What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
This profoundly sad elegy reveals poetry’s rich capacity for human artistic expression and its means of portraying the futility, waste, and horrors of war. Owens wrote this in the fall of 1917 while a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh recovering from the battlefield. It speaks of the loss, suffering, and grief of soldiers and their families during World War I and reflects Owens’ rejection of religion two years earlier. He was killed in action in November 1918 at the age of 25. It’s estimated that 17 million lost their lives during this conflagration.
While arguably less abstract than music, poetry’s language and metaphorical devices present complexities and challenges to the dilettante. In this article, I utilize a means for analyzing a poem through precepts drawn from Susanne K. Langer’s work, just as I have done in analyses of music and visual art. I find her theories as fresh, advantageous, and insightful today as I did decades ago. They provide excellent means for one to unlock the mysteries of artistic expression. Citations are provided for those desiring to delve deeper into this topic.
The application of Langer’s conceptual framework to an analysis of the ambiguities and meanings in this work leads the reader into the exploration of particularly interesting images. An interpretation of this poem draws one into the realm of human expression colorfully represented, exemplified, and magnified by the powerful structural elements of poesis.
Through the formal structures of its text and language, this poem creates a virtual world within itself, expressing feelings associated with death, despair, bitterness, waste, sadness, and hopelessness. The emotive images are over-determined, creating a rich variety of human emotions cohabiting in the vital import (Langer 1953, 242). The expression of an idea, in this case, comprised of specific human feelings and images, is the ruling purpose of art (52). The purpose of art is then the presentation of an idea through an articulate symbol such as poetry. The poet has thus organized the semblance of events to constitute a “purely and completely experienced reality, a piece of virtual life” (212, 228). The poem exists in a virtual world of its own.
The sentience or feelings expressed are among the formal properties of the poem, existing regardless of the reader’s insightful capacity. The expression of human feelings permeates the whole structure, and the articulation of the structure is an expression of the ideas conveyed (52). The poem’s formal properties, codes, and non-discursive symbols profoundly affect the reader’s experience while an examination of the poem’s formal properties facilitates responsiveness to the work. The poem creates symbols that express feelings, and these feelings are expressed at all times, wherein ‘the poem exists objectively when presented to us’ (211).
The primary illusion (primary in this sense means always, not first), semblance, or Schein, is carefully shaped by the poet’s work to achieve significance and logical expression; in poetry, this is life in the mode of the present tense (50). The poem’s first line establishes the semblance of experienced events, or the “illusion of life” (214), setting the expressive tone for the work. Carefully crafted form and content direct the reader to understand the primary illusion singularly. Fixing abstract relationships to feelings expressed in the poem and visualizing the non-discursive representations of complex relationships that exist furthermore direct the reader to understand the vital import.
Owens creates abstract relationships between words while utilizing illusions from other art forms appearing as secondary illusions or echoes; all coexist to create the primary illusion of life. The poet utilizes devices to “produce and sustain the essential illusion, to set it off clearly from the surrounding world of actuality and articulate its form to the point where it coincides unmistakably with forms of feeling and living” (67- 68). The poet skillfully sustains the illusion, sets it off from reality, and demonstrates its essential relationships.
Human feelings represented in this poem are part of the primary illusion of life in the mode of the present tense and are the basic creation wherein all the poem’s elements exist. These elements produce and support the primary illusion. All the elements of the poem are factors in the semblance and are virtual themselves. The context of the work determines the elements’ properties and all elements of the work support the primary illusion. The almost infinite combination of elements, including the abstraction of language, poetic devices, and secondary illusions, add richness and fecundity to the form (84).
Now, to the poem itself:
Images usually associated with death with their usual, reverent treatment in religious funerals are presented to contrast with death during wartime. The low-value war sets on human life is exemplified with the opening reference to those “who die as cattle,” akin to animals in a slaughterhouse. There are no parish bells ringing to announce the passing of a parishioner, bells that precede a time of reflection, appropriate observation, and respect for the dead. Instead of church bells, we hear sounds of war that are intimidating, percussive, and angry. The horrible, “monstrous” anger of the guns and the sound of “stuttering rifles” proclaim the dying’s “hasty orisons” (prayers).
Non-discursive meanings of the words are used to create imagery in the virtual world of this poem; words are assembled in seemingly incongruous relationships to abstract their usual language associations. These words attain new embodiment in unreal instances to set them free from their usual uses. The words and their relationships are abstracted, making them clearly apparent in a particular vital import consisting of the feelings and meanings expressed. Phrases are described as peculiarities of language and dialect, function as poetical devices, and provoke oblique thought while acting as symbols to express human feelings (51). The non-discursive meanings emanating from the poem’s elements are subjugated to the creation of sentience. The sentience and human feelings associated with death and war and its human participants reflect the work’s vital import and significance.
