Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen
Table of Contents
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), one of the victims of the First World War, is, as Blunden says, the greatest of the war poets apart from Siegfried Sassoon. He discards the usual romantic notions about war and strikes a new realistic note in his poetry. He thinks war to have no glory, nothing to crown man with undying honour. He looks upon war as a hellish dance of death.
There is in his war poems piercing pathos welling out of the colossal waste of human life and opportunity. Moreover, war offers the most unmitigated insult to human dignity, because the predominance of the machine in war reduces man to a mere cannon-fodder. Owen was pained to see how callousness begotten of getting used to the horrors of war helps the soldiers go through their ordeal.
The poem, Strange Meeting is without date in the manuscript, but it was probably written in the last months of the poet’s life (he was killed on November 4, 1918, a week before the end of the First World War). It was published in 1919.
Strange Meeting Summary
The poet imagines that he has strayed from the battlefield into a dark tunnel where the sleepers (i.e. dead men) are huddled together. As the poet examines them closely one of the dead men jumps up and looks at him with eyes full of pity and sorrow. He smiles and by that smile the poet comes to know that he is in hell. The face of the man looks painful, though he has actually no cause for sufferings, for he is far away from the battlefield, the only place where men suffer. The stranger replies that there is no cause for mourning here, except that here he has nothing to hope for. In his life-time he loved beauty and hoped like other men. What grieves him is the fact that his premature death has deprived the world of the joy that he might have given it.
Moreover, the truth that he has learnt in the battlefield will ever remain untold because of his death. This truth is the pity of war. Now that he is dead men will remain satisfied with those romantic notions which are responsible for the destruction of human lives through war. Those who will become discontented with the ways of thought that led to war or break out into revolt against the war-mongers will be killed. They will be fierce and cruel like the tiger and will keep together even when nations move away from the path of progress.
He had the courage and wisdom to refuse to join the march of the world into the camp of reaction. A time will come when men will learn through bloodshed the falsity of their war-ideals. Then if he were alive he could have brought them the cleansing and healing of the truths revealed to him. Then he tells the poet that he is the enemy whom the latter jabbed and killed yesterday on the battlefield.
Strange Meeting Analysis
Strange Meeting is one of the most characteristic war-poems of Owen, and at the same time, the most moving. The poet imagines himself to have strayed into a dark tunnel, strewn with dead bodies of strangers. One of the strangers suddenly jumps up and stands staring at the poet. Then they talk on the theme of war– the horror and brutality and the pity of war. At the end of the meeting the stranger reveals his identity:
“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.”
Nothing exposes the inhuman brutality and horror of war so starkly as this speech of the dead soldier. The killer and the killed do not know each other, nor have they enmity or hatred; yet they go on jabbing and killing each other under the influence of a blind, beastly impulse that war brings into play. Owen discards the romantic notion that war brings undying glory to men who go to the battle-field; rather it brings them hellish sufferings:
“By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell..
With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained.”
But it is “the pity of war, the pity war distilled“ that is the predominant note of the poem. The overflows with pity for those young men who die on the battlefield with all their promises unfulfilled and the joy of life untested. The dead German soldier bewails his death as putting to naught his hopes and his love of beauty that triumphs over time and preventing him from telling the world the truth about war-death, destruction and suffering that war spells to man and his civilization.
He pathetically says that his death has deprived the world of the joy that he might have spread among mankind:
“For by my glee might many men have laughed.”
In the lines,
“I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of War.”
Owen condemns the arm-chair politicians who deceive men with the talk that they carry on war for the good of humanity, that even bloody cruelties of war have a benevolent motive. It is this sort of canting hypocrisy that always roused Owen’s deepest contempt, and here the dead man says that he could have served the world with love without causing bloodshed. In this poem he foresees whole nations marching in unbroken ranks away from progress Subsequent years have proved the lines,
“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.”
Strange Meeting is remarkable for the para-rhyme—a kind of half-rhyme in which the end-syllables have the same consonants but slightly different vowel sounds (killed-cold: taint-silent; war-were; tigress-progress, etc.). This rhyme is intended to smother the emotion and make the reader feel the edge of realities. This para-rhyme is much favoured by present-day poets, for example, Eliot, Auden and Spender.