Analysis of Owen’s “Strange Meeting”

August 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” explores an extraordinary meeting between two enemy combatants in the midst of battle. Owen forgoes the familiar poetics of glory and honor associated with war and, instead, constructs a balance of graphic reality with compassion for the entrenched soldier. In fact, the poetic appeal of the text comes from pity and sympathy for the work’s characters rather than an inflated idea of the characters’ heroism. Owen accomplishes this appeal through both narrative and device. First, the narrative in the poem is built upon shared humanity, especially in the face of death, between the speaker and the stranger, evoking the reader’s sympathies for the young men. Second, consonance, semantic connotation, onomatopoeia, and tone subtly build an impression of the characters’ piteous situation.The poem begins with the protagonist, a soldier, moving into a tunnel to escape battle. He says, “It seemed that out of battle I escaped / Down some profound dull tunnel” (1-2). The tunnel is profound in that the realistic world above is now mute; in fact, the surreal quality of a subterranean world makes it only seem that he escapes out of battle. The tunnel itself is scooped through long-formed “granites” from previous “titanic wars,” reminding the reader of man’s unending timeline of war and helping to establish the epic quality of the poem (3). He continues, “Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, / Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred” (4-5). His separation from battle allows him a new perspective. Here, though feet from war, lie soldiers in transition to death. That they are too fast in death to be disturbed suggests that this is their proper place to be burdened by death, especially since it is far more peaceful to die in the dreamlike underground than in the battle raging above. After one soldier rises up to acknowledge him, the speaker remarks of the stranger: 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. (7-10)“Piteous recognition” suggests many meanings. As the soldier stares at the speaker, it may be that he recognizes the speaker (perhaps a sort of foreshadowing given the poem’s conclusion) and pities the speaker’s predicament because he, too, is caught in the war. It may be that the soldier’s “fixed eyes” are themselves pitiable, that they are glossed over with images of the fallen. Also, line eight contains several instances of the letter “s,” presenting a great deal of consonance. This consonance, given the context, evokes the sound of the dying soldiers’ shallow, troubled breaths. Combined with semantic interpretations of the line, we have both image and sound: the image of a distraught man acknowledging an unexpected face; the sound of the dying soldiers’ labored breathing.The speaker continues:With a thousand pains 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.” (11-4)The speaker’s use of “grained” carries particularly important connotations. First, we get the impression that the pains of war have, in a sense, removed this soldier’s identity; his face is simply a canvas of the pain he has endured. Further, one might think of a grainy, black and white, WWI-era photograph, one in which the faces of the individual men are nearly indiscernible. The speaker informs the stranger that he has no cause to look so bothered, given they are safe from the war above. Indeed, the onomatopoeia in the words “thumped” and “flues made moan” bring a degree of momentary reality (as much as can be afforded by recitation of the poem) to otherwise cold descriptions of battle.The stranger replies, “None […] save the undone years, / The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, / Was my life also” (15-7). The soldier argues that the real losses, the real cause to mourn, are the years spent on war and the years that will never come. In fact, he says, “save the undone years,” as though his words were a command. The last words of the soldier’s sentence, “the hopelessness,” are forced onto a new line; the pause that precedes and follows forces the word to linger on the reader’s mind, giving us a slight taste of this man’s desperation. Most important of all, the stranger invokes the common bond he and the speaker share. Both men had lives before the war; now, only the speaker’s hopes remain alive.The stranger continues: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. (26-9)In these lines, the stranger’s hopelessness discussed in the previous paragraph becomes mythologized. His feeling of despair is not isolated to his own personal condition. Rather, he despairs for all men, men numbed by the sights, sounds, and tragedies of war. In fact, he is fearful that people will be content with the ills of war, of the world’s beauty being spoiled. That the stranger invokes the image of the [T]igress (the river upon which man’s first great civilizations were built) suggests that this contentment toward spilled blood is historical, that the sensitivities of fighting men have been deafened by the wars of yesteryear. Worse, complacency with such offenses will only promise more conflicts as men refuse to challenge the historical precedents for war–or “break ranks”–even as their nations cease to prosper.In lines 30 to 39, the strange soldier considers how he, were he given life, might save humanity from its depravity:Courage was mine, and I had mystery, Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:To miss the march of this retreating worldInto 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 stintBut not through wounds; not on the cess of war.Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. (30-9)The courage to fight did not bring satisfaction. It only brought mystery–the mystery of never knowing the years of his later life, of never knowing peace and old age. Yet, in his death, he has wisdom. In fact, by invoking the notion of mastery, he seems to suggest that wisdom has taught him to ignore the drumbeats of courage in favor of peace, that wisdom has given him a mastery over the contentment toward war. He knows, now, that it is wisest to stave fighting, to “miss the march” into combat, the consonance of those words evocative of the stomps of parading, synchronized soldiers. Were he able to live, he would return to the weary combatants and wash their bloodied chariots, pouring into them truths and sympathies too lasting, too intrinsically human, to be tainted by the scourge of war. Indeed, it is not a physical wound the strange soldier seeks to heal. It is the wounded mind of man, its failing to refute the blood-letting, upon which his sympathies–his very “spirit”–shall be poured.In his final waking moments, the estranged soldier reveals his relation to the speaker:I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark: for so you frownedYesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.Let us sleep now. . . . (40-4)He identifies the speaker both as enemy and friend. It is a fitting juxtaposition, as it highlights the tragedy (perhaps absurdity) of their predicament–that they are enemies–while maintaining the integrity and intent of the text and informing the poem’s theme of shared humanity–that they are, after all, friends. These lines are markedly different from the rest of the text in their plainness. Most of the words are monosyllabic and, out of context, are rather straightforward. Yet, this simplicity enhances the lines’ effectiveness. There is a painful truth in its plainness, a reminder of the characters’ condition. The soldier even admits that he fought back, but his loath and cold hands prevented him from repelling off the speaker’s jabs. One is not tempted to label him a bard or some other silver-tongued hero. He is merely a man who did what he thought he must. In his plainness exists a canvas for us to see countless other men who fought and died in battle, and we wonder if they, too, gained a wisdom in death that came too late. The plainness of the lines also serves to deafen and shorten the prose, a reflection of how the strange soldier must sound as he succumbs to death.Finally, one must note the use of half-rhyme and broken meter present throughout the poem. Perhaps a simple rhyme scheme would be too easy for us. Maybe we are meant to view the lines’ scans with difficulty. Issues of war, life, and the value of our shared humanity are as difficult issues as any, and most certainly, it would not be decorous for us to read through such text with passing ease. Undoubtedly, a rhyme that is only half complete must further reinforce the “strangeness” and broken nature of our characters’ world. There is the world above–the chaotic, noisy expansiveness of the battlefield–and the world below–a quiet sanctuary–, where the soldiers find themselves. Thus, the two worlds are “broken” in that they are separate and “strange” in that their characteristics, though the places are so close in proximity, are wholly different. There is, of course, one piercing similarity in the two worlds: death. Only, in the world below, the soldier’s are given shelter enough to reflect upon their condition; they are afforded the chance to grasp at their newfound, death-borne wisdom. And it is in this world that the two men meet and see each other for who they are. As the strange soldier dies, he says, “Let us sleep now” (44). Though one might read this statement as a revelation that the protagonist, too, is dead, at least one conclusion is irrefutable. In the throws of war there is no you or I; there is only us. Both men are victims of war, and both wish to live to see tomorrow. The definitive strangeness and lesson of their meeting is that it is equitable.Works CitedOwen, Wilfred. “Strange Meeting.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 5th ed.Eds. Margaret Ferguson, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 891-2.

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