It is expected that the deceased at a funeral ceremony receive the usual platitudes and retrospective words reflecting lifetime accomplishments and honors. In this virtual reality, not even “mockeries” are offered. There are no prayers or church bells. This abstraction of reality, or setting of reality in war, creates images evoking cynicism and bitterness, adding emotional intensity to the total sentience. The “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” replace the usual voices of mourning for the dead. Bugles, usually utilized at a reverential military death ceremony, are used to call the warriors to “sad shires” (locales of their homeland) and, ultimately, to a place where they are to die.
Here are some examples of words placed in abstract relationships to help create the poem’s vital import or meaning. These images reflect significant elements of the work’s structure and are comprised of words set in unusual associations in a particular context.
- “passing-bells” – Passing refers to dying while bells are associated with religious funeral tradition.
- “Guns” with “monstrous anger” – Guns expressing human feelings of anger.
- “stuttering rifles rapid rattle” – In alliterated language, rifles pray.
- “rifles patter out their hasty orisons” – The sound of rifles offers last-minute “prayers” for the soldiers in the clutches of death.
- “choirs – voices of mourning” – The usual church choir is replaced by sounds of artillery accompanied by shrill, demented, choirs of wailing shells.
The ambiguities of this poem are deciphered in part through a study of the assimilation of the primary illusion and secondary illusions or echoes. The poet has enhanced the poetic elements by incorporating the modes and illusions of different art forms. While the primary illusion in poetry is life set in the present tense, sound, a component of music’s primary illusion, contributes to the schema as a secondary illusion. The primary illusion of poetry determines the substance and character of the artwork while the secondary illusion of sound from the mode of music, the movement of audible forms, “endows it with richness, elasticity, and wide freedom of creation that makes real art so hard to hold in the meshes of theory” (118).
The sense of sound appears as a major component of the formal properties of the poem in order to create imagery. In the first eight lines, these auditory images are projected through the words “rapid rattle,” “patter out,” “bells”, “choirs,” “shrill, demented choir,” “wailing shells” and “bugles calling.” These images place the poem’s virtual world in a war zone replete with the various accouterments of battle, evoking corresponding sounds in our imaginations and helping us to experience the poem as completely as possible. The war zone created by the auditory images helps create a feeling of space as well. We can visualize the spatial qualities of a virtual battlefield as the poet incorporates the primary illusion of painting, used here as an echo, or secondary illusion in the mode of the scene (88).
The last six lines deal more directly with the primary illusion of poetry, that of life, inferring significant psychological elements associated with the feelings of young women left behind by the boys who have gone off to war. These individuals are physically described (more echoes of painting) with some development of their personalities. “Girls’ brows” reflect suffering and a sense of hopelessness. “Their flowers” relate to “tenderness,” youthfulness, and naive hope. The non-cynical “patient minds” of youth characterize those back home, who are perhaps in the early stages of waiting for their boys.
Time, the primary illusion of music, is presented in the last six lines as a secondary illusion, functioning as a device giving the poem’s vital import added emotional significance and depth. This section begins with the question, “What candles may be held to speed them all?” The image of a candle burning with its limited duration indicates time measurement and metaphorically describes humankind’s mortality. The religious significance of candles emerges through the image of “holy glimmers” shining in the eyes of the soldiers who have said their “good-byes” and gone to their deaths. The word “speed,” related to the traditional “Godspeed” offered to those facing adversity afar, refers to time, contributing to the illusion. The “slow” dusk reflects each lengthy and difficult day for those back home. The assonant “pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall” evokes feelings of loneliness, sadness, weariness, and strain. The overall negative effects of long-suffering on the human spirit are exemplified with reference to the “patient minds” of youth, indicating the great length of time these girls have suffered while waiting for the soldiers to return. Now that a great deal of time has passed and hope has diminished, they merely cover the windows at dusk as each day ends, “drawing-down of blinds.” Not only will the boys not hold candles to light their paths home, but in the throes of numbing despair, the homefront shall no longer place candles in the windows to shine like beacons.
Williams, Oscar, ed., 1973. Immortal Poems of the English Language, an Anthology. New York: Washington Square Press, Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Langer, Susanne K. 1953. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Nimrod from The Enigma Variations by Elgar on Remembrance Sunday 2009. Performed annually at the Centopath erected in 1920 as the UK's official national war memorial, located in Whitehall, City of Westminster, London