Yesterday’s wood s lot presents a poem by Wilfred Owen, a sonnet titled “1914”:
War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.
For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.
It fascinates me because it shows so clearly the exhaustion of the poetic language of the nineteenth century. Owen is capable of powerful writing, but trapped as he is in the need to fit his feelings into the ta-tump-tee-tump, ABBA mold of his chosen form, he selects worn-out words like “rending” and creaky formulations like “rich with all increase” and inversions like “Is over all the width of Europe whirled” and “Now begin famines.” In between you can hear the faint voice of something new trying to get out: “Verse wails,” and “Love’s wine’s thin.” But he couldn’t break out of the box the Victorians had bequeathed him. This poem shows as clearly as anything I can think of the vital necessity of Pound’s revolution in verse, that allowed him to write, in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
That’s how you write poetry about World War One.
While we’re on the subject of war poetry, there’s some powerful Vietnam-era writing in this MetaFilter thread and its links.