Question:Present a detailed commentary on the poem ‘STRANGE MEETING’ by WilfredOwen. To include – Explanation of the ideas expressed in the poem. Linkswith specific moments with other Owen poems. Discussion of how the poemworks in term of poetic technique. Answer:STRANGE MEETING is probably Owen’s most problematic poem.
It’s title comesfrom Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” – “Gone forth whom no strange meetingdid befall. ” It was written in the spring or early summer of 1918, the yearhe died. It was based on an earlier poem “Earth’s Wheels” which I reproduceas Appendix I. The poem recounts a dramatic meeting in Hell between twosoldiers who had fought on opposing sides.
No longer enemies they find itpossible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of “thetruth untold” and the need to proclaim that truth. As Owen said in hisfamous Preface, “All a poet can do is warn”. The poem is written in first person and hence we tend to assume that thefirst speaker is Owen, but Owen’s message is delivered by the secondspeaker. This has lead to a speculation that the second speaker is anapparition of the first. In the first verse the first speaker dies andfinds his way to Hell.
“Titanic wars” imply not just this war, butconflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale. In the second verse the first speaker realises that he is in Hell afterseeing the dead bodies, which however were groaning under the burden oftheir suffering. He prods one, which gets up, recognises him and blesseshim. “Piteous” is a key word here, which connects to almost all his poetrythat, really is about the pity of war. The similarity of the dead in thispoem to the “living” or should one say dying in his other poems isintentional.
Compare the living of Mental Cases “-Thus their heads wearthis hilarious, hideous, Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses-” to thedead of Strange Meeting “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell”. In the beginning of the third verse Owen compares Hell with war. There isno blood, no smoke, no noise in Hell but all these are there in war. Vividdescriptions of these are a hallmark of his poems.
“If you could hear, atevery jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” fromDulce et Decorum Est “What murk of air remained stank old, and sour Withfumes from whizz-bangs,” from The Sentry . The first speaker addresses the second as “strange friend”. Much mysteryhas been attributed to this paradox, but to my mind he uses strange becausehe does not know the person and friend because from this point on they willshare a common destiny. In response to the first speaker’s statement that’here is no cause to mourn’, the second replies that they have to mourn theyears of their life they spent fighting each other. Precious years in whichthey could have fulfilled their hopes and achieved their desires. Lines 17to 23 (“After the wildest beauty in the world” etc.
) refer to Owen’s questfor beauty and truth which he believed he had inherited from Keats andShelley and which perhaps may have been the subject of his poetry had notit been for his experiences in the war which changed everything. “So must Itempt that face to loose its lightning. Great gods, whose beauty is death,will laugh above, Who made his beauty lovelier than love. I shall be brightwith their unearthly brightening. ” from Storm. He began to write about thepity of war; purely about the pity unpolluted with other emotions.
Itbecame his mission to tell the “truth untold”, the real and monstrousnature of war, which became the subject of all his later poems. The untoldtruth negates the old lie that it is a sweet and seemly thing to die forone’s country. This is the subject of Dulce et Decorum Est. The poet saysthat in the future will accept a world shattered with war as the norm anddo nothing about the bloodshed and violence. A prediction that has cometrue with frightening accuracy.
In the remaining part of the verse thepoet, through the second speaker, says what he as a poet wants to do andhence in general what poetry should do. He says that poetry has the courageand wisdom, the mystery and the mastery to heal and is not tainted by war. The poet would have liked to bring this life-giving water from ‘sweetwells’ and spread it without restraint. He would like to tell the world thetruth that war is not glory and honour but stark pain. In poems such asGreater Love and Anthem for the Doomed Youth the images of love and delightare transformed into images of death. These transformations are theexperience of his generation.
“Red lips are not so red As the red stoneskissed by the English dead. . . ” Here Owen perhaps refers to his decision tofight rather than be a conscientious objector. This decision was takenbecause if Owen wanted to write about the pity of war, he needed toexperience that pity.
And his writing about the pity would hopefully be abalm to the next generation. The poem ends with the enemy killed showing no hatred; no feeling ofvengeance for his killer imparting the message that mankind must seekreconciliation. The “friend” of this verse contrasts ironically with thefriend of Dulce et Decorum Est – “My friend, you would not tell with suchhigh zest. . .
” The friend of Strange Meeting is a stranger who’s views areOwen’s views whereas the friend of the latter poem is a known person(likely reference to fellow poets who glorify war) who’s view Owendisagrees with. The study of the structure of a poem is known as prosody and comprisesmeter, rhyme, and verse. Structurally the poem comprises 44 lines of iambicpentameter with pararhymed couplets. I have come across different versestructures in the various places I located the poem – one, three and fourverses.
Since I referred to the version in the 12th Grade textbook, 19thand 20th Century Verse, I will stick to that. Lines 1 to 3 comprise thefirst verse, lines 4 to 10 the second, lines 11 to 39 the third and lines40 to 44 the fourth. As the ideas get more complicated, more philosophicalthe length of the verse increases. Though the bulk of the poem lies in thethird verse, it is the last verse which has the most impact and Owen hasintentionally saved it for the end.
The second speaker has recognised thefirst as his killer in the beginning itself and could have revealed thisvital information immediately but does not do so. He launches into theundone years and truth untold and only after finishing what he has to say,he dramatically but softly reveals the relationship between the two – “I amthe enemy you killed, my friend. ” No wonder these words have been chosen toadorn the poet’s memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey. The iambicpentameter which consists of five “feet” each having one unstressed and onestressed syllable, is the most common meter used in English literature. Thereason probably is that it is just the right length for a narration, nottoo short – not too long.
Shakespeare used it in his plays and Wordsworthused it in his Preludes and Excursions. In this poem too, it provides aneasy flow to the narration. Pararhyme, or half-rhyme as it is often called,is an imperfect rhyme in which the final and the preceding consonants ofthe last stressed syllable agree but the intervening vowel sound does not. Examples from the poem are “world – walled” and “years – yours”. Owenbrilliantly uses pararhymes as an instrument in imaging the discords whichwere his subject. Full rhymes tend to bring smoothness in flow of the poem,whereas half rhymes jar the flow a bit which goes well with the ugliness ofthe subject.
“Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. I parried, but my hands were loath and cold. ”