Saturday, 26 December 2020
How can poems speak to us out of the past about what's going on now?
This is 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen:
It seemed that out of the 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 pains that vision's face
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause
"None," said the 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
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
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
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..."
I think this is one of the great poems of the 20 th century. A poet could see - in spite of the triumphalism and phony sorrow - that out there on the battlefield, people who could and should have been friends, were killing each other.
I feel it speaks to me today about the triumphalism and phony sorrow about Covid. In my mind, I have 'strange meetings' with the victims of Covid. They explain to me that they were the 'enemy' of a government who in February and the first part of March (before lockdown) was toying with 'herd immunity' entailing the inevitable deaths and maiming of tens of thousands of people.