Poem of the week: Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen | Poetry


strange encounter

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
In a deep dull tunnel, dug long ago
Through granites that titanic wars had dug.

Yet there too encumbered sleepers moaned,
Too quick in thought or death to be restless.
Then, as I surveyed them, one of them stood up and looked
With pitiful gratitude in staring eyes,
Raising afflicted hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile I recognized that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile, I knew we were in hell.

With a thousand fears, the face of this vision was grainy;
Yet no blood reached it from the upper ground,
And no guns banged, or in the flues caused a moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “there is no need to cry.”
“None,” said another, “except lost years,
The despair. Whatever your hope
Was my life too; I went wild hunting
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Who is not calm in the eyes or braided hair,
But mocks the regular course of the hour,
And if he suffers, he suffers more than here.
For by my joy many men could have laughed,
And of my tears there was something left,
Who must die now. I want to tell the unsaid truth,
The pity of war, the pity of distilled war.
From now on, men will be content with what we have spoiled.
Or, displeasure, boil bloody and be knocked down.
They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations stray from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
Miss the march of this retreating world
In vain citadels which are not walled up.
Then, when much blood had clogged the wheels of their chariots,
I would go up and wash them from the sweet wells,
Even with truths too deep to be sullied.
I would have poured out my mind without hesitation
But not by wounds; not about the end of the war.
The men’s foreheads bled where there were no wounds.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this darkness: for you frowned
Yesterday through me as you stabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loathsome and cold.
Let’s sleep now…”

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The literary precursors to Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting (1918) have been widely studied. Dante and Shelley are two of the most easily identifiable. The contrasting registers seem, oddly and clumsily, to wage their own battle for the poem.

The tunnel that Owen’s protagonist finds himself in in the opening stanza leads him to a moaning dormitory he recognizes as hell. The expansive pace and perspective of these opening lines are not unworthy of Dante. The imagery – the “groin” tunnel and the hellish hall of sleepers and blocked hope – is completely, physically present, and at the same time symbolically dense: it seems to evoke the ossified body and mind of the war itself. The big graceless par-rhymes, though not dantesque, are beautifully deployed.

Owen’s speaker is not an intentional spiritual pilgrim, but a perplexed, dying or dead young soldier. His meeting with the soldier of the enemy “camp” leads to a beautifully discreet reconciliation. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” said that other soldier, and his brief explanation is all that is needed for their truce.

This same soldier speaks for a long time before revealing his identity. It is as if he represents the voice of the poet, proclaiming both the vision and the bitter understanding (and foresight?) that the vision can never be realized. His language is sharp, sometimes too sharp. Enter the romantic poets with Shelley.

Owen’s title, and some traces of the story, derive from Shelley’s epic romance, The Revolt of Islam. In the relevant passage, the narrator is recovering from unconsciousness caused by loss of blood. “And he whose spear had pierced me, leaned down beside / With quivering lips and moist eyes; and all / Seemed like brothers on a wide journey / Gone, whose now strange meeting has arrived / In a foreign land, around whoever they might call / Their friend, their leader, their father, for a try / From peril, which had saved them from slavery / From death, now suffering. So the vast array / Of these brotherly bands were reconciled that day.

One of the contributors to a discussion in the journal Connotations argues that lines beginning with “Now men will go settle” don’t make sense. These lines are certainly a shock to the expectations of the reader. The vision of compassionate power – perhaps the power of the poet to speak the truths of war to a world in moral retreat – becomes increasingly messianic. In the last verse, the earlier, more measured voice returns and is convincing again.

It has been argued that the poem is unfinished. Owen would surely have kept the last line thinly and deliberately unfinished, but it is possible he would have clarified elsewhere had he had time to prepare the poem for publication.

Richly influenced by earlier poets, was Strange Meeting in turn influential? Dylan Thomas admired Owen (“[a] poet of all times, of all places and of all wars”) and I believe that Strange Meeting could bear fruit in the great villanelle, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Although not a “poem of war”, its allegories of much disappointed ambition include, for example, “wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight / And learned, too late, they mourned him on his way” – recalling Owen’s lines “I went wild hunting / After the world’s wildest beauty”. The command of the second chorus line (“Rage, rage against the death of light”) could almost be the inversion of Owen’s “Let’s sleep now…”. Imperfect as it is, Strange Meeting resonates beyond the brief life of its creator, and one of its resurrections is Thomas’ perfect poem. There are words and visions that never sleep.


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