Wilfred Owen said of his poetry, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Pity is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering or misfortune of another.”
The poem is technically a sonnet. Eight lines lines are followed, with a change in focus, by six concluding lines. Owen, however, calls it an “Anthem”, with ironic intention. An anthem is normally either ‘a composition from scriptures or liturgy, set to music for church use’, or ‘a song adopted to express patriotism for national use’. This poem can be neither of these. It’s written to express the poet’s “tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering” of ‘doomed youth’ – the soldiers ‘who die as cattle”. The image is drawn from the art of butchery, with its associated blood and guts. It’s as if these young men have been specifically reared for slaughter.
The deaths of the very important may well be marked by ‘passing-bells’ rung from church steeples, ‘prayers’ offered by priests, and ‘mourning’ sung by choirs. In a battlefield context, these would be ‘mockeries’. The less important cattle about to be butchered wouldn’t even hear them. Bells, prayers and singing would be lost in the uproar of the ‘monstrous anger’ of the field guns, and ‘the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells’. The only grotesque substitute for the rattling-off of a prayer, would be the firing-off of a round of ‘stuttering’ rifle fire. Any ‘bugles calling for them from sad shires’, however well intentioned, would likewise never be heard.
The mention of ‘sad shires’ leads to a change in focus to ‘the folks back home’. How might they react to the dreaded ‘killed in action’ telegram? Altar boys might light candles, but the only shining likely to be seen by the soldiers would be the light reflected from tears ‘in their eyes’. There will be no coffins sent home, and so no need to cover any with a funeral ‘pall’. Instead, the ‘brows’ of bereft girls will be covered with the ‘pallor’ of trauma and grief. There’d be no point in sending ‘flowers’ into the mud and blood of the trenches. Those at home, must simply bear, with ‘patient minds’, the ‘tenderness‘ of pain and grief. A ‘drawing-down of blinds” would show their respect, but the equivalent for the soldiers can only be the drawing-down of each day’s ‘dusk‘ – a temporary break from each day’s nightmare.
Can patriotism be sufficient reason and justification for forced exposure to, and endurance of, such savagery? In another of his poems, describing the horrors of a gas attack, Owen protests at, “The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” How can the human equivalent of an abattoir on a colossal scale seriously and conceivably be described as ‘sweet and becoming’?
If religious terminology and rituals are utterly out-of-place and irrelevant in the hell of warfare, then how can church and state, shoulder to shoulder, join in a call to arms? What then does the church have to offer the soldier? In a poem about the return home of a legless, wheel-chaired soldier, whom no-one was in a hurry to engage with, “only a solemn man, who brought him fruits, thanked him, and then inquired about his soul.” Shame about your body, but how’s your soul?
The church’s relationship to the state, it seems to me, should be a ‘prophetic’ one, in the best traditions of the Hebrew Bible. It is there to ‘hold to account’ – to support only what is positive, constructive and life-giving, and to fearlessly and steadfastly oppose what is not. Arguably, the most ‘religious’ response to the unwanted, senseless savagery of warfare came from the men who, at Christmas 1914, called a brief halt to the hateful madness and recognised their enforced ‘enemies’ as fellow human beings.
There are those who bemoan the decline of religion, as measured in the disappearance of churches, and who tell us that, to avoid going to hell in a hand cart, the world needs more religious people. No it doesn’t! What it continually needs is more and more, good-and-decent people, religious or otherwise, who will stand up and be counted, when opposition to the unacceptable is called for.