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Wilfred Owen: Greatest War Poet in the English Language (1893-1918)

Literary Criticism of Wilfred Owen's poems

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Wilfred Owen

At a Calvary Near The Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

[A "Calvary" is a statue of the crucified Christ; these crucifixes are erected at many crossroads in France.]


These notes are by Jon Stallworthy, the editor of The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1985), p. 111:

Written probably in late 19l7 or early 1918, Wilfred Owen having been involved in fighting near tbe river Ancre in January 19l7. As in "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," WO adapts biblical detail to fit the war. In the Gospel story, the soldiers kept watch at the cross while Christ's disciples hid in fear of the authorities; priests and scribes passed by in scorn. The Church sends priests to the trenches, where they watch the common soldier being, as it were, crucified, and they take pride in minor wounds (flesh-marked, l. 7) as a sign of their opposition to Germany (the Beast). Flesh-marked, however, carries a further meaning: the Devil used to be believed to leave his finger-marks on the flesh of his followers (cf. Revelation 14: 9-10). Thus the Church's hatred of Germany (l. 12) puts it in the Devil's following, and the priests' wounds are signs not so much of opposition to the Devil Germany as of allegiance to the Devil War. Christ said "Love one another" and "Love your enemies"; despite the exhortations of Church and State, WO perceives that "pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism."

Calvary or Golgotha (both words meaning "the place of the skull") was the site of the Crucifixion.

Lines 11-12. John 15:l3: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."


 

Wilfed Owen

GREATER LOVE

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!

Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death's extreme decrepitude.

Your voice sings not so soft,--
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft,--
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear,
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.

Heart, you were never hot
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.


These notes are from Jon Stallworthy, The Poems of Wilfred Owen, pp. 143-4.

The poem is a response to Swinburne's poem "Before the Mirror / (Verses Written under a Picture) / Inscribed to J. A. Whistler," ll. 1-7:

White rose in red rose-garden
Is not so white;
Snowdrops that plead for pardon
And pine for fright
Because the hard East blows
Over their maiden rows
Grow not as this face grows from pale to bright.

WO may also have been aware of Salomé's words to Jokanaan in Wilde's Salomé: "The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body." WO had written: "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."

TITLE: John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." See also "At a Calvary near the Ancre": "But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate."

Line 20. See Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Second Book, ll. 718-20:

As my blood recoiled
From that imputed ignominy, I made
My heart great with it.

Line 22. trail: Used in the military sense of "trail arms," carry a rifle with butt end near the ground and muzzle pointing forwards.

Line 24. See John 21:l5-l7: "Jesus saith unto [MaryMagdalene], Woman,why weepest thou? . . . Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father."

Natasha Wedderburn
Coral Gables Senior High School
Ms. Munnerlyn
IB/AP English IV