Youth is wasted on the young. Except when it’s wasted for them—by, for example, war.
This is the first of a few posts stemming from Wilfred Owen’s Preface to His Projected Book of Poems (1918) and occasioned by a recent conference--Generation M: Resetting Modernist Time--at the University of Amsterdam. In Owen's Preface, the word "generation" is hardly a headliner. It should be. The trouble is that although generational rubrics, standards, and alignments are ubiquitous in literary study, we don’t tend to think of the word “generation” itself as a site for inquiry, as a problem. The “generation” seems given, innocuous, even appealingly democratic. But it is in fact a keyword in the Raymond Williams sense: a word about which we must develop “just that extra edge of consciousness” (24) as it does its work across disciplines and documents—including indelible statements of twentieth-century poetics.
In the case of Owen’s terse Preface, “indelible” might be a nicer way of saying “over-familiar.” The Preface is typically remembered for the words War, Poetry, and pity. Owen made sure of that. He asserts the importance of those words first by comparison. He tells us what his book of poems will not be about:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Owen may not be a modernist, but his Preface opens with one of the signature rhetorical gestures of modernism: the evacuation of meaning from grandiose, excessive, obfuscatory language. Here, however, the deflation of “glory” and “honor” was to precede poems that don’t exert modernist discipline. In Peter Howarth’s great phrase, Owen “load[s] every rift with gore” (188).
From comparison to capitalization: Owen inscribes the importance of War and Poetry by lifting portentous capitals from Honor and Glory giving them instead to War and Poetry: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry”—occupatio—and “My subject is war, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Driven as his Preface is by “nor,” “not,” and “no,” Owen here assigns markedly positive, unqualified value to pity, war, and poetry. It matters that for Owen “war” and “the pity of war” form a single “subject,” rather than two subjects. The event and the affect are not to be disentangled. War, poetry, pity. Done.
And yet. The Preface continues: “Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next.” Those sentences do at least three things: 1. They bespeak the poet’s confidence that his poems will be read in their own time and then continue to be read; 2. They accept the mutability of literary meanings and effects across time; 3. They adopt the unit of the generation to describe both the audience and the constituency of the lyric I that Owen’s poems forge.
Owen’s generational thinking recasts the lyric I, locating the import of his voice in its historical, experiential representativeness rather than in, say, its timeless singularity. Further, as the Preface moves from “English poetry” to “this generation,” it posits “this generation” as a new, alternate site for affiliation. Owen’s generational lyric I coalesces at least amid, and perhaps even against, a national one. His speaker is often more concerned to identify as young than he is to identify as English. In the next couple of (projected) posts, I’ll explore how Owen’s war poems bear out these claims, and what they illuminate about war and poetry in our own time.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Howarth, Peter. British Poetry in the Age of Modernism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.