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The Age of Outrage
Poetics of Indignation

(Dis)figuring Rebellion: Wilfred Owen and the Legacy of Outrage

Vers une poétique de la révolte: Wilfrid Owen et la tradition du rejet
Catherine Lanone

Résumés

La première guerre mondiale constitue à l’évidence l’un des âges de l’outrage, outrage fait aux soldats dont la vie n’avait plus ni sens ni valeur, mais aussi quête stylistique visant à réinventer la poésie pour lui faire dire la violence du traumatisme et récuser la propagande officielle. Outil éthique et polémique, la poésie s’émancipait de la quête esthétique. À partir de la théorie du trauma et de la lecture de manuscrits, nous verrons comment Wilfred Owen, à travers la rencontre de figures de la rébellion (Tailhade, Sassoon) trouve sa propre voix pour amorcer sa contre-attaque poétique, d’abord dans le journal de Craiglockhart, The Hydra, puis dans des poèmes comme Dulce et Decorum Est et Exposure, qui répondent à la propagande selon deux modalités différentes de contre-interpellation, soit en peignant graphiquement la violence technologique, soit en scandant la paralysie, métaphore glacée de la blessure psychique autant que physique.

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1In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Judith Butler focuses on the circulation of official images in times of war, a circulation which is designed to control the ‘visual and narrative dimensions of war’ (Butler xi). As opposed to ‘state-sponsored’ icons and structures of interpellation, displays of personal grief tend to become political, as they disrupt ‘the order and hierarchy of political authority as well’ (Butler 39): ‘Open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage in the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss has enormous political potential’ (Butler 39). World War One poetry engages with official discourse, exposing technological warfare and the unbearable pressure which led to shell-shock (a term which, as Davoine and Gaudillière point out, implies ‘invisible brain lesions’, and was adopted because it ascribed physiological causes to mental break-down: ‘If the brain was materially disturbed, honor was saved; cowardice was not at issue’ [Davoine and Gaudillière 107]). Poets like Owen and Sassoon depict psychological as much as physical wounds. Whereas the bitterly ironic Sassoon tends to be automatically associated with outrage, we shall focus upon Wilfred Owen to see how he too engages with warmongers, but turns to the kind of outrage defined by Butler, to transform the display of grief into an ethics of care and an antithesis to the war. We shall first pay attention to the journal published at Craiglockhart, The Hydra, as a kind of threshold allowing Owen to work through Sassoon’s influence and find his voice as a temporary editor, before considering two emblematic poems, Dulce et Decorum Est and Exposure, as subversive expressions of grief and outrage.

  • 1 The Craiglockhart magazine, printed by Pillans & Wilson in Edinburgh, drew its name from the monste (...)
  • 2 See Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which plays upon the contrast between humane medicine at Cra (...)

2‘Many of us who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well’ (Owen 1917a, 7). This provocative sentence (which posits recovery as worse than shell-shock) opens the editorial of The Hydra’s issue published on the first of September, 1917. The ironic editorial was written by Wilfred Owen (who at the time was being treated for shell shock by Arthur Brock, and entrusted with The Hydra). Until the end of September 1917, Owen wrote editorials and edited six numbers of the Hydra.1 Craiglockhart was a hospital where shell-shocked patients were not deemed cowards or shirkers; they were treated with sympathy rather than with contempt and electric shocks, as was the case elsewhere.2 William H. Rivers, the ethnologist turned psychotherapist, relied on a kind of talking cure, whereas Arthur Brock paid little attention to dreams but was a great believer in ‘ergotherapy’ or work cure, and encouraged tennis and weaving baskets; part of the treatment was The Hydra, which actively encouraged men to write. Designed as a relief rather than a tribune, The Hydra puns on ‘Hydro’, the hospital’s previous name, to recall the nightmare of war, with its monstrous sequel of symptoms that seemed to endlessly grow back once forcefully cut off. The design of the cover tells the tale of those ‘men whose minds the Dead have ravished’ (Owen 1988, 77), the ‘purgatorial shadows’ (Owen 1988, 76) sitting in twilight, as Owen has it in Mental Cases.

  • 3 This is a theme which Barker explores in her trilogy, where Rivers is racked with guilt as he becom (...)

