By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Kind Ghosts’ is not one of Wilfred Owen’s best-known war poems, but it deserves to be better-known. In just twelve lines, Owen (1893-1918) contrasts the sleepy attitude of Britain’s civilians with the sacrifice being made by countless British men in the theatre of war. Owen revised ‘The Kind Ghosts’ in July 1918, just a few months before his death in early November of that year. Before we proceed to an analysis of the poem, here’s a reminder of it:
The Kind Ghosts
She sleeps on soft, last breaths; but no ghost looms
Out of the stillness of her palace wall,
Her wall of boys on boys and dooms on dooms.
She dreams of golden gardens and sweet glooms,
Not marvelling why her roses never fall
Nor what red mouths were torn to make their blooms.
The shades keep down which well might roam her hall.
Quiet their blood lies in her crimson rooms
And she is not afraid of their footfall.
They move not from her tapestries, their pall,
Nor pace her terraces, their hecatombs,
Lest aught she be disturbed, or grieved at all.
Slightly unusually for Wilfred Owen, ‘The Kind Ghosts’ does not focus on life in the trenches or the harsh realities of war, but instead uses the fairy-tale image of the wealthy woman (a princess?) sleeping in her palace chamber, unaware that everything around her has been paid for with the blood of young men who have given their lives in wars to preserve the kingdom.
Who is this woman? It’s probable that Owen had Britannia, that female personification of the country of Britain, in mind. As the late Jon Stallworthy notes in The War Poems Of Wilfred Owen, Owen’s manuscripts have ‘Brittannia’ (sic) listed as possible titles for poems, and it’s likely that ‘The Kind Ghosts’ was a later title Owen decided on instead.
So, in summary: Owen describes this woman (probably a symbol for all people back home in Britain, not fighting in the war; this was mostly women, of course, since most men of fighting age were involved in combat) sleeping ‘on’ the ‘last breaths’ of those men who breathe their last (i.e. who die) to keep her safe.
But although her sweet, deep sleep is made possible by the deaths of men, their ghosts do not come through the walls of her palace chamber to disturb her.
Yet her wall has itself been made by ‘boys on boys and dooms on dooms’: in other words, the palace wall, the barrier that keeps her safe from the fighting going on outside, has been maintained by young men (‘boys’) dying, their bodies heaped on top of each other (‘boys on boys’ also suggests man-to-man combat, only these are barely men, many of them as young as sixteen or seventeen: compare Owen’s poem ‘Arms and the Boy’, which twists the famous Virgilian line ‘arms and the man’).
This woman’s dreams are peaceful and idyllic: of beautiful, romantic things: even her darker dreams (‘glooms’) are ‘sweet’. People at home have no knowledge of the nightmare reality of war.
She never stops and wonders what keeps the roses in her ‘golden gardens’ alive: roses are symbolically associated with England, and the plural ‘gardens’ suggests the many people all over England who don’t really grasp how their nation is being saved by the actions of those men who give their lives for their country, their ‘red mouths’ torn in combat, their blood watering the ground where the roses grow (compare the idea of the poppies growing up out of the fields of No Man’s Land).
‘The shades keep down what well might roam her hall’ is a clumsy line (clumsy for Owen, who elsewhere is frequently so startlingly adroit), but these ‘shades’ are the ‘kind ghosts’ the poem’s title alludes to: they keep at bay the horrors that might otherwise invade her house.
Their blood is everywhere, but it’s quiet, as if the ghosts of the men who died are too kind and considerate to disturb her sleep. If the creaking of the floorboards is a cliched harbinger of a ghost in a haunted house, this woman is not afraid of these ghosts’ footsteps. Indeed, she’s hardly aware that they’re there.
The tapestries on the woman’s walls are the funeral ‘pall’ of the dead soldiers, but they don’t jump out from behind them (another old trope from many a ghost story), nor do they walk along her terraces outside. They don’t want to disturb her, or worry her – the implication being that she would surely be ‘grieved’ to learn of the scale of human sacrifice that had been made to keep her safe.
Interestingly, Stallworthy observes in The War Poems Of Wilfred Owen, ‘hecatombs’ is possibly a mistake: Owen was confusing ‘hecatombs’ with ‘catacombs’. Given the context, the latter (meaning ‘tombs’) is more likely his meaning, although ‘hecatombs’ means ‘great public sacrifices’, so it’s obviously relevant to this war poem about men giving their lives so that Britain can continue in its staid, placid existence.
But the word ‘hecatombs’ clearly serves the equivalent function in its line to ‘pall’ in the previous line: if ‘pall’ means a funeral pall (compare Owen’s use of it in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’), then ‘hecatombs’ are presumably a place of burial.
‘The Kind Ghosts’ has a curious form: four stanzas, each of them comprising three lines (these are known as tercets). Owen uses just two rhymes throughout, with the first pair of tercets being inverted in the second pair, so that the poem rhymes aba aba and then bab bab. Owen keeps circling round these same two rhymes, giving the poem a tight, restricted air, echoing the closeness in the woman’s chamber as she is surrounded, without realising, by death.
I think “The shades keep down” is a bit of clever wordplay–it refers not only to the protection offered by the ghosts, but also the drawn shades of the woman’s chamber, keeping out the light.