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Wilfred Owen: "Insensibility"

04/07/2015 11:47 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

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From an early age, Wilfred Owen seems to have demanded a lot out of the people around him. His younger brother Harold, as Philip Larkin recounted in a review of Jon Stallworthy’s Owen biography (1975), claimed that: “[Wilfred] as an adolescent veered from ‘too high spirits’ to depression and attacks of bad temper in which he was inclined to lecture the whole family furiously for their failure to attain proper standards.” Harold also recalled that Wilfred seemed to enjoy pointing out Harold’s errors in his schoolwork and reveling in “the pleasures of his destructive criticism.” If these recollections are accurate, Wilfred would hardly be the first poet to turn the flaws of his character into the strengths of his art.

In the Great War, Owen found an ideal object for his withering condemnation. Unprecedented in its brutality and—as one of Owen’s titles had it—“Futility,” World War I was not the “war to end all wars” but the beginning of modern, mechanized, cataclysmic warfare. Owen himself witnessed some of its worst slaughter, joining the Western Front in 1917 and suffering shell shock before achieving his artistic breakthrough. Killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918, he became one of the war’s great martyrs; arguably, in English-speaking culture, he is the symbolic sacrifice to its cruelty.

He also became a representative figure of what we now call “poetry of witness.” The poems he wrote in 1917–18 are uncompromising works, steeped in pity and fury, crackling with purpose as their author writes almost literally under the gun. The fist-shaking conclusions of “Insensibility” and his famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” have been models for generations of writers who aspire to save or at least shame the world. Yet like all such poems, they call to mind W.B. Yeats’s distinction between rhetoric (“the quarrel with others”) and poetry (“the quarrel with ourselves”). What makes “Insensibility” a poem and not a plain sermon—or a sour “lecture” of the kind he supposedly loved giving in childhood?

Insensibility” begins by stating its theme in the negative. This will be a poem about a lack of something: sensibility, which Merriam-Webster defines as “ability to receive sensations” and, metaphorically, “refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste.” We sometimes hear the word in phrases like “artistic sensibility” or “poetic sensibility,” which imply a heightened receptiveness to creative inspiration. Will Owen’s poem concern the lack of this quality?

Only partly. As it turns out, “Insensibility” is a war poem: published in 1918, it is one of the greatest of the World War I era, and of any era. It’s a study of not one but several forms of insensibility—a whole range of ways to avoid feelings, especially your own and others’ pain. Numbness can be physical, psychological, or both; for soldiers, it can be a trauma response (“shell shock”) or coping mechanism; for civilians in wartime, it can manifest as denial or indifference toward human suffering. Owen sketches the tragic isolation of these various states as he builds to a passionate affirmation of human connectedness. Writing in the midst of the war that will ultimately kill him, he applies his own fierce artistic sensibility—his deepest reserves of feeling—to the theme of insensibility.

The poem plays out over six sections, each brief but densely woven. The first five describe soldiers at war, with the fifth also turning inward to address the speaker and his fellow writers and intellectuals. The sixth shifts to a denunciation of civilians who turn a blind eye to war’s devastation.

The poem’s structure is also founded, with caustic irony, on a biblical model. From the first lines onward, Owen imitates the Beatitudes of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as their equivalent in the Gospel of Luke: “Happy are men who yet before they are killed / Can let their veins run cold.” The Greek word that is traditionally translated as “Blessed” (as in the biblical phrase “Blessed are the meek”) can also be rendered as “Happy.” The eight “blessed” groups in Matthew are “the poor in spirit,” “they that mourn,” “the meek,” “they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (King James Version). Within this allusive framework the poem spins a dense web of parallels and contrasts.

Which of the Gospel’s labels might apply to combat veterans, according to the poet? Not the peacemakers, one would think—although some military slogans would disagree. They that mourn often fits. The others are more ambiguous, or debatable. Some of Owen’s battle-hardened men are poor in spirit in a different sense than Jesus meant: not spiritually humble but spiritually emptied, soldiers who have “cease[d] feeling” and “los[t] imagination.” Others, like the young recruit “whose mind was never trained” and who “cannot tell / Old men’s placidity from his,” are meek in that they’ve been taught unthinking obedience. Soldiers drilled in such meekness may be happy, or at least blissfully ignorant, but as Owen knew from the carnage he witnessed, they probably won’t inherit the earth.

At the end of the poem Owen turns to curse the “wretched” who not only are sheltered from the realities of war, but ignore them altogether. The biblical parallel here is with the “four woes” after the Beatitudes in Luke: four curses against the rich, callous, and complacent. Owen’s “dullards,” too, reject the ethics of humble compassion. In particular, as we’ll see, they fail to mourn.

In the popular poetry of World War I’s early years, the soldier was a man who exalted his country and whose country exalted him in return. “If I should die,” the speaker of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” pleads, “think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” Loved and nurtured by England, he returns that love even in the afterlife. The dead in John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” remain so committed to their cause that they “shall not sleep” if the living betray it.

