturity, and his dual roles as patient and poet, Owen told his mother, ‘I am a sick man in hospital, by night; a poet, for quarter of an hour after breakfast …. I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it.’ In the summer and fall of 1917, as his molten feelings hardened into the iron truths of his greatest poems, he formulated his artistic credo: ‘I think every poem and every figure of speech should be a matter of experience …. My subject is War, and the pity of War.’

Sassoon, a pacifist who’d refused to fight, paradoxically urged Owen to return to battle for the sake of his poetry. After his discharge from Craiglockhart, Owen rejoined his regiment in England and arrived for his second campaign in France in September 1918. ‘I’m in hasty retreat towards the Front,’ he wrote Sassoon; and he told his brother, ‘I know I shall be killed. But it’s the only place that I can make my protest from.’ Only in combat could he speak for the silent wounded and the dead. ‘I came out in order to help these boys,’ he explained, ‘directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.’

In fact, Owen led them exceptionally well, and on October 1st, 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation noted that ‘he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun in an isolated position, [took scores of prisoners] and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.’ By then the great German offensives of the spring of 1918 had failed and the enemy had just withdrawn from the Château Thierry salient. On November 4th, a week before the armistice, Owen was killed by point-blank machine-gun fire while trying to get his men across the Sambre Canal in northeast France. In that battle and before dawn, four British soldiers won the Victoria Cross. Later that day the survivors made an unopposed crossing farther down the canal.

Owen wrote in direct opposition to the jingoistic, home-front poetry of Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling, and of Rupert Brooke, who memorably wrote, before dying of a fever in Greece: ‘If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.’ During the war the verse that had tried to justify the carnage in the name of patriotism was replaced by fierce new poems about the brutal reality of dying men and crushed corpses. Owen’s bleak, unflinching description of a gas attack in his best poem, ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’ overthrows the traditionally heroic attitude to war that had prevailed in poetry from Homer through the nineteenth century.

Two analogous works illuminate Owen’s poem. The visual equivalent is Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), which portrays a string of six beggar-like men in capes and hoods, staring upward with sightless eyes. They stumble through the bleak landscape, uneasily supported by their sticks, the second man tumbling over the first who’s fallen, as if wounded, into a ditch. The equivalents in Owen’s poem are the blind jingoists leading the blinded soldiers to their doom.

André Malraux’s great novel The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1943) describes how in World War One the Germans, horrified by the success of their gas attack when they personally confront their Russian victims on the eastern front, wearily carry the suffering enemy back to the healing safety of their own lines. Like Owen, Malraux writes of his hero, Vincent Berger, ‘What he liked about war was the masculine comradeship, the irrevocable commitments that courage imposes.’ Malraux’s emphasis is more heroic than ghastly. But both works describe the horrific details and show suffering relieved by pity and compassion.

Owen’s poem opens as a troop of exhausted, heavily laden soldiers, lit up by the enemy flares, trudge through the mud, away from the front and back to their distant refuge. Without boots, they limp on ‘blood-shod,’ suggesting both bloodshed and blood-soaked feet. Suddenly, they are surprised by the German 5.9-inch-bore artillery shells, carrying canisters of chlorine or phosgene gas. One soldier, who fails to get his gas mask on in time, flounders like a man in corrosive fire and lime, gasping, choking and drowning in the thick green vapour. The poem evokes all five senses. The men are blinded by the smoke and deafened by the explosions, they smell and taste the poison gas, and touch the victim as they fling him into the wagon.

The second half of the poem describes the physical effects of the gas on the writhing victim, a kind of tubercular hemorrhage that Owen compares to cancer and syphilitic cankers:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
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.

Addressing the civilian outsider, with false intimacy, as ‘My friend,’ Owen warns him not to publicize the bogus sentiments he’s been taught to admire in school nor use them to propel innocent victims into hopeless battle. Horace’s patriotic exhortation for Roman citizens to develop martial qualities and sacrifice themselves in war – ‘how sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country’ (‘Odes’, 3.2.13) – Owen demolishes with his bitter experience in war.


Plath (1932-63)

Sylvia Plath experienced three major crises in her life: the death of her father, a week after her eighth birthday, in November 1940; her suicide attempt in August 1953; the break-up of her marriage in the autumn of 1962. When told that her father had died, the child reacted as if the deity had committed a social gaffe and exclaimed, ‘I’ll never speak to God again!’ The rest of her life was a series of academic, literary, social, emotional and maternal triumphs. The daughter of a German entomology professor and an American-born child of Austrian immigrants who worked as a secretary and teacher, Plath grew up in an atmosphere of Germanic rigour and intellectual competition in the ultra-conventional suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Aurelia, her self-sacrificing but ghoulish mother, accompanied Sylvia on her honeymoon, witnessed the breakup of her marriage and urged her to get a divorce when Sylvia really wanted a reconciliation.

