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.
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.
Continue to explore Owen’s poetry with our analysis of his sonnet ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, our discussion of his ‘Arms and the Boy’, and our thoughts on his poem ‘Futility’.