STRANGE MEETING was written in the spring or early summer of 1918 and stands in the forefront of Owen’s achievements. Siegfried Sassoon called it Owen’s passport to immortality. On the poet’s memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey is engraved the famous quotation: I am the enemy you killed, my friend which words continue to re-echo down the years.
Inspired probably by Sassoon’s “The Rear Guard” and based on an earlier draft of Owen’s “Earth’s Wheels”, STRANGE MEETING recounts a dramatic meeting between two dead soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of “the truth untold” and the need for the poet to proclaim that truth in the face of a world set to “trek from progress”. In the words of Owen’s famous Preface, “All a poet can do today is warn”.
The opening line beginning “It seemed that……” ushers into a dream-like world in which a meeting for the two protagonists is for us a meeting with ambiguity. “I knew we stood in hell,” says the first speaker. A strange meeting in an even stranger meeting place for what will become an act of grace. A strange meeting and an even stranger fate for ones who are war’s innocent victims.
Who is the first speaker? We might assume it is Owen himself, the first-person narrator, yet the second speaker is one who delivers the message-Owen’s message. There will be further ambiguities yet.
Structurally the poem comprises 44 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three irregular stanzas which do not correspond exactly with the poem’s natural constituents. The pararhymed couplets, as with the metre, are subject to minor variations.
In lines 1 – 3 Owen sets the scene. Holes, caverns, tunnels – these form a recurring image in his mind and find their way into the poems. “Titanic Wars” imply not just Owen’s war but conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale. At the outset we are made to realise that past and present interfuse as, later in the poem, will the future also. This is Owen reaching out to an altogether new dimension.
Lines 4 – 10. “Encumbered” by their uniform and kit but also they carry with them the burden of suffering. “Sleepers”. More ambiguity here, for although one man springs up and lifts his hands his smile is dead while others are “fast in thought or death…..” So often in this poem we find ourselves on the edge of certainty. The two men had already shared one terrible, intimate moment – the moment of killing. Now comes recognition. “Piteous” – not pitying of course but calling for pity which explains why ambiguity attaches to why the distressful hands are lifted.
Lines 11 – 13. Those “thousand pains” are the legacy of war inflicted in life not after-life. In this hell there is relief, “no blood”, “no guns thumped or….made moan”. War – hell. In what relation to each other do they stand?
Line 14. The narrator introduces their one-sided dialogue with a paradox – “strange friend”.
Lines 15 -29. Whereupon there ensues a homily on the true purpose of poetry. Whatever hopelessness of the “undone years” it is a purpose they both share.
Whatever hope is yours Was my life also; A shared purpose. A shared identity also? Is the doppelganger theory valid here? Yes or no the “hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world” corresponds to Owen’s high-sounding quest for beauty and truth which in former days he believed he had inherited from Keats and Shelley but which was really a substitute for thought and experiences he had not yet undergone. A continuation along these lines might have achieved something but not what was to be the core of his short life’s work: The pity of war, the pity distilled.
Distilled. The pure essence. Pity without any emotional by-products. Meanwhile the poet-prophet faces a probable future when a world shattered by war is accepted as the norm and endures a further regression into “this retreating world” – a frightening, and accurate, prediction of events.
Lines 30-39. Here the two strands – the aim and rationale of poetry and the predicted course of events come together in a movingly expressed blueprint for the cleansing of the human spirit. As poetry’s disciple Owen is able to claim the courage, mystery, wisdom, mastery to combat the march from progress and finally when the retreat can go no further, “when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels”, to bring life-giving water from “sweet wells” and reveal “truths that lie too deep for taint”. To this end, says Owen, I would have poured my spirit without stint.
Line 40 – 44. “My friend”. Such a contrast to the former bitterly ironic “my friend” of “Dulce et decorum est”. The conjunction of “enemy” and “friend” is another paradox but without a sense of jarring. This final section brings a change of tone with nothing high-flown but plain, mostly one-syllable language, the simplicity of fulfilment. Paradoxically again, blindness is lifted in the tunnel’s dark.
“I parried”, says the man killed. “As if to bless”, had said previously the man who killed him. STRANGE MEETING brings with it many entanglements that make a final judgement improbable, perhaps inappropriate.
