Notes and questions for discussion
‘The pity of War’ in nine poems by Wilfred Owen
By Thomas Brooks
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed at the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962, to celebrate its being rebuilt after World War II, to commemorate those who had given their lives in that war, and to call, in its music and texts, for an end to war itself. Britten uses the anti-war poetry of the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, interwoven among the parts of the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, to comment on and subvert the religious message of the Mass.
The poems voice an alternative and secular point of view that reflects Owen’s first-hand experience with combat and death. His language and imagery come directly from the trenches and hospitals with which he was so familiar; combat for Owen was the furnace which fired a sense both of alienation from his fellow poets and of his mission to bring the physical and moral horrors of war to a public that preferred to cling to the idea that military service was glorious and redemptive. A quick look at each excerpt illustrates how much their messages challenge and undercut the texts of the Mass.
Anthem for a Doomed Youth
Anthem for a Doomed Youth, the sonnet which follows the “Requiem Æternam” that begins the Mass, makes explicit Owen’s sense that formal church rites will not provide the eternal rest they promise to “these who die as cattle,” even as the chorus and boys’ choir, singing the Mass, have invoked those rites. The poem contrasts sharply with the magisterial tone and empty promises of the Mass, offering at the end only the personal and individual grief expressed at each “slow dusk” in “a drawing-down of blinds.”
- Why is the youth for whom this anthem is composed “Doomed?”
- What is Owen referring to with the word “mockeries?”
- What does the poem mean by “a drawing down of blinds?”
- Will the youth receive the “eternal rest” and “perpetual light” offered by the chorus?
But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars
In But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars the music of the bugles, in contrast with the horns of the “Dies Irae,” sounds in the evening air to mark the end of day and a time to sleep. But this sleep, troubled by “the shadow of the morrow,” precedes no Judgment Day; the boys who will rise in the morning will only hear the “voices of the old despondency,” another day of little or no consequence in an endless war. The “day of wrath” becomes ironic in the face of indeterminate combat.
- The bugles are “sorrowful” and “saddening,” the twilight is also “sad,” and “Voices of old despondency [are] resigned.” What has generated this mood of sadness?
- Are the “boys by the river-side” worried about death and judgment as they sleep?
The Next War
When the soprano and chorus again pick up the Mass’s theme of judgment and salvation (“salva me”), Owen’s soldiers in The Next War, instead of fearing Death, make him into a combat buddy, conquering him by co-opting him, laughing at him, “leaguing” with him like an “old chum,” suggesting that the context of trench warfare changes not just the way we face death, but our thoughts about justice and salvation.
- How is Death personified here? Are the soldiers afraid of him?
- In the next war, “each proud fighter” will brag that “He wars on Death — for Life” instead of making war on other men “for flags.” What does this tell us about the next war and about Owen’s sense of his war — the Great War?
On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought into Action
The “Recordare,” in which the chorus asks for the intercession of Jesus, is answered with lines from Owen’s sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought into Action. Unlike the Christian savior, the great gun is an agent of judgment and damnation (“Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm”), but when its job is done, the poem asks that “God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul.” The ethic of war is a situational one that requires us to abide, even support, its tools of destruction while they do their work, then condemn them for what they are; it puts us outside traditional notions of right and wrong and salvation as they are presented in the Mass.
- The gun is asked to “Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm.” What does this mean?
- Why should God curse the gun and cut it “from our soul?” Is the gun an agent of justice or not? Does Owen view war as a means to justice?
Instead of glorifying a soldier’s death, Owen simply notes in Futility that the sun will fail to animate the clay he has become. This bitterly ironic poem, asking, “Was it for this the clay grew tall?”, undercuts, in its simple skepticism, the majesty of the final Judgment Day invoked in the “Dies Irae” which precedes it. The possibility of transcendence over death offered by the Mass is clearly denied for the dead soldier.
- What has happened to the soldier who is to be moved into the sun? When?
- Why is the sun called “fatuous” in the next to last line of the poem?
- Why does Britten break this poem up by inserting lines from the “Lacrimosa?”
Parable of the Old Men and the Young
In Owen’s version of the Abraham story, Parable of the Old Men and the Young, which occurs in the “Offertorium,” Abraham disobeys the command of God, sacrifices his son, and in slaying him, slays “half the seed of Europe, one by one.” The reversal of the myth in the last three lines is sudden, unexpected and shocking. It is a bitter comment on the politics of the Great War; the “elders” on both sides of the conflict have violated the word of God in promulgating and prolonging the war and have thus vitiated God’s covenant with mankind through Abraham.
- In the Bible God promises that Abraham and his descendants will be blessed as “chosen” and will find eternal salvation; here the action of the “old man” brings a different fate to “half the seed of Europe.” What does the old man represent?
- Why is this poem included in the “Offertorium” section of the Mass?
The sonnet The End denies the possibility of rebirth or second life and any glorification that a second life would convey. The Earth herself dies and her scars, and ours, shall not be “glorifed,” nor her tears assuaged. The End is dramatically envisioned as bleak and unredemptive, and certainly no occasion for the hosannas as they are sung by the soprano and chorus in the “Sanctus.”
- Owen did not include this poem among his “war poems.” What is it about?
- The second quatrain of this sonnet asks a series of questions. How do these questions relate to the Mass for the Dead? Why are they in the “Sanctus?”
- How does the poem answer these questions?
At a Calvary Near the Ancre
At a Calvary Near the Ancre invokes the image of a roadside crucifix (or “calvary”) which displays the broken body of Christ, and Britten interweaves its lines, as he did with the final lines of Futility, with the Latin text. The final couplet of the poem suggests that the soldiers, by bearing the burden of Calvary, have become like the crucified Christ on the “calvary.” After the chorus finishes its refrain, “Dona eis requiem” (“Grant them rest”), the tenor responds in what may be the most dramatic moment of Britten’s War Requiem: “Dona nobis pacem” (“Grant us peace”). This is the only moment when Britten’s dispensation of voices is altered; by having the tenor cross over to sing it, the phrase gains weight and meaning, becoming, at last, a requiem not only for “us” (“nobis”), but for Owen’s dead soldiers and for war itself.
- How are the disciples, priests, and scribes characterized in this poem?
- Who are “they who love the greater love?” Will they be granted peace?
- Why does the tenor sing “Dona nobis pacem,” which is not part of the poem?
Finally in Strange Meeting the baritone, singing the part of the “strange friend” who answers the poet’s quest for understanding in his descent to the underworld, tells him of the “The pity of War, the pity [that] war [has] distilled.” The words invoke the sense of empathy, the ability to vicariously share experience, that motivated Owen’s mission as a war poet. He sought to bring the experience of war to those who did not have to fight it, so that they would see its horror. Elsewhere he wrote of his work, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” The language and images of his poetry are the experience of war, just as are the timbre and tonality of Britten’s music, and it is this quality in Owen which makes his works an ideal commentary for the composer. The shade reminds the poet that he cannot escape the “pity” any more than he can escape the “enemy you killed,” for that enemy is also a friend.
- What, exactly, does the poet mean by “the pity of War?”
- What happens dramatically in this poem? How is the underworld into which the poet descends different from the world above?
- What is the untold truth disclosed by the shade sung by the baritone?
- Why would Britten put this poem, the longest of the nine poems by Owen, at the end of the War Requiem?
Thomas Brooks, retired English professor and associate provost emeritus at Wheaton College, is the consulting humanities scholar for the Poetry Project, an effort to better acquaint performers and audience with the poetry of Wilfred Owen that is at the heart of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. The Poetry Project is supported by funding from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.