Curing Loneliness and Misery with the Power of Poetry
In “On My Songs”, Wilfred Owen gives us an intellectual insight into the emotion of loneliness through the eyes of a young man, newly thrown into the world out of the arms of his loving mother. Owen also tells us of his idolisation of the Romantic poets, and the power that poetry holds in curing people of their misery. Owen presents these ideas in a manner of ways such as by exploring diction, using sound and language devices, by manipulating structure and by using symbolism.
In the first Shakespearian quatrain, Owen talks about how these great poets are able to cure his sadness “as if they knew my woe”. By capitalising “Poets” in line 1, he shows just how highly he thinks of these men, and by using the word “unseen” it reveals to the readers that even though these poets are not here, they are still able to “ease” Owen’s despair, as though they are almost spiritual. The word “fashioned” brings up images of the immense skill needed to create such poems, and it again shows just how much Owen idolised these poets – in particular the Romantic ones such as Keats. The repetition of the word “many” in “many and many a time” can be physically interpreted as the countless times that Owen has read through these poets’ work, so much that they are now like a perpetual loop in his mind, much like a bible verse to a vicar.
In the second quatrain, Owen starts using the first person tense as he tells of how sometimes even these great works of art are not enough to quell his sorrow. By contrasting his “dumb tears” with the “language sweet as sobs” he creates an ironic and oxymoronic image of how his inarticulate tears are usually cured by this beautiful language. “Sweet as sobs” is also oxymoronic as it contrasts something happy with something that is usually more sombre. When Owen talks about the “hoards of thought”, he is implying that these poems are items to be treasured and kept forever. The words “nothing for me” and the hollow, echoing sound they contain go on to show the profound feeling of loss he endures when these works of art don’t have an effect on him. The break between lines 6 and 7 further reiterates this idea of desertion and abandonment. By repeating the word “throb”, and by personifying the poems, Owen again demonstrates the pain that he feels when these verses, that are usually so entwined with his soul, are completely out of sync with the beating of his heart. The caesura and end-stopped line 8 further illustrate the feeling of detachment and dislocation that Owen can sometimes feel.
After line 8 there is a volta, and Owen begins to instead talk about his “own weird reveries”. He talks about the “low croonings of a motherless child, in gloom” – the “oo” sounds serving to create an eerie and dark atmosphere while the “motherless child” is perhaps a manifestation of his greatest fear. Owen was very close to his mother, and so the symbol of a “motherless child” implies that there would be no love or sympathy in this child’s life, and indeed this child would have to “sing his frightened self to sleep”. This child serves as an object that Owen is able to project his feelings onto as he lies, stuck in the “Sick Room” that is the Dunsden Vicarage. In line 13, by “Dreading the Dark”, Owen is personifying the dark into a symbol of undefined fear – as everyone experiences different “Dark”. The following, “thou darest not illume” shows Owen using archaic language which further promotes the childish fears that are held when one is alone.
After the volta the poem also changes its structure to assist in emphasising the change in direction and topic. The poem goes from a standard Shakespearian sonnet to a more irregular Petrarchan sonnet with a rhyme scheme of EFEFFE. In the final 6 lines Owen is essentially trying to convince the reader that he too is proficient at writing poetry that can lighten people’s souls, and by playing with the structure and genre of the poem, he is trying to demonstrate that he is capable of doing just that. By using the word “thou” in line 12, he changes the person and begins to address the reader, in an attempt to sound more poetic. By using other archaic words such as “shouldst” and “darest” Owen again tries to compare himself to the great poets of old. In the final line, Owen hopes that his “voice may haply lend thee ease”. This line clearly shows Owen’s longing to be like the great Romantic poets. This line is also ironic – as Owen does finally become a great poet, however his “voice” becomes the voice of the Great War, and he ultimately loses his life before he is able to enjoy his fame.
“On My Songs” is a poem based around loneliness and misery, and the pathway to happiness that is poetry. By using diction, sounds, structure, repetition and personification amongst other techniques, Owen unifies his key ideas into a powerful, personal poem about how he felt when he was at Dunsden Vicarage, and how one day he hopes that his poetry will cure people of their “woes”, just as other poetry had done for him.
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