Analysis of Poem "Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen and Strange Meeting
Strange Meeting is a poem about reconciliation. Two soldiers meet up in an imagined Hell, the first having killed the second in battle. Their moving dialogue is one of the most poignant in modern war poetry.
Wilfred Owen fought and died in WW1, being fatally wounded just a week before the war ended in May 1918. By all accounts he wanted to return to the front line, despite suffering from shell shock, to justify his art.
'I know I shall be killed,' he told his brother, 'but it's the only place I can make my protest from.'
Owen disliked the gentle, sentimental poetry that gave a distorted view of the war. He wrote many poems depicting the horror and helplessness; he wanted to capture the pity in his poetry.
The majority of the poem is a dialogue between the two soldiers, set in a dream-like environment that is in fact, Hell. Enemies in war, the two become reconciliated in the end.
Strange Meeting, the title taken from a poem of Shelley's, called Revolt of Islam, is full of metaphor and symbol. Religious allusions play a part too. Owen was very much torn in his faith but couldn't escape a strict religious upbringing. So biblical influences are to the fore in certain parts of the poem.
This letter from Owen to a friend in 1917 shows a little of what the poet was thinking:
'Christ is literally in no man's land. There men often hear his voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.'
Owen's poem contains a message of love and forgiveness. It was written at a time when hate and loathing were at their height, when a war on an unimaginable scale took the lives of millions of young men and women.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
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.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
Summary of Strange Meeting
Strange Meeting is a dramatic war poem with a difference. Almost all of the poem is set in an imagined landscape within the speaker's mind. And what dialogue there is comes mostly from the mouth of the second soldier, killed in action by the first. Owen broke with tradition, using pararhyme, enjambment and subtle syntax to cause unease within the form of the heroic couplet. In doing so, he helped bring the cruel war to the forefront, the poetry in the pity.
Analysis of Strange Meeting Lines 1 - 22
- The title gives it away - this will be no ordinary meeting - and the opening two words add further uncertainty about the coming encounter, the speaker saying it only seemed he came straight from the battle and entered the tunnel that brought him to a curious landscape.
- Note the pararhyme already working its magic with enjambment and alliteration to produce an opening sentence the likes of which was new for the reader in 1920. A sense of hard, grinding history is introduced with images of both granite and the titanic wars (the actual Titanic ship had foundered in 1912).
- So, the speaker is setting the scene. Having been transported, after his own death, to this severe and shocking environment, he also comes across other soldiers who are having difficulty 'sleeping', who are stuck in their minds or are dead.
- As the speaker tries to rouse them, one springs up, a sad and knowing look in his eyes, hands held as if in benediction. Owen's use of internal rhyme and repetition is clear in lines 7 - 10. Note piteous/eyes and distressful/bless together with smile, I knew and dead smile, I knew.
By the end of the second stanza the reader is in no doubt of the ghostly, surreal and horrific nature of this environment, which is a post-battle Hell. There are subtle hints that the speaker and the soldier with the dead smile are known to each other.
- The third stanza's opening line has an extra beat (11 syllables) suggesting that the vision of the dead soldier's face is extraordinary given that there is no connection to the real world up above, the battlefield with all its personified sounds.
- Initiating dialogue, the speaker's opening comments are meant to allay fear and make a connection free of animosity and sadness. The use of the word friend immediately flags up the idea that this is a meeting between equals; there is now no enemy.
- The response is direct - at first agreement that mourning for the dead is not needed but then acknowledgement of the many futures lost, the hopelessness of the situation.
- Note the syntax changing as the dialogue (monologue) develops. Enjambment disappears and punctuation holds sway in terms of syntax, the pace within the iambic pentameter steadied by comma and semi-colon.
- The dead soldier now comes 'alive' in line 17, the first person pronoun I signalling a more personal approach. This soldier, this German soldier, also had a life full of hope, just as the speaker had. Essentially, these two are the same, young men hunting after the wildest beauty, the essence of life, that which cares not for routine things and feels deeply, even in grief, much more so than in Hell.
