Strange Meeting


Question:
Present a detailed commentary on the poem 'STRANGE MEETING' by Wilfred Owen. To include - Explanation of the ideas expressed in the poem. Links with specific moments with other Owen poems. Discussion of how the poem works in term of poetic technique.



Answer:
STRANGE MEETING is probably Owen’s most problematic poem. It’s title comes from Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” - “Gone forth whom no strange meeting did befall." It was written in the spring or early summer of 1918, the year he died. It was based on an earlier poem “Earth’s Wheels” which I reproduce as Appendix I. The poem recounts a dramatic meeting in Hell between two soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies they find it possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of “the truth untold” and the need to proclaim that truth. As Owen said in his famous Preface, “All a poet can do is warn”.


The poem is written in first person and hence we tend to assume that the first speaker is Owen, but Owen’s message is delivered by the second speaker. This has lead to a speculation that the second speaker is an apparition of the first. In the first verse the first speaker dies and finds his way to Hell. “Titanic wars" imply not just this war, but conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale.


In the second verse the first speaker realises that he is in Hell after seeing the dead bodies, which however were groaning under the burden of their suffering. He prods one, which gets up, recognises him and blesses him. “Piteous” is a key word here, which connects to almost all his poetry that, really is about the pity of war. The similarity of the dead in this poem to the “living” or should one say dying in his other poems is intentional. Compare the living of Mental Cases “-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses-” to the dead of Strange Meeting “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell”.


In the beginning of the third verse Owen compares Hell with war. There is no blood, no smoke, no noise in Hell but all these are there in war. Vivid descriptions of these are a hallmark of his poems. “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” from Dulce et Decorum Est “What murk of air remained stank old, and sour With fumes from whizz-bangs,” from The Sentry .


The first speaker addresses the second as “strange friend”. Much mystery has been attributed to this paradox, but to my mind he uses strange because he does not know the person and friend because from this point on they will share a common destiny. In response to the first speaker’s statement that ‘here is no cause to mourn’, the second replies that they have to mourn the years of their life they spent fighting each other. Precious years in which they could have fulfilled their hopes and achieved their desires. Lines 17 to 23 (“After the wildest beauty in the world” etc.) refer to Owen’s quest for beauty and truth which he believed he had inherited from Keats and Shelley and which perhaps may have been the subject of his poetry had not it been for his experiences in the war which changed everything. "So must I tempt that face to loose its lightning. Great gods, whose beauty is death, will laugh above, Who made his beauty lovelier than love. I shall be bright with their unearthly brightening." from Storm. He began to write about the pity of war; purely about the pity unpolluted with other emotions. It became his mission to tell the “truth untold”, the real and monstrous nature of war, which became the subject of all his later poems. The untold truth negates the old lie that it is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country. This is the subject of Dulce et Decorum Est. The poet says that in the future will accept a world shattered with war as the norm and do nothing about the bloodshed and violence. A prediction that has come true with frightening accuracy. In the remaining part