Literature

A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘1914’

‘1914’ is a poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). As the title suggests, it’s a poem about the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of the poem.

1914

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.

For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.

‘1914’ begins with a simple two-word statement: ‘War broke’. The colon enacts the breaking-out, the ominous overture to whatever is going to follow those two words (surely nothing good), just as 1914 was the overture to the horrific war that lay ahead. We get natural imagery co-opted to convey the bleakness of wartime: Winter, darkness. ‘Perishing’ has a sting in its tail: we talk metaphorically or idiomatically of ‘perishing cold’ in winter (just as we might talk of a ‘perishing thirst’ on a hot, dry day), but now ‘perishing’ has an all-too literal, truly deadly meaning.

Next, Owen gives us more nature-imagery: this time of a violent tornado whose epicentre or ‘eye’ is at Berlin, home of the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, Britain’s enemy in the war. If Berlin is the eye of the storm, then the storm itself has torn through other, more peaceful (or would-be peaceful) countries (‘Rending’ is perhaps suggested by the ‘torn’ in ‘tornado’). Progress has been put back by the war, both in a physical sense (jobs, building, and other activities have had to come to a halt for the war effort) and a moral sense (the barbarism of the war is putting supposedly civilised Europe back by centuries).

‘1914’ is an early sonnet, and occasionally it becomes clear that Owen is still mastering his craft. The clunky repetition of ‘Rending’ in ‘Rent’ later in the same line diminishes the effect, although the short, clipped sentences and frequent recourse to caesura (a pause mid-line, especially a heavy one marked by a full-stop) are utterly in keeping with the poem’s direct beginning.

A series of more traditional images conclude the octave (or eight-line section): the ‘wine’ of love is ‘thin’, because hate is more powerful than love at the moment. Poetry is plaintive, a wailing; there is little thought or feeling of any merit. The ‘grain’ that had been grown prior to the war now ‘rots’, because nobody is there to harvest it and bring it home. Of course, Owen is talking about metaphorical grain here: it’s as if all of the great thoughts and ideas people were having before the outbreak of the war must be left to die out, like grain left in the fields come autumn, because nobody can harvest it.

The sestet (or concluding six-line section) takes the long lens to human civilisation: if ancient Greece (with its pioneering ideas of democracy, art, philosophy, and much else besides) was the bright beginning of human achievement, the ‘Spring’ of civilisation, then the Roman empire that followed it was the ‘Summer’. Autumn arrived – in Owen’s own time – which was ‘rich’ with ‘increase’ because men of Owen’s time could benefit from the wisdom and legacy of both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, as well as more recent developments. But now, Winter arrives, with no rich ‘food’ for thought, no civilisation, art, or philosophy; the seeds that must be planted in the ground to make a new civilisation possible are the blood of men who have given their lives in the war. In order to crush the barbaric war and return Europe to civilisation, young men must give up their lives so peace can be restored.

‘1914’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, because it is divided into an octave (rhymed abbaabba) and a sestet (rhymed, in this case, cddcee). But Wilfred Owen was almost certainly the most technically gifted poet of the First World War, and he does some very interesting things with the rhymes here. Although we have none of the brilliantly uneasy pararhyme which we find in many of Owen’s greatest (and more famous) poems, we do find him using rhyme to original and meaningful effect.

To start with, ‘world’ and ‘whirled’ are not merely rhymes: they’re homophones, that is, words which sound the same but are spelt differently. In other words, the epicentre of the war in Berlin has ‘whirled’ out so far afield that it has engulfed the whole world. As with many of Owen’s classic examples of pararhyme, we are denied the satisfaction of proper rhyme: ‘whirled’ circles back on itself, or on its near-copy at least, ‘world’.

Sonnets usually have a ‘turn’ – what is sometimes called a volta, after the Italian term for it – and in a Petrarchan sonnet this turn or volta is usually found at the start of the ninth line, i.e. at the beginning of the sestet. The ‘turn’ signals a change in the direction of the poet’s thoughts, or argument. Although there is a slight shift at the beginning of the ninth line as Owen starts to consider the history of Europe, there is a more pronounced shift at the start of the penultimate line, as we come to the concluding rhyming couplet of ‘1914’. (The word ‘But’ is the giveaway.) English or Shakespearean sonnets conclude with a rhyming couplet, so Owen’s poem combines the Italian tradition with the English here – an apt piece of technical joinery given the poem’s meaning.

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