3The two covers of the magazine, the straight picture of the building and the drawing which replaced it in subsequent editions—representing a patient shattered by an explosion, upheld by nurses and facing the monster—, neatly suggest the tension between rebuilding and collapsing, so that one is not sure where the monster actually lurks—whether the monster is the trauma of shell-shock or the building itself designed to contain and rebuild in order to steer back to disintegration and the Front: ‘Many of us, who came to the Hydro slightly ill are now getting dangerously well.’ Recovery is more perilous than shell-shock (referred to as a slight illness), because it means having to go back.3

  • 4 This was the core of the short preface Owen wrote for his poems, on the twenty-third of September 1 (...)

4Owen’s sarcastic, uncharacteristic tone in the first-of-September editorial reveals the maieutic influence of Siegfried Sassoon. We tend to see Owen as a poet concerned mostly with the pity of war (he famously claimed that his topic was the pity of war, and that the poetry was in the pity)4 but there is a cutting edge to his poetry which twists compassion to express as bitter a resentment as Sassoon’s, though expressed more indirectly.

  • 5 Emile Zola was tried and forced to go into exile in 1898 to avoid jail; he was financially ruined; (...)
  • 6 Wilfred Owen was treated by Brock, Siegfried Sassoon by Rivers.

5Siegfried Sassoon is the emblematic figure of World War One who best embodies outrage. No wonder that Pat Barker should open her Regeneration Trilogy with his protest: ‘I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.’ (Sassoon in Barker, 3) This is a statement in the manner of Emile Zola’s J’accuse, addressing military authorities and the nation at large, engaging with the absurdity of slaughter. Like Zola’s, Sassoon’s words were potentially highly dangerous for himself.5 He was not court-martialled, however, but sent to Craiglockhart in July 1917, where he met both William Rivers, his avant-garde physician,6 and Wilfred Owen, an officer and a poet in search of a voice. And meeting Sassoon allowed him to find that voice. Whereas the editorial of the seventh of July of the magazine, for instance, presents itself as ‘prattling inconsequential padding’ and deals with kittens, the editorial of September First echoes Sassoon’s defiant stance, and his strategy of ironic debunking.

6But whereas Sassoon targets authorities, Owen’s bitterness is more consistently geared towards civilians. In his editorial, the fear of going back to war is juxtaposed with an anger which turns shell-shock into the shock of England’s indifference to the soldiers’ plight (later on in the editorial he describes civilians having a good time and laughing at Charlie Chaplin) and the war wounds are displaced by the pain caused by that indifference:

Already we are beginning to see ourselves crouching before T.N.T, N.G., and other High and mighty Explosives, of which the one known as C.O. is not the least formidable.
In this excellent concentration Camp we are now fast recovering from the shock of coming to England. For some of us were not a little wounded by the apparent indifference of the public and the press, not indeed to our precious selves, but to the unimagined durances of the fit fellows in the lines.
(Owen 1917 a, 7)

  • 7 The scene was recreated by Pat Barker in Regeneration.

7Note the defiant ‘excellent concentration camp’; liberated by Sassoon’s iconoclastic presence, Owen was learning to voice his sense of outrage. The famous manuscript versions of Anthem for Doomed Youth, show Sassoon’s corrections (Owen 1917b)7 and suggest how the two poets groped to give a sense to a meaningless war, crossing out, for instance, ‘the solemn anger’ ‘of our guns’ to use the more chilling ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’, giving up the logic of them and us, to paint a bleak, onomatopoeic picture of absurd death on a massive scale.

  • 8 Laurent Tailhade, À travers les grouins, Internet Archive, University of Toronto, www.archive.org/s (...)
  • 9 Presumably Owen was offended because Tailhade seemed more interested by in his body than his poetry (...)
  • 10 Gilles See Picq, Laurent Tailhade ou De la provocation considérée comme un art de vivre, Paris: Mai (...)

