Who is the happy Warrior?
Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
asked William Wordsworth, knowing nothing of war but certain, nevertheless, of what the answer should be, while
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold
replied Wilfred Owen a century and more later, knowing too much about war, nevertheless, to be altogether sure that he was right
No uncertainty in Shelley's mind when he wrote in his famous Defence of Poetry that the state of mind produced by delicate sensibility and enlarged imagination is at war with every base desire.
Which is fair enough except that Shelley had not been to war either. It was left to Owen to decide whether sensibility in war was a blessing or a curse.
Was he referring to INSENSIBILITY when he wrote from Ripon on 21 April 1918 to his cousin Leslie Gunston:
I have written, I think, two poems: one an Ode which, considering my tuneless tendencies, may be called dam (sic) good….
Tuneless tendencies might fit because the poem is not notable for its melodic harmonies. What rhythm it has is broken, the metre irregular as is its structure - 6 stanzas of 11,9,12,9,10,10 lines having irregular length. It is not a poem of any great beauty.
A remarkable feature, however, is the elaborate use of pararhymes. The poem is almost top heavy with them, and they effectively produce a downbeat feeling that recalls Mathew Arnold.
Stanza 1 opens with Owen apparently propounding his opinion that the fighting man is better off having no sympathetic imagination, ("fleers" = mocks).
Lines 4 & 5's horrifying image
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers
echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 -
They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls… (The German breakthrough of March 1918 when the British Army "had its back to the wall" being pushed back some 40 miles from St.Quentin to Villers Bretonneux. - See Owen web site Lancs. Fusiliers at Hawthorn Redoubt and Edmund Blunden web site for views of Beaumont Hamel.)
How easily then might an excess of imagination play havoc with men's nerves.
Lines 7 - 8 have
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets' tearful fooling:
The troops are those who matter, those same heroes of whom Owen tells us in his Preface, English Poetry "is not yet fit to speak"; the same men who are thought of merely as " gaps for filling" (9), men "who might have fought longer" (10-11), bitter words that lead to an end-of-stanza dying fall like that in EXPOSURE ("But nothing happens")
……but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling (12)
Well, some do. For the rest,
The tease and doubt of shelling (15)
means the grim reality of wondering who'll cop it next. It's
Chance's strange arithmetic (16)
Not mathematical probability that operates here, yet even that
"comes simpler" (17) than gauging the final reckoning, for how can that be quantified?
The word "happy" crops up again. If to lose one's imagination (19) implies having had one in the first place, battle seems an unlikely occasion for its surrender. Owen suggests that with imagination "lost", physical burdens may be unavoidable but that the men's "spirit drags no pack" (21), that "having seen all things red" (23) spilled blood no longer has power to derange. Hearts remain unaffected, small-drawn" (27). Having seen men die "in some scorching cautery of battle" (28) minds are thenceforth immunised against further hauntings.
We may think, tell that to the Mental Cases.
The expression "soldier home" (31) must mean repatriate not one who has not gone out. How then can he be "with not a notion" of the business of war. Who is the lad "whose mind was never trained" (34)? Trained in what? In sensibility?
Now comes the turning point. So far it has all been about our Happy Warrior. Suddenly in mid-stanza pronouns change from "they" to "we" and Owen slips quietly into another gear. We don't sing, we "march taciturn". (37), we who are fully conscious of the dusk and
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night. (38-9),
we for whom insensibility is not an option.
Stanza 5 continues in the first person (we) (40-3) but then reverts to third (he, his). Seemingly Owen is arguing a dichotomy between us (the wise) whose thoughts of guilt
Blood over all our soul, (40-1)
and the insensible ones, "not vital overmuch" (44), not even "mortal overmuch". (45) not sad, proud, curious. In other words, not much anything really. If this comes from losing imagination it's hard to see where happiness comes in. Perhaps after all we should not see the two states as polarised. Does the clue come in lines 42-3?
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
How, asks Owen, can we poets do our job properly and rationally without curbing our imagination? Against this, without a measure of sensibility, mind and spirit die. So what's the solution?
In stanza 6 Owen seems to confute the arguments he started out with, that the soldier should abandon feeling in the interests of keeping sane.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling he'd written in stanza 1 while in stanza 6 we read
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns (50)
Can Owen have it both ways? Well, yes if we see the irony in that first quotation, see it not as advice but as a wry observation. The tone of the last stanza suggests that the kind of happiness achieved through suppressing feeling is achieved only at a price.
