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A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’

A reading of a classic war poem

‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.

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. . . .’

‘Strange Meeting’ was written in early 1918. Owen got the title of his poem from Percy Shelley, whose The Revolt of Islam contains the lines

And one whose spear had pierced me, leaned beside,
With quivering lips and humid eyes;—and all
Seemed like some bothers on a journey wide
Gone forth, whom now strange meeting did befall
In a strange land.

Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ also takes place in a strange land, though here it is not in our own world but in the underworld, the afterlife – what the speaker of the poem identifies as Hell.

In summary, ‘Strange Meeting’ is narrated by a soldier who dies in battle and finds himself in Hell. There he meets a man whom he identifies as a ‘strange friend’. This other man tells the narrator that they both nurtured similar hopes and dreams, but they have both now died, unable to tell the living how piteous and hopeless war really is. This other soldier then reveals to the narrator that he is the enemy soldier whom the narrator killed in battle yesterday. He tells the narrator that they should sleep now and forget the past.

The rhyming couplet is associated in English verse with, among other things, the heroic couplets of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and many other ‘Augustan’ masters of the form. But the First World War, whilst it contained undeniable heroism, was not a heroic war: the mass slaughter of men on an industrial scale was something far removed from the romanticised battles of Homer’s Trojan War or Virgil’s account of Aeneas’ conquest of Rome. Heroic couplets are not appropriate for an unheroic war. But to highlight the fact that Owen’s war must be seen as the latest and most horrific in a long line of wars, his poem calls to mind the tradition of the heroic couplet but gives it a twist: instead of rhyme, his lines come in pairs of pararhyme – half-rhyme which denies us the satisfying ‘click’ of a proper, full rhyme. So we get escaped/scooped (rather than, say, escaped and gaped), groined/groaned (instead of groined and joined, for instance), and so on. The rhymes are near-misses that keep us on edge throughout the poem, echoing the strange setting of the poem and the troubling nature of the poem’s subject matter. The ‘rhyme’ comes from the similarities between the consonants rather than the vowel sounds.

Such a rhyme scheme also echoes the paradoxical nature of ‘Strange Meeting’. The pararhyme reinforces the paradox. The paradox is that the narrator of the poem escapes the hell of war to find himself in Hell; that he is confronted by an enemy whom he calls his ‘friend’; not only this, but he calls him ‘Strange friend’, oxymoronically combining the idea of the strange and the familiar, stranger and friend.

Note the use of the word ‘loath’ in the poem’s penultimate line: the enemy soldier says he ‘parried’ the narrator’s attack but ‘my hands were loath and cold’. If you’re loath to do something, you’re reluctant – the soldier already realises the commonalty between him and his supposed enemy, and doesn’t seem to have the heart to kill a fellow human being. Remember how, when this ‘enemy’ soldier had first recognised the narrator, Owen’s narrator had described him as ‘Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless’ – like a priest forgiving someone for his sins. All is forgiven. They have both given their lives, the ‘undone years’ of their prime, for a war whose pity the living they leave behind will not heed. All Owen can hope for is that those who read ‘Strange Meeting’ will heed it.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 9, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Brilliant! And presented at a time with we will remember, the 11th of the 11th day of the 11th month. Thank you!

  2. Aha! So it was Shelly that inspired Owen to write this bleak mini-epic.

    While it’s possible that the poem’s speaker is also dead, I had figured he was only asleep with a nightmare.The only difference in my (mis?)-reading is that, if the poem’s opening speaker is still alive, he has some obligation to tell the strange friend/enemy solider’s story and perhaps in some way convince others of the war’s horrors. And, if he’s alive, but in a night terror, that leaves the dead strange friend/enemy’s final words with a fine double meaning: I, the man you killed, absolve you, so pass out of your frenzied REM into peaceful sleep; OR stay in your nightmare here in hell with me where at least you’re out of the war. He could be biding the poem’s speaker to either kind of sleep.

    The litany of contempt in the second part of the second stanza for what the living will make of the soldier’s sacrifices is unequaled in any WWI war poem I’ve read so far. When I performed it I tried to find my version of a hip-hop flow to speak it–another form where the rhyming couplet is customary (grin). I don’t think I got enough of the bitterness in there however. Oh well, best attempts and all…

    https://frankhudson.org/2017/07/23/strange-meeting/

    • This is superb – thanks for the comment and link, Frank. I completely agree about the bitterness. One of the reasons I love ‘Strange Meeting’ is the delicate balance between bitterness over the war that led these two men to be enemies and the common humanity that shines through (the other soldier raising his hand ‘as if to bless’ and so on). I think you capture this very well in your performance.

  3. Reblogged this on Story and Self and commented:
    Wilfred Owen is a minor character in Oscar’s Ghost’s third act (a bit more minor than he would have been had I not had to tighten the book as much as I did). He was one of many artists supported, encouraged and promoted by Robert Baldwin Ross, Oscar Wilde’s champion and literary executor.

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ — Interesting Literature | Your Mind In Bloom, LLC 1-203-414-5176

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