8One might contend, perhaps, that it actually took two encounters to tempt Owen to voice outrage. Though Sassoon prevails as mentor and catalyst, Owen’s previous experience in France may also be taken into account. Before the war, Wilfred Owen was a quiet young man, a keen admirer of Keats, who came to France in September 1913 to teach English in Bordeaux, in a Berlitz school of languages. But his most significant encounter in France took place not via Berlitz in Bordeaux but in Bagnères de Bigorre, where he came across an aging decadent poet, Laurent Tailhade. A friend of Verlaine’s who dabbled in aestheticised poetry, who had met Oscar Wilde and was ‘a regular attender at Mallarmé’s mardis’ (Hibberd 30), Tailhade was also a notorious anarchist (in words at least) who casually commented upon a terrorist attack against Parliament in 1893: ‘Qu’importent les victimes si le geste est beau? Qu’importe la mort des vagues humanités, si par elle, s’affirme l’individu?’ (Tailhade in Picq 341); this may have come too close to home when a year later Tailhade too was struck by a bomb in a restaurant and lost an eye. Above all, Tailhade was a passionate supporter of Zola’s J’accuse; he may not have had Zola’s powerful rhetoric, but he made up for this in gusto: he is quoted by Marc Angenot in La Parole pamphlétaire, for having targeted anti-Dreyfusard writers and journalists, like Drumont, Rochefort, Barrès, Pierre Loti and army supporters, in À travers les Grouins (a tale-telling title): ‘hideux et bêtes’, ‘L’air brutal et sournois/ Propre aux bourgeois’, ‘Les pattes meurtrières,/ Les sabres dégainés’.8 Tailhade was prepared to stand up for his beliefs: he fought several duels, for instance against the anti-semitic journalist d’Elissagaray in 1895 (he was wounded in the hand) and against Maurice Barrès in 1898 (he was seriously wounded in the arm). In 1893, he published an article which was read as a call to murder the tsar and he spent six months in jail. Owen met an aging Tailhade, who verged on military recantation as the war approached, a decadent aesthete who spoke of Verlaine and Flaubert, gave him La Tentation de Saint Antoine, fascinated him then repelled him when he made too obvious a pass at him.9 But it is hard to believe that, during the long evenings and walks together, the man who was considered to have turned provocation into a fine art10 did not mention the glorious days of ‘J’accuse’, introducing Owen to the French tradition of outrage.

  • 11 Sassoon’s poem Counter-Attack plays upon a drastic change of pace, portraying slowly early morning (...)

9Be that as it may, Owen’s own version of counter-interpellation was no anarchist flourish in the manner of Tailhade, and no official challenge in the manner of Sassoon’s political protest. Instead, he tapped into Sassoon’s poetic sense of outrage. His poems tend to be less sarcastic, but they too function as protests (a term he used to classify his poetry), and as poetic ‘counter-attacks’ to borrow one of Sassoon’s themes, which also functions as a poetic concept for him—poetry as a weapon.11

10In his editorial of the first of September 1917, Owen claims that he cannot bear to see newspaper jokes, yet strangely enough those were not absent from The Hydra. Of course The Hydra was a limited publication, but a publication it was, including poems and short stories and sports accounts—and like all other magazines, The Hydra also contains an advertising threshold, which offers shortbread at home and for the front, military watches and antique jewellery, everything for summer games at Thornton’s, and most interesting perhaps, an ad for boots which ran from June to August (the September issue reverts to a bland ad).

11Flaunting as a title ‘Boots!! Boots!! Boots!! Boots!!’, the ad explicitly refers to Kipling, but replaces Kipling’s dashes with the exclamation marks that peppered propaganda posters. Meant to be humorous, the exclamation marks are disquieting, and so is the pedestrian caption:

Kipling has a fine military poem about Boots, and it begins something like the headline of this advertisement. We haven’t the space to quote any more, we’ve just enough to say that for Boots and Shoes of Quality and Sound Construction you must visit the Professional & Civil Store (Scotland’s universal provider) . . .

  • 12 For Charles Allen, Kipling identified with the soldiers sent on forced marches for hundreds of mile (...)

12The preterition (‘just enough to say’) stands in contrast with the huge space devoted to the store’s name and address; the ad turns a blind eye on the poem, harping on boots and the store instead. Fair enough, perhaps, as far as ads go; but Kipling’s poem, besides mentioning boots, is one of the least jingoistic of his poems;12 the dashes spell the relentless march forward towards doom, in explicit hell:

We’re foot—slog—slog—slog—sloggin’ over Africa—
Foot—foot—foot—foot—sloggin’ over Africa—
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up and down again!)
There’s no discharge in the war !
. . .
Don’t—don’t—don’t—don’t—look at what's in front of you.
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again);
Men—men—men—men—men go mad with watchin’ ’em,
An’ there’s no discharge in the war !
. . .
Try—try—try—try—to think o’ something different—
Oh—my—God—keep—me from goin’ lunatic!
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again!)
There’s no discharge in the war ! (Kipling 490)

  • 13 ‘Car cette parole interpellative est en même temps une parole figée: au moment de m’atteindre, elle (...)

13This is the closest Kipling may come to a staccato version of an anthem for doomed youth. In The Hydra, the caption regarding ‘the fine military poem about Boots’ may be innocuous, but it does recall Barthes’s definition of imposture and myth, this ‘parole volée et rendue’, those words which are stolen and replaced with a slight, but significant, deviation.13 Besides, for today’s readers, the Hydra’s joke also brings to mind the end of Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and the function of boots as a metonymy, not of protection, but of severed tracks and shattered lives.

