Who is the happy Warrior?
Who is he
That every man in arms should wish to be?
asked William Wordsworth, knowing nothing of war but certain, nevertheless, of what the answer should be, while
Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold
replied Wilfred Owen a century and more later, knowing too much about war, nevertheless, to be altogether sure that he was right
No uncertainty in Shelley's mind when he wrote in his famous Defence of Poetry that the state of mind produced by delicate sensibility and enlarged imagination is at war with every base desire.
Which is fair enough except that Shelley had not been to war either. It was left to Owen to decide whether sensibility in war was a blessing or a curse.
Was he referring to INSENSIBILITY when he wrote from Ripon on 21 April 1918 to his cousin Leslie Gunston:
I have written, I think, two poems: one an Ode which, considering my tuneless tendencies, may be called dam (sic) good….
Tuneless tendencies might fit because the poem is not notable for its melodic harmonies. What rhythm it has is broken, the metre irregular as is its structure - 6 stanzas of 11,9,12,9,10,10 lines having irregular length. It is not a poem of any great beauty.
A remarkable feature, however, is the elaborate use of pararhymes. The poem is almost top heavy with them, and they effectively produce a downbeat feeling that recalls Mathew Arnold.
Stanza 1 opens with Owen apparently propounding his opinion that the fighting man is better off having no sympathetic imagination, ("fleers" = mocks).
Lines 4 & 5's horrifying image
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers
echoes a remark Owen made to his sister Mary in March 1918 -
They are dying again at Beaumont Hamel which already in 1916 was cobbled with skulls… (The German breakthrough of March 1918 when the British Army "had its back to the wall" being pushed back some 40 miles from St.Quentin to Villers Bretonneux.How easily then might an excess of imagination play havoc with men's nerves.
Lines 7 - 8 have
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets' tearful fooling:
The troops are those who matter, those same heroes of whom Owen tells us in his Preface, English Poetry "is not yet fit to speak"; the same men…