In March 1959 Plath was trying to come to terms with her psychic wound, typing psychological records at Massachusetts General Hospital, seeing her psychiatrist and auditing Robert Lowell’s poetry-writing course at Boston University. In this period of intense self-scrutiny she wrote ‘Electra on the Azalea Path,’ about a traumatic visit to her father’s grave, a poem that also contains a severe judgment of Electra on Aurelia Plath. Only after Plath had destroyed the qualities she shared with her mother, rejected Aurelia’s concepts of work, love, marriage, home and family, and exhausted her feelings of gratitude, could she finally express her hatred of her parents in the Ariel poems.

The epitome of the bright and sparkling American college girl of the Eisenhower fifties, Plath was a first-rate student, won a scholarship to Smith College and after her junior year was chosen as one of the twelve guest-editors of Mademoisellemagazine. Despite her considerable achievements, she became severely depressed and had a series of electro-convulsive shock treatments. In her pseudonymous novel The Bell Jar (1963), published two weeks before her death, she recalled the agonizing details and her sense of guilt: ‘something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whee-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled, through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant. I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.’

Plath, guilty about wishing that her sickly father was dead and hating her domineering and possessive mother, later realised that she had transferred her murderous impulses from her mother onto herself. The shock treatments, which intensified instead of relieving her depression, made her fear that she would end up in a mental asylum, permanently insane. In Wellesley, on August 24th, 1953, when she was twenty, she broke open a steel case and stole a bottle of forty sleeping pills. Carrying a glass of water and a blanket, she entered the crawl space in the basement, replaced the pile of wood that covered the opening and swallowed the pills. Three days later – while family and friends, Boy Scouts and police searched frantically for her – ‘Lady Lazarus,’ as she later called herself, came back to life. She banged her head on the rough rocks of the low cellar and instinctively called for help. Maggots ‘like sticky pearls’ had to be rubbed off her body when she left the crawl space. Her face was swollen with multicoloured bruises and her hair was clotted with dirt. She was successfully treated at McLean Hospital near Boston and – sexually sophisticated, voracious and dominant – redeemed herself with a series of therapeutic lovers.

Plath graduated from Smith and won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, where she seemed the crass caricature of an American girl, gushing effusively but revealing a hard, metallic brightness. When she first met the handsome and talented poet Ted Hughes, she bit him on the cheek till the blood ran down his face. In this primitive rite, which greatly appealed to him, she set out to shock, to mark him as her own and to demonstrate her passion in his flesh. Dedicated to poetry, she was convinced of Hughes’s genius and fiercely loyal to the man and his art.

She married him in June 1956, and they spent that summer in the Spanish fishing village of Benidorm, on the Mediterranean coast near Alicante. She taught at Smith (he hated America as much as she hated Spain) and was invited to the writers’ colony at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. They returned to live in London and Devon, and had two children. But her early treatment had not cured her problems and her mental health deteriorated. Suffused with self-pity, she flew into sudden rages, was intensely jealous and needed constant reassurance. Hughes, in a characteristic self-exculpatory mode, spoke of her ‘incandescent desperation’ and ‘death-ray quality,’ and aggressively confessed, ‘it was either her or me.’

The struggle between two artistic egos, the conflict between her literary career and maternal responsibilities, as well as Hughes’s endless temptations and his desire for freedom provoked his affair with Assia Wevill in the spring of 1962, after she’d visited their home in Devon with her Canadian poet-husband. Their marriage broke up after Hughes’s affair with Assia, and Plath retaliated by burning his precious manuscripts. As she told an old friend, ‘When you give your heart to somebody, you can’t take it back. If they don’t want it, it’s gone.’

Plath’s literary reputation is based on the poems written during the last few months of her life and published posthumously in her best book Ariel (1965). She bitterly resented her father’s death, her mother’s sacrifice, her husband’s success. His betrayal wounded her, and her suffering finally enabled her to express her deepest feelings in her poems. Hughes left their house in Devon in October 1962, and later wrote that after they began to live apart, every detail of their life ‘seemed to come into focus, and she started writing at top speed, producing twenty-six quite lengthy poems in that month.’ On December 2nd the flow stopped abruptly; and on January 28th, like a cataract narrowing at the ledge, she began to write again.