14As an editor, Owen would have been more than familiar with the ad; in his September editorial, this may be one of the things which he is referring to when he bitterly complains about civilian indifference, ‘dainty newspaper jokes about the men in the mud’ which he could not bear to see: ‘We would like to print more of this, but must first consult our Home Office Pocket Book, paragraph on ‘licences, poetic, officers for the abuse of’ (Owen 1917a). The figure of Jessie Pope, to whom poetic retaliation is specifically addressed, encapsulates not only her own poems but print culture, and the hydra of little white lies through jokes and ads which reverberate the one lie of patriotic duty.

  • 14 The dedication is crossed out and replaced by ‘To a certain Poetess’ in the following draft. Ultima (...)

15Outrage calls for counter-interpellation, to use Lecercle’s concept following Butler and Althusser. Begun in October 1917, Dulce et Decorum Est was part of what Owen called his poems of protest, as opposed to poems of grief like Anthem for Doomed Youth or Futility. Dulce et Decorum Est rewrites Kipling’s text as an exhausting march backward rather than forward, and the most significant things about boots is that they vanish, in this absurd trial of sacrificial suffering. An early draft dedicated ‘To Jessie Pope etc.’14 begins with ‘Hunched Bent, like old rag &bone man under sacks’: Owen is still looking for the right rhythm, searching for the ‘Bent double’, the biting opening that will replace ‘Hunched’, but the boots are there in the fifth line as a definite rhyme: ‘some had lost their boots’. Cursing through sludge, trudging, drunk with fatigue, those men are already ‘blood-shod’. The rhythm of military march reappears when the caesura falls into place (‘Men marched asleep’), but as a kind of hallucinatory parody, while the anaphoric hyperbole (‘All went lame; all blind’) breaks down progression, even before the sudden cry warning about gas:

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; (Owen 1988, 50)

16The slow relentless pounding rhythm writes back to Jessie Pope’s infamous vision of a game, not quite a picnic, but still a figure of fun, when in 1916 she revisioned her 1915 ‘Who’s for the trench’ in ‘Who’s for the game’:

Who’s for the game, the biggest that is played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight? . . .
Who knows it won’t be a picnic, not much,
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?15

  • 16 ‘Loin de favoriser l’équilibre des individus et de la société, les oxymores ainsi utilisés peuvent (...)

17Pope, here, relies upon the kind of ideological oxymoron defined by Bertrand Méheust in La Politique de l’oxymore: understatements loaded with ideology, displacing issues into their opposite, disguising symbolic violence,16 which in this case, entails negating mental and physical anguish, transmuting the unbearable into ‘fun’.

  • 17 Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 71.2 × 91.4 cm, London, Imperial War Mus (...)

18World War One art retaliates by appropriating oxymorons, as exemplified by Nash’s desperate view of dawn in the no man’s land, a barren parody of a landscape devoid of human figures, in a painting cheerfully bearing the sarcastic utopian caption, We Are Making a New World.17

19Owen too challenges the ethics of oxymoronic understatements. The drooping men threatened by dropping flares are broken female figures, hags rather than heroes, stumbling slow motion is sharply contrasted with the acceleration of the sudden cry, the hypallage of the ‘clumsy helmets’ (Owen 1988, 50). A powerful oxymoron transmutes desperate haste into a mock epiphany, ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ (Owen 1988, 50), one of the most powerful phrases ever coined. The quick spondaic cry enhanced by the capital letters, cuts through the quick of the poem, splitting before and after, with the sudden irrevocability of an event: ‘Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—’ (Owen 1988, 50) The desperate wish to protect connoted by the fatherly use of ‘boys’ is followed by deceptive relief (‘just in time’ [Owen 1988, 50]) and by the officer’s absolute helplessness as he is forced to witness disintegration. The ‘someone’ who is still out there, who is not fast enough, stands unnamed, already dehumanised, not quite alive, trapped in the liminal hell of ‘fire or lime’ (Owen 1988, 50). The [-ing] forms and the relentless use of ‘and’ suggest the duration of torture, running around in circles (‘yelling out and stumbling/ And flound’ring’ [Owen 1988, 50]) collapsing upon the metaphor which replaces comparison and turns the fire of hell into water, nine fathom deep, ‘drowning’ (‘As under a green sea, I saw him drowning’ [Owen 1988, 50]). One of the drafts reveals that Owen wisely deleted a stanza of transition depicting the falling gas shells and leading from the retreat to the effect of gas; deprived of this transition, the reader is made to share the sudden sense of shock splitting before and after, with the instant, irreversible shift from flight to decomposing flesh; the absence of transition creates a faultline, turns reading into affect, the logic of sensation which Deleuze sees in Bacon. This is enhanced by the ternary rhythm, ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ (Owen 1988, 50); here too the manuscript reveals the careful search for the right rhythmic and graphic effect, since Owen crosses out gargling, then gurgling, then goggling, finally settling for ‘guttering’, which achieves the stumbling, staccato sense of disintegration, ‘guttering, choking, drowning’. The shift in tense, from past to present, dramatises visual persistence in dreams, as well as the equation between vision and aggression (‘he plunges at me’).

