Apologia Pro Poemate Meo
This oddly named poem was in response to Robert Grave’s suggestion in a letter to Owen: “for God’s sake cheer up and write more optimistically – the war’s not ended yet but a poet should have a spirit above wars.”
So Owen writes of the rictus of death – the grinning humour of a skull, in juxtaposition to the relative joy of the ending of all feeling as an attack begins. He then compares the love of comradeship with the love “of fair lips”; comparing the latter’s ribbon that slips to the ruthless binding of barbed wire and metal stakes that characterises a well-installed low wire entanglement, the blood-dripping bandage “and webbing of the rifle-thong”.
And then he finishes with an image that many of us War Veterans recognise all too well; the timeless universe of swinging monochrome as a flare falls to earth underneath its parachute, from a sky that has no other purpose than to convey shells to their targets.
Like the whole of this poem, Owen’s last verse does not deserve any abridgement. He nails it….
I have attempted this summary only as a gentle encouragement for you all, please, to read the actual poem with as much care and attention as you can.
Apologia Pro Poemate Meo
I, too, saw God through mud –
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there –
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
I, too, have dropped off fear –
Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear
Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;
And witnessed exultation –
Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.
I have made fellowships –
Untold of happy lovers in old song.
For love is not the binding of fair lips
With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,
By Joy, whose ribbon slips, –
But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
Nevertheless, except you share
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,
You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.