Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”

gas-masks
Lately, I have been listening to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a full-orchestra and multi-chorus work written to commemorate the reopening of the Coventry Cathedral which was built in the late 14th and early 15th century and obliterated during German air-raid bombing during World War II. Britten, a pacifist, put everything he had into the work, and Britten’s 1963 version of it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir stands out as one of the masterpieces of Western music in the 20th century. You should listen to it. Britten’s genius was to weave together nine of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems with the liturgical mass texts found in the traditional Requiem Masses of Mozart, Verdi, Bruckner, etc. The juxtaposition is striking: one lone voice vs. the choir rising and falling in waves. Owen, whose protest poems describe the horrors of trench warfare and the widespread use of chlorine and mustard gas, died on the battlefield in 1918. Most of his poems were discovered only after his death.

Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world…

Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is one of the last poems Britten used in his War Requiem. It appears toward the end of the mass, imagines a reconciling between foes. It’s a strange meeting and also a strange poem, understated yet powerfully stated in its simple message and argument. Perhaps it’s this lack of poetic — and humanistic — imagination that many of our current political leaders suffer from. The pity of war.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”

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