  • 18 Martin suggests that ‘meet’ also bears a trace of ‘meter’: ‘The poem’s formal status, bent-double a (...)

20The poem ends with direct counter-interpellation, calling out to the oxymoronic ‘friend’, meaning enemy and propagandist, Jessie Pope and the likes of her: ‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace’; ‘And watch’; ‘If you could hear at every jolt’ (Owen 1988, 50). This reverses the rhetoric of propaganda, the stock phrase ‘where were you during the war’ into a pointed ‘look where you are speaking from’. The appeal to the senses reminds Pope (and thereby all readers) that they have not really seen or heard what they are made to grope at through words. We may read long enough, but it is not the same; we shall not be haunted by the recurrent dreams, the nightmares which Owen, like all Craiglockhart patients, was only too familiar with—each night he stayed up as late as he could to avoid going to bed. Faced with the hydra of recurrent dreams, it is not so much the gargling bile and blood which is ‘obscene’, but the ‘old Lie’ (Owen 1988, 51), the Latin quotation with all its weight as cultural capital. With the echo of Horace and cultural tradition, the poem comes full circle, as the last lines pick up and complete the title (for Martin, the poem too is ‘bent double’, composed of two sonnets which double back to suggest that poetic form both can and cannot recover from central trauma).18 The poem engages with demystification, hurling back the motto encapsulating the heroic tradition as a password for domination, manipulation, and a corruption that is worse than the corruption of blood and lungs—there can be nothing sweet and meet about that.

21Whereas Dulce et Decorum Est flaunts graphic detail of the horrors of technological warfare, Exposure reverts to antithesis. Frozen in lethal stillness, the No Man’s Land becomes an uncanny anti-space, while the refrain, a dwindling line which punctures each stanza with its blatant gap, adds layers of emptiness, as if this blank were a kind of textual snow adding layers of erasure, entrapping the men who have lost all identity and purpose, all hope of survival, and who have literally lost the battle, since it no longer takes place, yet the men are dying of cold. Exposure is a photograph of absurdity, it takes all night and day to freeze the frame, while the men are doubly exposed, to random shells and shooting, and to the lethal cold: in the final stanza the cleaning up party picks up the remains of those who have died of cold, of exposure.

22Exposure was begun in Scarborough in December 1917 and completed in France in September 1918. The draft of the opening stanza shows that Owen shifted from ‘star shells’ that ‘haunt’ the night to ‘drooping stars’ (Owen 1917d) before settling for the less lyrical, blinding ‘drooping flares’, in a line where confusion and paralysis flutter from ‘l’ to ‘m’; the other lines of that opening stanza are complete on the draft, but end with full stops that Owen later transformed into dots, adding a pause to the pararhyme that creates a jingling and jarring rhythm, a kind of lame soundscape, slightly out of step with music (‘knive us’/‘nervous’, ‘silent’/‘salient’):

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens. (Owen 1988, 61)

  • 19 ‘[La ponctuation] dessine alors la plasticité mouvante du temps’ (Sercià 277).

23Ellipsis petrifies time; the dots suspend awareness, points de suspension indeed; for Isabelle Sercià, punctuation enables a poet to create blanks, to capture and carve the passing of time within the text.19 Owen dilates time and textual space, the dots function like confusing syntactic signals to connote first the icy wind stabbing the men, then dim vision and unreadable space, where only memory may recall salient relief in the flattening glare of flares.