After moving back to London during the fiercest English winter in a century and being confined to the freezing flat with two small infants, she put her head into the oven and gassed herself on February 11th, 1963. Why did this beautiful and brilliant woman, with two small children and at the height of her powers, plunge into catastrophe and take her own life? The explanation includes many factors: her heredity, body chemistry, improper medication and the failure of her psychoanalysis. The strain of caring for two infants in a bleak flat in unusually harsh weather, as well as Hughes’s infidelity and her desire to punish him, all played a part. She suffered a lack of faith in her poetic powers and, most important, was severely depressed, feared she would go mad again and would have to endure more shock treatments. By killing herself, she turned her best material over to Hughes: her infants, her torments and her poems. She also left him with an intolerable burden of guilt and increased her literary reputation. He published far more of her work after her death than she had during her lifetime. As Anne Sexton bitterly remarked, Plath’s suicide was ‘a great career move.’

The autobiographical heroine of Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ doesn’t actually return from the dead: the analogy to the biblical Lazarus in John 11: 43-44 is inexact. But Plath describes her suicide attempts and does tell what it was like to come back from her close calls: ‘I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it.’ The paradox of the poem is that for Plath life itself is a kind of death, and she returns from near death in order to get dead once again. She defines suicide as an art, a calling, a religious vocation; she does it exceptionally well yet keeps failing. But these failures give her another chance to demonstrate her powers of self-destruction and self-revival. She’s thrilled by approaching the edge of extinction and drawing back just in time to avoid death.

The first of Plath’s three suicide attempts, one for each decade of her life, was a half-hearted effort at the age of ten to drown herself. This episode took place two years after her father’s death, which she interpreted as a self-willed and treacherous abandonment of his family. In her second attempt – after a nervous breakdown following her junior year at Smith – she took the overdose of sleeping pills. Conflating her own near-drowning with the death of the father in The Tempest– ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’ – she writes, in the poem that appeared posthumously in Ariel: ‘These are my hands … They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.’ In her third attempt, after the break-up of her marriage to Hughes, she tried to crash her car in Devon in August 1962. Her fourth try at suicide – by gas, as in the Nazi extermination camps – finally succeeded. She killed herself only three months after she wrote this poem and after her last rush of inspiration.

‘Lady Lazarus’ has a brilliant technique, complex theme, unique voice and desperate agony. Plath composed the poem in subtly rhymed triplets and in an eerily matter-of-fact tone. She repeats the key images of dismembered body parts: skin, foot, nose, eye, teeth, flesh, bone, face, heart, blood and hair, and the multivalent ‘charge,’ meaning the fee from the crowd that watches her perform (like Franz Kafka’s ‘Hunger Artist’) her suicide act, the vicarious thrill they get from observing her self-destruction and the current that shot through her body during her electro-convulsive shock treatments.

In the notorious, contentious and yet emotionally convincing ‘Lady Lazarus,’ the gentile Plath identifies with the Jewish victims of the Nazis and equates her suffering with theirs. Her psychological justification is that both her beloved-and-hated dead father and Hughes’s Jewish lover, Assia Wevill, were born in Germany. Alluding to Freud and her years of psychoanalysis, Plath links Herr Doktor, who conducted ghastly medical experiments in the extermination camps, with Herr Enemy, who saved her life when she wanted to die. Similarly, the apparent opposites of Herr God and Herr Lucifer, beyond good and evil, become one entity. Echoing Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ – ‘And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!’ – she assumes devilish red hair and threatens her adversaries. From the ashes of the crematorium she rises, like both Lazarus of the Old Testament and the Phoenix of Classical mythology, to cannibalize men as naturally as she breathes: ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware. / Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ With anguished intensity and ghastly images, ‘Lady Lazarus’ brilliantly expresses Plath’s pathological hatred of all her enemies, including everyone close to her: her oppressive parents, doctors, husband, rival in love and, most of all, herself.

The lives of these four poets confirmed Paul Valéry’s belief that ‘disorder is the condition of the mind’s fertility’ and Friedrich Nietzsche’s bold assertion that ‘one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star …. With my own blood I increased my own knowledge.’ Like Nietzschean heroes, they walked a tightrope above the abyss and tamed – if only for a precious moment – the chaos that raged within. After defining his aesthetic principles, nursing his tubercular brother and experiencing his love for Fanny Brawne, Keats discovered what he called ‘the true voice of feeling.’ Rimbaud’s flight from his mother and provincial life, arrival in Paris, and artistic and sexual encounter with Paul Verlaine inspired the spurt of poetry that ended while he was still in his teens. Owen’s traumatic combat experience, recovery in a mental hospital, encouragement from Siegfried Sassoon and return to the front – where a young officer’s life expectancy was only six weeks – inspired his surge of great poetry. Plath’s recurrent mental illness, suicide attempts and the breakdown of her disastrous marriage to Ted Hughes finally (as Auden wrote of Yeats) hurt her into poetry. All four poets (discussed in part one and two of this essay) were obsessed and fascinated by the threat of death. Everything in their lives led up to their intense creativity and everything afterwards led to their precipitous death.


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