Does “Let us sleep now…..” suggest a work unfinished? Maybe. At least the important message is clear, that mankind must seek reconciliation and “the truth untold” embrace pity and the greater love.
COMMENTARY 6-POETIC DEVICES
Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen deals with the atrocities of World War I. The poem was written sometime in 1918 and was published in 1919 after Owen’s death. The poem is narrated by a soldier who goes to the underworld to escape the hell of the battlefield and there he meets the enemy soldier he killed the day before.
This poem has been called as one of Owen’s “most haunting and complex war poems”.
Pararhyme or double consonance is a particular feature of the poetry of Wilfred Owen and also occurs throughout Strange Meeting- the whole poem is written in pararhyming couplets. For example: “And by his smile I knew that sullen hall, / By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.” The pararhyme here links key words and ideas, without detracting from the meaning and solemnity of the poem, as a full rhyme sometimes does. However, the failure of two similar words to rhyme and the obvious omission of a full rhyme creates a sense of discomfort and incompleteness. It is a discordant note that matches well to the disturbing mood of the poem.
COMMENTARY 5-A CRITICAL ANALYSIS
In an age of neo-imperialism based on power-politics, Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” is indeed significant. An analysis of the poem reveals how Owen overwrites the hollow romanticism and chivalry that war has been traditionally associated with it. He foregrounds the calamitous effects of the same. Though the war upheld lofty ideals, it was opposed to progressiveness and humanity in general. The poet transcreates a corporeal world, where the dead soldier comes in contact with a person he had killed the previous day underground. The narrowness of the tunnel signifies the narrowness of the situation. The speaker’s treading over the slumbering soldiers points to the neo-colonialist stance that has countries stepping over humanity and relegating principles to climb up the ladder.
The granite that rubbed against each other in the tunnel echoed the devastation of several titanic wars. The groining voice of the granite is also emblematic of protesting voices that are stifled. The speaker states an evocative line ” I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” The statement is a paradox semantically, but the unusual situation lends meaning to the same. It is indeed a strange meeting as death and life, enemy and friend, chaos and tranquility are juxtaposed into a single frame. There is also transference of identity between the killer and killed as they are united in moment of self-realisation. Also note how relationships alter within the span of a single day as the words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ are uttered in a single breath. The poet comprehends that they were in hell through the dead smile of the soldier that though existed at that point, lacked warmth. Though his hands are raised to bless, it is in vain and distressful to the beholder. They were now beyond the realm of blessings and curses. The morose hall now comes across as hell.
The face of the soldier was convulsed in pain though they were far removed from the horrors of the war. The speaker assures him that there is no cause for mourning save the years that have been wasted and the hopelessness; for it is hope that makes one live. They once shared the same aspirations and pursued the ‘wildest beauty in the world’ that lies not in tranquility(calm eyes) or embellishment(braided hair).It is that rare beauty that defies the ravages of Time, the universal destroyer. He now laments twice more than the grievance of the place itself as he could have lent significance and meaning to the others’ lives rather then indulge in the catastrophe of war. The speaker ascertains that his capacity to cry must end here, as he no longer deserves to grieve anymore as there is no more room for remorse. He could have instructed the people on the truth of War that was far from chivalrous. It only was regressive to humanity:
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Either men will be content over their respective victories or discontent and endeavor on yet another war. Here, ’blood boily’ would be spilt, where emotion and humankind would be wasted in vain. The coming wars would be as ferocious as the female tigress that is more dangerous than the male species. There will be no attempts at breaking ranks too; it would turn into a delirious affair. Nations would not turn to war for the sake of progress,but simply for the sake of it.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
The speaker wishes that were he alive,he would wash up the blood clogged in their wheels and wash them up from sweet water from the wells that would rejenuvate and replenish wounds, both physical and mental. Truth would be imparted to them that would cleanse their system. He would then infuse them with the spirit of humanity .
The line : Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.’ has biblical connotations. Before the First World War ,it was often believed that Christ sweat blood before his crucifixion. Compare this with the line found in the alternative version of the poem: ‘Even as One who bled where no wounds were.’ The capitalization in ‘One’ makes it obvious that the allusion is to Jesus Christ.
© Rukhaya MK 2012