24In the third stanza, Owen also added the dots which did not appear in the draft, and dilate the break of dawn, adding to the piercing cold. Like Nash, Owen subverts the topos of dawn into puncturing emptiness (‘poignant misery’), as the personification blends weather and war, the dawn becoming both an allegory of war, launching her attack on the soldiers in ‘shivering ranks of grey’, an emotional oxymoron since both aggressive attacker and victim are shivering. The run-on lines weave duration; the iambic ‘We only know’ stumbles upon miserable spondees (‘war lasts, rain soaks’) and the sibilant, heavy ‘clouds sag stormy’:

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

  • 20 Owen’s With an Identity Disk, for instance, is a direct intertextual tribute to Keats’s When I Have (...)

25The use of sibilant echoes recalls Keats, Owen’s favourite poet before the war.20 Exposure is Owen’s Ode to a Nightingale in times of war, hovering between wake and sleep, as suffering turns into a semi-Keatsian trance:

Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?

  • 21 In a letter written before he enlisted and when he was still in France hesitating as to whether he (...)
  • 22 The contrast lies at the heart of another poem by Owen, Spring Offensive.

26The trance has shifted from ecstasy to lethal numbness. Fussell reads blossoms and birds as echoes reaching back to the romantic tradition, instances of literariness seeking to make sense of the meaningless present (Fussell 61), but the Keatsian echo goes deeper than this.21 The blind caress of snow-flakes fumbling on faces leads to hypnotic sleepiness (‘dazed’, ‘dozed’ and the Keatsian ‘drowse’) and plays on this oxymoronic tension which I believe is so specific of counter-interpellation—not only is the air filled with black snow (the bullets are ‘Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow’) but there is a metamorphic blending of winter and spring, snow, fingers and petals, blossoms and death22:

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.

  • 23 ‘Le tiret double est la trace tangible du mouvement de l’interpellation qui fait décoller la phrase (...)
  • 24 I am grateful to Catherine Pesso-Miquel for pointing this out.

27The spectral scenario turns mental return into defeat, as the fantasy refuses to allow the soldiers to re-enter their lives. The colons and semi-colons add up fragments of home which cannot cohere into a welcoming hearth; the relationship to the community has been altered, the pastoral (signified by the cricket) lies beyond reach. The repetition of closed (occupying both rhyme and symmetrical caesura) is enhanced by the hyperbole (‘all closed’), by the dash at the end of the line (both pause and leap for Sercià)23 and by the striking pararhyme, ‘glozed’, a portmanteau word combining glazed and closed, recalling ‘ghost’. In the draft, Owen had first opted for the bland ‘the fires have crystallised/ To crusted dark red jewels’ (Owen 1917d), then toyed with ‘low fires’ or ‘sink low’ before crossing it out and adding the sudden ‘glozed’, an opaque nugget which stands in contrast with the metaphoric embers turned into jewels, recalling both the ‘warm gules’ on Madeline’s breast in Keats’s enchanting chamber24 and the ‘crust’ of blood dried in wounds.

  • 25 Lacan defined this reversal of the gaze as an encounter with the Real, or tuché.

28As memory and near death turns the snow-covered soldiers into ghosts creeping back home to find the doors locked against them, it is not their hands and feet which hurt, but their brains, in the striking opening line ‘our brains ache’, which of course subverts Keats’s opening line in Ode to a Nightingale, ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense’, with the extraordinary ‘Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .’ The play on [s] and [z], the metaphor of the wind as bayonet and the coining of ‘knive’ as a verb, create a haunting sense of powerlessness, which again comes full circle in the end, when the burying party comes to pick up the shrivelled bodies gazing back at them, in a chilling exchange of gazes, again on the cutting edge of the unbearable, since the iced eyes are reversible and may belong to the burying-party as much as to the dead :25

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

29The paronomasia, eyes/ice, suggests that the rescue party or burial party, too, must be counted among the dead, or the living dead.

30Thus the poem shows Owen’s attempt, not only to counter war propaganda, but to give a narrative to traumatic war experience; and it seems to me that in a way, the poem functions as an account of one of Owen’s experiences of the horrors of war, not simply gas, being blown into the air and falling on corpses, or the fear of being drowned in mud, but also the deadly cold of winter; the icy numbness also functions as a metaphor of trauma, in the sense of Caruth and Levine. Caruth ends Unclaimed Experience with the image of frozen words, while for Levine being traumatised means being literally frozen with fear, and disconnected from nature, oneself or the other, stifling ‘the unfolding of being, strangling our attempts to move forward’: ‘Trauma is an internal straitjacket created when a devastating moment is frozen in time’.26 Whether they die or survive, Owen’s men in Exposure remain endlessly frozen in time.

