To read Wilfred Owen as anything other than an English war poet might seem like sheer, anachronistic willfulness. Yet Owen’s generational self-understanding develops as a corollary to his assertion that “English poetry” is un-“fit” to speak of war. Owen makes that assertion outright; it’s the top priority of his Preface (at which my last post looks). The forms and allusive structures of the poems that follow the Preface serially and variously reassert English poetry's unfitness. Focused on how allusion contributes to Owen’s negotiation of generation and nation, this post reconsiders the strangely durable analogy of Wilfred Owen and John Keats.
It would be tough to overstate the strangeness, in the early-20th century, of an English poet’s aiming to speak for his generation, or as an unremarkable voice within a mass. It’s especially tough to overstate the strangeness with respect to a poet like Owen, who was so famously enamored with Romantic conceptions of the lyric self. To index that strangeness—that is, to encounter Owen’s generational voice as an innovation rather than as a given—the received Keats analogy provides a productive counterexample.
Edmund Blunden cemented the Keats-Owen analogy in his hagiographic 1931 memoir of Owen: “It is impossible to become deeply acquainted with Owen’s work,” Blunden mused, “and not to be haunted by comparisons between his genius and his premature death and the wonder and tragedy of his admired Keats” (147). Recent critics have reconfigured the likeness to illuminating effect. James Najarian, for example, notes that by Owen's time, the storied version of Keats as a poet “laden with a desire that can never be satisfied and whose object—Fanny [Brawne]—cannot be named” was well in place (21). Owen’s fascination with Keats, then, marks the war poet’s attempt to speak the love that dare not speak its name.
Still, press a bit harder on the received analogy of these poets of doomed youth and you realize that the singularity of Keats’s voice—his poetics of the distinctive “I” in an emotive moment that is at once in time and timeless—is at odds with Owen’s deliberate representativeness.
A brief comparison helps to flesh out this claim: Owen’s “Exposure” situates Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” in the anxious affective- and sound-world of the trenches. Keats’s beginning hardly needs quoting, but for good measure: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk” (1-2). My… my… I. “Exposure,” by contrast, begins:
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 … (1-3)
Our… us… we… our: the power of Owen’s allusion derives as much from his replacement of first-person singular pronouns with first-person plural pronouns as it does from his replacement of “drowsy numbness” and “hemlock” with the aching brains and shared anxiety of trench warfare. The small words (the pronouns) are the keywords here. With them, Owen turns the insomniac lyric premise into a collective experience.
Where Keats apostrophizes the nightingale, Owen’s “we” asks, of itself, in later half-line refrains: “What are we doing here?” (10) and “Is it that we are dying?” (25). In the trenches, the direct answer to such rhetorical questions is “yes, you are dying.” Owen’s lyric “I” speaks for an imagined generation whose entire, shared relationship to time is foreshortened by war. Put in a slightly different way, Owen’s “I” speaks for a generation whose awareness of itself as a generation is predicated on the lack of future, rather than on, d.o.b., national allegiance, or oppositional aesthetic project. This point aligns, I think, with Andrew Goldstone’s astute comment on my first post on Owen and the generational lyric "I." Just at the point when Pound and Eliot, in particular, were at such pains to age their personae (e.g., “I grow old, I grow old”) and to forge a mature generational stature or authority in their prose works, Owen insists on his youth as his defining characteristic and the characteristic that yokes his "I" to a non-national "we." (See Vincent Sherry [134-40] on Pound’s yoking of “decade” and “generation” in the years leading up to the publication of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in 1920).
Reading Owen as a latter-day Keats occludes Owen’s revision of the singular lyric “I” for a representative, young generational voice. The analogy is also, to borrow Owen’s adjective from the Preface, falsely “consolatory.” It makes Owen’s death make tragic sense; it turns the aching, confused, strained, angry “we” of Owen’s poetics into the familiar, wistful, and comparatively comforting sleepless “I” of Keats’s. Equation of early death caused by tuberculosis with early death caused by mechanized warfare is slippery, at best. Tuberculosis and war are tragedies both, but different in kind. Keats and Owen are English poets both, de facto. But different in kind. Owen turns English literary inheritance toward a collective, non-nationalized lyric experience. His “I,” as I will discuss further in my next post, becomes a strange “we.” A "we" that requires our attention.
Blunden, Edmund. "Memoir" (1931). In The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis, 147-80. New York: New Directions, 1965.
Najarian, James. "'Greater Love': Wilfred Owen, Keats, and a Tradition of Desire." Twentieth-Century Literature 47.1 (Spring 2001): 20-38.
Owen, Wilfred. "Exposure." In Collected Poems, 48-49.
Sherry, Vincent. The Great War and the Language of Modernism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.