The whole arsenal of Owen’s war poetry is aimed at exploding this sentimental myth. In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” he famously slams the Roman poet Horace’s “old Lie”—“Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country”—by evoking the senseless horrors of modern warfare. In “Insensibility” his attack is less visceral but no less frightening. Here he portrays an atmosphere of universal war fatigue, a jaded world in which both soldiers and the home front are completely drained of passion. In this world, there are no stout-hearted corpses cheering on their living brothers under picturesque poppies:

… they are troops who fade, not flowers,
For poets’ tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling:
Losses, who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

Ideals are dead, killed in action. There is no suggestion of a higher cause, or any cause; the war has become a murder machine running on sheer inertia. The dead are “gaps for filling” in the eyes of their superiors—or, worse, their comrades and the public. Veterans numbed by repeated traumas no longer register pain (“their old wounds”) or fear atrocities (the “scorching cautery of battle”). Doomed themselves, they “can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.” Young recruits are docile idiots, neither “sad, nor proud, / Nor curious at all.” All are “happy” in the meager sense that they’ve been spared the worst alternative: feeling the full extent of the nightmare.

At the end of this grim list, the poet pauses to take stock. In such a blighted moral landscape, where lofty ideals are useless and terrible ideas can cause the deaths of millions, what kind of vision should the artist or thinker strive toward? Owen ambivalently suggests that “we wise” must try to identify with the naïve young trainee, if only to comprehend the nature of the world he faces:

We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?

In The Poetry of Shell Shock (2005), Daniel Hipp examines the “state of paradox” the poem creates here—one whose resolution, for Owen, could not have been more urgent:

To see and communicate means that Owen must see through eyes incapable of poetic vision … The poet is an intermediary between the soldier and the homefront, a spokesperson but potentially a fellow sufferer himself. The question remains, within this poem, one of perspective—“How should we see?”

Yet, according to Hipp, Owen “deflects the conclusion” he might have offered, instead ending the poem with a blazing volley of indignation:

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.

Hipp contends that this provides “no final resolution … to the question [Owen] poses to himself,” only a slight clarification of his poetic mission. Owen’s alert, unflinching “sensibility” will exempt him from his own curse, “enabl[ing] him to possess ‘whatever’ moans, mourns, and shares” the interconnected sorrows of our moral ecosystem.

It’s possible, however, that this stanza answers Owen’s question implicitly rather than explicitly, by demonstrating a stance and style adequate to his “task.” “That they should be as stones” echoes King Lear’s indignation at the failure of those around him to grieve sufficiently for Cordelia: “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones.” Perhaps the image of a dangerously ignorant young soldier compels Owen—and should compel us—to similar urgency, anger, and compassion.

Either way, the ending keeps ambiguity alive; the crucial word clearly is “whatever.” Owen can’t quite pin down the proper response to mass tragedy—won’t label it precisely as “compassion” or “empathy,” or claim that it can save us, or even bless it along with the Gospels. But he’s quite clear about cursing those who lack it.

This complex and resonant ending is one answer to our earlier question: what makes “Insensibility” a work of art, instead of a plain sermon or lecture? True, Owen unequivocally denounces moral complacency, the refusal to confront or even acknowledge widespread human suffering. In this he echoes John Donne’s insistence that “I am involved in Mankinde” and anticipates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeals to “the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.” But like these poet-preachers—Owen himself had considered a career in the church—he delivers a wake-up call far transcending its immediate occasion. “Insensibility” avoids explicit references to the Great War, and broadens in its last lines to encompass all mass tragedies (“… when many leave these shores”) and finally tragedy itself (“The eternal reciprocity of tears”). Again, Owen recruits us to no positive action, leaving us to locate the appropriate response (“Whatever mourns”) in ourselves and for ourselves.

Then too, there is the sensuous artistry of Owen’s language. His sonorous, slant-rhymed lines unscroll with Shakespearean grandeur:

Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.

“The last sea and the hapless stars” rivals the apocalyptic best of Shelley, Keats, Crane, and Plath. Like those four, Owen is one of the tragically snuffed-out talents of English literature. What might he have written if he hadn’t died at age 25, his voice conscripted by historical accident to a narrow thematic cause? On the other hand, the work of poets who died young inevitably gains drama from our knowledge of their doom, and “Insensibility” moves us with an especially eerie combination of anguish and poise in the face of personal danger.

Finally, the poem fulfills Yeats’s maxim about poetry versus rhetoric by embodying a tense inner conflict, rather than speechmaking or grandstanding. For Owen the ironies of the “Happy” refrain must have been deeply self-wounding: as a traumatized soldier he knew that to “cease feeling” is not happiness but hell, and as a writer he knew that to “lose imagination” is to lose everything. The section beginning “We wise” is equally cutting, implicating the speaker in the bloody follies of his era even as he confronts his “task” as resistant witness. Both weary and fiery, autobiographical and impersonally grand, “Insensibility” seems to command its author as well as its reader to keep feeling, keep imagining, and keep fighting the artist’s fight.

This piece first appeared on www.poetryfoundation.org.

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