  • 27 Isabelle Gérardin’s thesis explores Pat Barker’s engagement with the legacy of war narrative and Wo (...)

31In conclusion, Owen’s poems function like war photographs, seeking to make civilians see and grasp the reality of war, fighting what Isabelle Gérardin calls civilian blindness (‘l’incapacité totale des civils à pouvoir saisir d’une manière adéquate la réalité brusque de l’expérience guerrière’ [Gérardin 55]).27 Owen seeks to voice what Caruth calls the ‘unclaimed experience’ of historical catastrophe, in order to figure (and [dis]figure) war. Trauma must thus be located within language, which in turn entails the dislocation of poetic certainties; provocatively, Martin speaks of the ‘trauma of meter’, the awareness that metrical stability was impossible in the quagmire of war, and ‘shifting concepts of national identity’ (Martin 180). The poems’ drafts reveal Owen’s rhythmic search for sound and silence, and his attempt to use punctuation to tear through the readers’ safe prejudices. And the last word might be Owen’s last line in his September First editorial in The Hydra: ‘And The Hydra, the new voice from Craiglockhart, does not end at all, but is still going on’.

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Bibliographie

Allen, Charles, Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling 1865–1900 (2007), London: Abacus, 2008.

Angenot, Marc, La Parole pamphlétaire: Typologie des discours modernes, Paris: Payot, 1982.

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Butler, Judith, Frames of War, London/New York: Verso, 2010.

Crossman, A. M., ‘The Hydra, Captain A. J. Brock and the Treatment of Shell-Shock in Edinburgh’, The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh 33.2 (2003), 119–123.

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience, Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996.

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Gérardin, Isabelle, Réécriture de la mémoire de la Grande Guerre et hantise du passé dans la Regeneration Trilogy de Pat Barker, thèse de doctorat, université Paris Diderot—Paris 7, 2012.

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Martin, Meredith, The Rise and Fall of Meter, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012.

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Monteith, Sharon, Pat Barker, Tavistock: Northcote House, 2002.

Owen, Wilfred, ‘Editorial’, The Hydra, September first, 1917a, 7; The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford,
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Owen, Wilfred, Anthem for Doomed Youth, manuscripts, 1917b, The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/owen, last accessed on October 31, 2012.

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Picq, Gilles, Laurent Tailhade ou De la provocation considérée comme un art de vivre, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001.

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Notes

1 The Craiglockhart magazine, printed by Pillans & Wilson in Edinburgh, drew its name from the monster with multiple heads met in the Labours of Hercules. Crossman points out that the first version of the magazine ran from April to September 1917 (12 issues) and contained about 8 pages of advertisement out of 20 pages, whereas the second version ran from November 1917 to July 1818 (9 issues) and contained 14 pages of advertising out of about forty pages.

2 See Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which plays upon the contrast between humane medicine at Craiglockhart and violence in London. Rivers is one of the protagonists of the trilogy.

3 This is a theme which Barker explores in her trilogy, where Rivers is racked with guilt as he becomes aware that he must silence the symptoms of the patients’ outrage to do his duty: he successfully treats his patients (including Sassoon), acting both as doctor and surrogate father, but only in order to send them back to the slaughter.

4 This was the core of the short preface Owen wrote for his poems, on the twenty-third of September 1918: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity’ (Owen 1988, 81).

5 Emile Zola was tried and forced to go into exile in 1898 to avoid jail; he was financially ruined; he returned to Paris but died of carbon monoxide poisoning under suspicious circumstances in 1902. Siegfried Sassoon was well aware that his public outrage called for a court martial. Instead, to avoid scandal, he was sent to Craiglockhart and placed in Rivers’s care.

6 Wilfred Owen was treated by Brock, Siegfried Sassoon by Rivers.

7 The scene was recreated by Pat Barker in Regeneration.

8 Laurent Tailhade, À travers les grouins, Internet Archive, University of Toronto, www.archive.org/stream/traverslesgrouin00tail/traverslesgrouin00tail_djvu.txt, last accessed on 31 October 2012.

9 Presumably Owen was offended because Tailhade seemed more interested by in his body than his poetry (Hibberd 38).

10 Gilles See Picq, Laurent Tailhade ou De la provocation considérée comme un art de vivre, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2001.

