Poems: “Wilfred Owen at Ors”


Dear Friends

'Once more unto the trench, dear friends, once more:'
And so they did, and so they did again;
And so they died, so many of them, for
Their country, and these friends, their countrymen.

Eight hundred thousand poppies flower
Below the walls of London's Tower;
Each heavy, cold, ceramic head
Commemorates one of the dead.

Owen among them, at the last. And he
Had understood the wounded things we are;
Transcending visions of futility
For that strange meeting, like a pietà.                   

The war to end wars never will be won.
Antagonism grinds its agonies.
But when, dear friends, the hurly-burly's done,
We should do something to atone for these.

The band of brothers marches from the play
To keep the bleak apocalypse at bay.
For Peter Owen 

died 31 July 2018

How often have I stood beside you not
ten yards from Wilfred's gravestone, as you read
'Futility' or 'Spring Offensive' to
those gathered in the cemetery; then
interpreted as best I could the words
you found to say to them: your uncle would
have been amazed to see us there for him,
and grateful still to France. Now you have gone
(though peacefully) down the same deepening slope
to infinite space; for what renewal,
who knows. What we do know is that you have
lived out a life for him; not his life, but
a kind of echoing, a giving again
of what he gave and gave himself for: words
you savoured and re-said for us, for us
the better to remember both of you.
Pour Peter Owen

Traduction de Madeleine Descargues-Grant

Que de fois je me suis trouvé à tes côtés, tout près
de la tombe de Wilfred, alors que tu lisais
'Futilité' ou 'Offensive de printemps' pour
les amis rassemblés au cimetière... Puis
j'interprétais de mon mieux les mots
que tu trouvais à leur dire: ton oncle aurait
été stupéfait de nous voir réunis là, pour lui,
et reconnaissant à la France, toujours. A présent tu es parti
(paisiblement, sans doute) toi aussi sur les pentes qui se creusent
à l'infini; est-ce pour renaître, et sous quelle forme,
nul ne le sait. Mais nous savons que
tu as vécu ta vie intensément pour lui; ce n'était pas sa vie,
c'en était comme un écho, tu redonnais
ce qu'il avait donné, faisant don de lui-même: les mots
que tu savourais et redisais pour nous, pour que nous
nous souvenions mieux encore et de lui et de toi.
The Forester's House

Thanks to you, Wilfred, we have all been there,
to 'The Smoky Cellar of the Forester's House.'
We can hear someone snoring on the bench,
and smell the damp wood struggling to take
under the saucepan of potatoes: peeled
to splash your hand—this letter—with what might
well be the tears your mother weeps on it
in ten days' time. We can attempt to peer
through the thick air at Kellett, Keyes the cook,
and nameless others jostling for space
with nudges, pokes and jolts; we can make out
the merry corporal, by candlelight
'a gleam of white teeth and a wheeze of jokes.'
We cannot see you, pressing on your pad
the last words you will ever write. 'It is
a great life;' huddled with your band of friends,
impervious somehow to the glimmering
of guns outside, the crashing down of shells.
'There is no danger here.' But you are ready
to go with them, tomorrow and tomorrow,
into the deepening chasm of the canal.
Wilfred Owen at Ors

We have our own poet, Wilfred Owen,
here in the village of Ors in northern France.
The village lives along the slow canal
tucked under Bois l'Evêque; the railway
(steel scorning water) goes for higher ground.
The nearby military camp has closed.
There is a bare, unbeautiful brick church,
a sober Mairie and a Salle des Fêtes;
one café, a new médiatheque, a school.

And of course the leafless cemetery.
Because our poet is a dead poet,
enlisted in that pale battalion
of young men buried with their mystery.
Owen delivered up his mastery
at the eventual, exhausted end
of a seemingly unstoppable war
that devastated like a lava flow,
travelling unnaturally over the flat land.

He was also an English poet, who
mused a long hour by Shrewsbury clock;
bred to the seamed, compacted language
of Keats and Shakespeare. But he had travelled
in other realms of gold; it was at first
the carefree troubadours took him to France;
then teaching; then the deep trench of the war.
In January nineteen seventeen
he suffered the extremes of fire and ice.

The war might end, but no-one speaks of this.
The Manchesters hunker down in Bois l'Evêque.
Lieutenant Owen writes a letter to
his mother Susan (it will be the last
of some six hundred that he wrote to her).
'There is no danger here;' nor was there, in
the cellar of the red-brick Forester's House—
now kept for him, and for those gathered there.
The danger waited at the cold canal.

He died in water but now lies in earth,
here with the men who fell with him, at Ors.
He hated war but gave himself to it
in the unswerving sleepwalk of the time.
November twenty eighteen signifies
a hundred-years-long lamentation for
an English soldier who went out into
the morning mist for his strange meeting with
the poet who sleeps now as one of us.

We have remade the Forester's House
in ghostly, moonlit white (as if it grew
out of his gravestone), and furnished it
with Owen's words; those words that understand
the wounded things we are. Whoever drives
down the straight, narrow road from Landrecies
through Bois l'Evêque to Pommereuil today
will ask who lives there. Tell them it is where
our own dead poet lives his afterlife.

Damian Grant’s poetry and poetry reviews have been published in the London Review of Books, Critical Quarterly, and PN Review. He edited the Critical Quarterly Poetry Supplement 11, Poetry 1970 (Manchester University Press), and his other published works include: D.H. Lawrence: State of the Art (1989), and Realism: The Critical Idiom (2017). He has furthered scholarship on War Poetry with numerous articles published in both English and French.