Le Christianisme is one of the shortest poems of Owen’s set. It is only eight lines in total, split into two stanzas of four lines each, and it was written in France in April 1917. On Owen’s corrected fair copy, he had written ‘Quivières’, the name of the village that he was quartered in April 1917, however the village in question does not have a church. His memory therefore may have confused the place where he was stationed when he wrote the poem.
Soldiers on both sides of the war believed that God was on their side: preachers and reverends would soothe fretting soldiers with the idea that they were fighting in God’s name, and that they would win because they were God’s preferred and chosen country. This was, of course, a momentary belief, for as soon as the soldiers found themselves in the midst of the shelling and the shooting, their beliefs suffered greatly. Owen, himself a devout Christiana and raised with the intent of joining up to become a bishop, lost his faith somewhere along the way; but given that he wa surrounded with the wholesale massacre of his company, it was hardly to be considered otherwise.
25 April 1917A Coy., My Cellar
My own dearest Mother,
Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communiqué; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter! Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open. The Colonel sent round this message the next day: ‘I was filled with admiration at the conduct of the Battalion under the heavy shell-fire…. The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.’ The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railwav embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy., 2/Lt. Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9 days’ Rest. I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.
— Owen to his mother.
Le Christianisme Summary
Le Christianisme is perhaps one of the most obviously anti-religion poems that Owen has ever written, though even his most stalwart anti-religion poems cannot be called as such without a great pinch of salt. Owen’s opinions on the church were so complicated during the time of the war that to diminish them to one or the other would be just as problematic as ignoring the issue completely. It is worth remembering that Owen saw the war as not being worth the effort spooned into it by the soldiers; as being a shocking lack of life surrounding a dogma that had strayed far from the doctrine that Owen had grown up with.
So the church Christ was hit and buried
Under its rubbish and its rubble.
In cellars, packed-up saints long serried,
Well out of hearing of our trouble.
The first stanza of Le Christianisme shows a ravaged landscape. Nothing is sacred anymore; the war has broken even into faith, and left behind tattered remnants – a bomb has hit the ‘church Christ’, and buried him in the rubble; at once, the image is blasphemous and chilling, owing especially to the fact that Owen was a stalwart Christian, as were many people of the time. Thus to write about how the war has affected the religious landscapes shows the lack of faith that exists in people nowadays, and the lack of belief that has happened due to the war itself.
However, in a parallel imagery, it seems as though the religious have been insulated largely because of the effect of war. Although the church Christ is ‘hit and buried’, it exists still – protected from the constant bombardment of the warfare by the warfare itself, thus showing the lasting nature of belief and of religion. It is perhaps Owen’s attempt to reconcile with his gradually declining belief.
The second two lines of the stanza show a similar attitude: ‘in cellars, packed-up saints long serried, / will out of hearing of our trouble.’ Religion therefore exists – however it is as indifferent to human suffering as nature is indifferent, and there is a lack of feeling on behalf of the saints towards their human subjects, who have prayed to them so often, and long for their guidance and safety. It is a chilling indictment, for Owen, on the over-attachment to religion during war. The saints have long-since stopped listening to humanity, thus evoking a feeling of helplessness and emptiness for the reader, a sense of loss that is woven in through the words.
One Virgin still immaculate
Smiles on for war to flatter her.
She’s halo’d with an old tin hat,
But a piece of hell will batter her.
However, there is one vestige of religious iconography left untouched – the Virgin Mary. She has remained untouched by war, perhaps owing to the protection provided by the church, perhaps simply out of luck – however, this is not some blindly fortuitous icon. The Virgin Mary ‘smiles on for war to flatter her’, and the phrasing lends the image of an indifferent string of fate; whatever happens to humans, Owen seems to be saying, it is far beyond the care of the saints, the Virgin Mary, and of Christ himself. It is perhaps an indictment and a criticism of the staunch and bold claims made by the British clergy during the war, who stated that God was on their side, and in fact used this doctrine to spur British soldiers into signing up for the army. Glorious imagery of British soldiers as God’s soldiers ran rampant throughout the country – however, the truth was far from what was portrayed. War was not graceful, and war was not guided underneath the attentions of God.
It was brutal and bloody, and cruel. This was what Owen hoped to convey throughout his poetry; that whatever had been fed to hapless soldiers was a lie.
‘She’s halo’d with an old tin hat’ is a somehow blasphemous image, showing the peaceful Virgin Mary surrounded and claimed by war. The clarity of the imagery is startling; it unsettles the reader, and for a second, the Virgin Mary seems to be holding out. War is hell, yes, but it has not touched the very vestiges of belief.
However Owen ends the poem with ‘But a piece of hell will batter her’, showing the futility of belief, the futility of religious dogma in a world that had gone mad with blood and death.
In the biography titled Wilfred Owen, Jon Stallworthy gives a glimpse of just 7 how important religion was to the poet as a youngster. Stallworthy cites a passage from Harold Owen‘s Journey from Obscurity and describes times in Owen‘s youth when he would, with his mother‘s encouragement and help, imagine himself a bishop. Owen‘s mother created for him altar cloths and a bishop‘s mitre, and Owen would arrange their sitting-room to represent a church. Finally, on Sunday evenings, the young Owen would call his family in as his congregation and deliver a sermon he had prepared for them.
From ‘The Church of Craiglockhart: Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon ‘s Critique and Use of Religion in their World War I Poetry’ by Brian Karsten.