'This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.'
Wilfred Owen did not live to see his poems published together in a collection. But he planned for that to happen. In May 1918, he even wrote the preface for it. The above is how it began.
A heart-breaking humanity runs an undercurrent through every one of Owen's snapshot glimpses into the front line. He mentions courage and heroism, but more so the fact that no-one would willingly be there. They are living, breathing, thinking, feeling men pushed right to the limits of endurance, then past them.
Owen describes what he sees all around him with a deep compassion. Nor is this solely reserved for those on his own side.
In Strange Meeting, it is a German soldier who tells of what the war has cost him. The richness of his own life, mind and personality ('I went hunting wild after the wildest beauty..') has been extinguished in 'the pity of war, the pity war distilled.' There's guilt too for the Englishman, as the ghostly German tells how sheer exhaustion meant that he couldn't even save his own life.
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 ...
If time and propaganda would dehumanize those individuals fighting on both sides of the conflict, then Wilfred Owen strikes back with a resounding 'no'. This happened to people just like him, and just like me and you.
Now, for pity's sake, stop it happening ever again.