By choice they made themselves immune
we're told. So does he condemn them? No, for he understands why they choose thus. He's told us in (42-3) that the poet must look at these issues through the soldiers' eyes. Yet to discard pity or whatever hurts or gives cause for lament, to whatever shares "the eternal reciprocity of tears" (and I take the "whatever" to mean an entity or quality beyond ourselves) diminishes us all.
Whether "eternal" simply signifies "timeless" or as containing a spiritual dimension is up to us to decide.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox, 2000
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Those men who can rid their veins of warmth and who do not let compassion affect them before they die are happy. The front line breaks, and those men are fading troops, not flowers for poets to play with. They are barely men, merely "gaps for filling" and the numbers in the official losses. No one cares about them.
Some of them stop feeling any emotion, for themselves or for others. Dullness is the solution for the incessant shelling. It is easier to rely on chance rather than trying to figure out when the shells might fall. They do not even bother trying to assess the destruction of the armies in the war.
Those who no longer have an imagination are also happier; imagination is too heavy a weight when they have to carry their packs and ammunition around. Old wounds do not ache anymore. They are not even affected by the color of blood, having seen "all things red" in battle. The pulsing of terror is over. Their senses have been ironed and cauterized, and they are able to laugh even among the dying, completely unfeeling.
The soldier at home is happy, as he does not know about the dawn full of attacks. The boy whose mind was never trained is happy as he sings along the march. The march is long and dreary and unceasing, "from larger day to huger night".
Those wise soldiers cannot think how else to view their task. They are not overly necessary while alive, and are not valuable when they are dying. They are not sad or prideful or even curious. The speaker wonders how their attitudes are different from "old men's placidity".
However, these "dullards" are cursed as they stand like stones before cannons. They are wretched and base. It was their choice to make themselves immune to feeling and pity and the part of man that causes him to moan before the stars. They do not care about what mourns when men die, or what "shares / The eternal reciprocity of tears".
Written around April 1918, "Insensibility" is one of Owen's longest poems, and continues one of the major themes in his oeuvre – the psychological mechanisms that soldiers utilize to stomach their horrific situation. It features a broken rhythm and irregular meter. The stanzas are of unequal length, but Owen employs his famous pararhyme consistently throughout the poem.
In the first stanza Owen begins by saying that soldiers are happier when they can desensitize themselves to the war. Compassion is useless, and they certainly should not be looked at as rife with poetry or sentiment. The soldiers are barely men, in fact – just "gaps for filling" and the numbers that make up the losses. No one really cares about them. This belief, beautifully articulated by Owen, that the young soldiers are replaceable and less than human is present in the work of all of the great WWI poets. Of course, Owen's poetry seeks to refute those truths and to give dignity and worth to the young men so brutally ignored; he does "bother" with them.
In the second stanza he continues, saying that the young men do not care about themselves or about others anymore. They have dulled their senses and do not try to make heads or tails of their situation. It is easier to take things as they come, and they barely even pay attention to the course of the war. One of the common themes voiced in the recollections of WWI is just how utterly irrational it all seemed, and "Insensibility" gives voice to that assertion. In the third stanza Owen claims that these soldiers are better off without an imagination; no doubt it is simply too painful to consider life at home, or the possibilities for a normal life after the war. All of these emotions are simply extraneous and unnecessary; there is no point to colors like red, for they have "seen all things red", and they no longer feel anything like fear. Used in "Greater Love" to symbolize romance, here red can only mean blood. In one of the most disturbing images, the soldiers "laugh among the dying, unconcerned". There is no point in wasting one's tears on the dead, as they are too many to count.
In the fourth stanza the soldier who returns home is happy because he does not have to know more about the battles, and the soldier who never learned the value of emotion or feeling in the first place is happy as well. Suddenly, in the middle of this stanza, Owen switches to first person, using "we" to depict him and his fellow soldiers marching along solemnly and interminably. He speaks not of universal truth, but his own specifically as well. The days and nights meld into one long darkness and soldiers have little to alleviate their boredom and despair.
In the fifth stanza, the most complicated thus far, Owen seems to be contrasting people like himself, the "wise", the poets, who are not yet insensible to what is going on, with the soldiers who are not "sad, nor proud, / Nor curious at all". The question seems to be how a poet can be a poet and a soldier. If he becomes insensible to the war, how can he use his voice for a higher purpose? If he stays sensible, how can he psychologically deal with the sheer horror of it all?
In the last stanza Owen shifts his perspective a bit, saying that the insensible "dullards" are cursed and wretched. The happiness that the soldiers-turned-ciphers experience has been purchased at a high price, for they no longer have any understanding of humanity. Owen does not outright condemn these soldiers, understanding why they suppress their feelings as they do, but he feels a profound sadness at this lack of pity.