11 Sassoon’s poem Counter-Attack plays upon a drastic change of pace, portraying slowly early morning in the trenches (‘dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes’) (Sassoon 129), then switching to the brutality of the order sending men over the top; the unnamed soldier, whom we followed leisurely, is now suddenly killed, an agony which goes unnoticed (‘then a bang/Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out/To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked’ [Sassoon 130]). Punctuation enhances the fragmentation of body and consciousness, but also the essential loneliness of that death. The bitter caesura turns the final line into a sarcastic poetic counter-attack, challenging orders and the absurdity of useless slaughter: ‘Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed’ (Sassoon 130).

12 For Charles Allen, Kipling identified with the soldiers sent on forced marches for hundreds of miles during the Boer war, all the more so since it revived his early impressions as a nineteen-year-old special correspondent in India, when, ‘exhausted to the point of collapse’, he had praised the perfection of boots marching past, only to find himself dreaming and hallucinating the next day: ‘phantasms of hundreds of legs moving together have stopped my sleep altogether’, he noted in his diary on the 7th of April (Kipling in Allen 184). For Allen this ‘relentless pace’ ‘was reanimated many years later in the mesmeric tramp-tramp-tramp’ (Allen 184) of his Boer War poem.

13 ‘Car cette parole interpellative est en même temps une parole figée: au moment de m’atteindre, elle se suspend, tourne sur elle même et rattrape une généralité: elle se transit, elle se blanchit, elle s’innocente’ (Barthes 190). ‘C’est que le mythe est une parole volée et rendue. Seulement la parole que l’on rapporte n’est plus tout à fait celle que l’on a dérobée: en la rapportant, on ne l’a pas exactement remise à sa place. C’est ce bref larcin, ce moment furtif d’un truquage, qui constitue l’aspect transi de la parole mythique’ (Barthes 191).

14 The dedication is crossed out and replaced by ‘To a certain Poetess’ in the following draft. Ultimately, Owen gave it up, but Jessie Pope remains implicitly identified as the ‘friend’ whom the poem engages with.

15 Jessie Pope, ‘Who’s For the Game’, www.poemhunter.com/poem/who-s-for-the-game/, last accessed on October 31, 2012.

16 ‘Loin de favoriser l’équilibre des individus et de la société, les oxymores ainsi utilisés peuvent alors favoriser la déstructuration des esprits, devenir des facteurs de pathologie et des outils de mensonge’ (Méheust 121).

17 Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918, Oil on Canvas, 71.2 × 91.4 cm, London, Imperial War Museum.

18 Martin suggests that ‘meet’ also bears a trace of ‘meter’: ‘The poem’s formal status, bent-double and attempting to recover from the trauma at its center, gives the reader an awareness of forms as both possible and impossible emblems of recovery and survival’ (Martin 175).

19 ‘[La ponctuation] dessine alors la plasticité mouvante du temps’ (Sercià 277).

20 Owen’s With an Identity Disk, for instance, is a direct intertextual tribute to Keats’s When I Have Fears that I Shall Cease to Be, the name on the soldiers’ identification plaque replacing the name writ in water.

21 In a letter written before he enlisted and when he was still in France hesitating as to whether he should return or not, Owen connects duty and his allegiance to Keats, stressing the vital sense of poetic filiation: ‘Do you know what would hold me together in a battlefield? The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!’ (Owen in Martin 152).

22 The contrast lies at the heart of another poem by Owen, Spring Offensive.

23 ‘Le tiret double est la trace tangible du mouvement de l’interpellation qui fait décoller la phrase . . . La phrase s’envole, quitte son point d’attache pour atterrir un peu plus loin dans le même tissu du texte cadre . . . Organisme vivant, la phrase est ainsi tronquée, allongée ou mutilée . . .’ (Sercià 180–181).

24 I am grateful to Catherine Pesso-Miquel for pointing this out.

25 Lacan defined this reversal of the gaze as an encounter with the Real, or tuché.

26 Peter Levine, ‘Trauma Resolution’, www.breathing.com/articles/trauma-resolution.htm, last accessed on October 31, 2012.

27 Isabelle Gérardin’s thesis explores Pat Barker’s engagement with the legacy of war narrative and World War One Poetry, and her use of ironic counterpoints like the partially anachronistic Prior.

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Référence électronique

Catherine Lanone, « (Dis)figuring Rebellion: Wilfred Owen and the Legacy of Outrage », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/583 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.583

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Auteur

Catherine Lanone

Université de Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle, PRISMES
Ancienne élève de l'École normale supérieure, Catherine Lanone est professeur à l'université de Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle. Elle est l'auteur de deux ouvrages consacrés à E. M. Forster et à Emily Brontë, et de nombreux articles sur, entre autres, Virginia Woolf et E. M. Forster.

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Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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