- Note the pararhymes hair, hour and here, soft sounding, almost ephemeral.
Further Analysis Lines 23 - 44
- All the emotion is ineffective now, from laughter to tears, it has died. And with it, the truth which is yet to be told. This is the truth of pity, made up of sorrow and compassion, expressed when others are suffering as they have been doing in untold numbers in the war.
Owen wanted more than anything to have his poetry stand for pity. In the preface to this book he wrote: 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.'
- Now men will go content...future generations might learn about peace, or join in this madness of destruction that we started. They'll be more aggressive, stubborn and make hard work of any progress.
- I thought I was brave and wise, going into the unknown, still a master of my own fate, but now history is leaving me behind. How vulnerable the world will be.
- The wheels of the war machine grind to a halt in the blood that's been spilled; I will clean them, purify and heal with water from the deep well. This is an allusion to the bible, John 4, 7-14 or Revelation 7, 17, where water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The soldier is saying that he will wash the blood clogged wheels with the pure (emotional) truth.
- I would have poured my spirit..again, this phrase comes from the bible, and is found in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Acts of the Apostles. Basically, the soldier is giving his life as sacrifice for humanity, hoping that they will see the truth about war. (without stint means without limit). But he does not want to waste it on the wounds or foul business of war.
- War results in psychological illness too, it's not all about blood and gore.
- That devastating line 40. The second soldier reveals to the first the grim news of his killing, but does reciprocate and call him friend (see line 14). There is recognition of the shared expression even as death occurred, which the second soldier tried in vain to avert.
- The first soldier's frown as he bayonets the second soldier is an expression of doubt, self-loathing perhaps, a reluctance to kill.
- The final line has the second soldier suggesting they both sleep now, having been reconciled, having learnt that pity, distilled by the awful suffering of war, is the only way forward for humankind.
What Is the Metre and Rhyme Scheme in Strange Meeting
Strange Meeting is written in heroic couplets and there are a total of 44 lines contained in four stanzas. Note that lines 19-21 form a tercet, ending in three half rhymes: hair/hour/here. The last line is much shorter and doesn't rhyme with any other line.
Owen is a master of pararhyme, where the stressed vowels differ but the consonants are similar, and uses this technique throughout the poem. So note the end words: escaped/scooped, groined/groaned, bestirred/stared and so on.
The second vowel is usually lower in pitch adding to the oddity of the sounds, bringing dissonance and a sense of failure. So whilst there is common ground between the rhymes there is equally discomfort, the feeling that something isn't quite what it should be.
If Owen had used full rhyme this unease would be missing, so the imperfection perfectly fits the surreal situation of the two men meeting in Hell.
Strange Meeting is written in iambic pentameter, that is, the de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM stress pattern dominates, but there are lines that vary and these are important because they challenge the reader to alter the emphasis on certain words and phrases.
So, here are three examples to illustrate, with lines 7, 27, and 30:
- With pit / eous re /cognit / ion in / fixed eyes,
The first foot is iambic (non stress, stress ux), the second foot a pyrrhic (no stress, no stress, uu), the third another iamb, the fourth another pyrrhic and the fifth foot a spondee (stress, stress xx).
- Or, dis / content, / boil blood / y, and / be
The first foot is a trochee (stress, no stress, xu), the second is an iamb (no stress, stress ux), the third a spondee (stress,stress xx), the fourth an iamb (no stress, stress ux) and the fifth foot an iamb.
- Courage / was mine, / and I / had mys / tery.
Again, a trochee ( inverted iamb) starts the line before the iambic beat takes over the rest.
The iambic pentameter reflects the steady almost conversational natural pace of speech, whilst the variations bring uncertainty, altered beats which echo battle and bring texture and added interest for the reader.
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey