Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen

Though the end of the war had seemed no more in sight than the capabilities of flight, it is widely assumed by scholars that neither side had any enmity between them – at least on the level of the common soldier. Both British and German soldiers lived in terrible conditions, suffered from similar, if not exacting, diseases, and were, on occasion, treated at the same hospitals. At the start of the war, there was even a period of time when German soldiers and British soldiers laid down their arms and had a friendly football match.

 

Strange Meeting Summary

Written in the summer of 1918 by Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting was titled after a quote by Percy Bysshe Shelley, from his work ‘The Revolt of Islam’. In it, a soldier escapes from a battle, only to find that he has escaped into hell, and that the enemy that he has killed is welcoming him into hell.

 

Strange Meeting Breakdown Analysis

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Even the start of the poem references war; for Owen, the natural habitat, the natural instincts, of a soldier is war. The start is relatively benign; there is nothing strange about escaping battle down a tunnel (in the First World War, there was a British plot to try and tunnel into German territory, hence the recurring imagery of holes and tunnels).

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

The dead, ever prevalent in Owen’s work, crop up in the second stanza. The words ‘encumbered sleepers’ implies a relatively peaceful passing, however as soon as the soldier passes by them, he awakens one of the sleepers. The use of ‘sleepers’ is also heavily ironic on Owen’s part, given that it is something peaceful, yet however, the peacefulness of the image implied by ‘sleepers’ is undercut in the third stanza.

With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

It is worth noting that this is perhaps one of the most bloodless poems that Owen wrote. He eschews the in-depth look towards brutalities that most Owen poems usually claim – omitting the description of the injuries, instead, for what was lost. Although the first two lines lend an idea – though there is no gore, the person speaking is terrified – the presence of war is still felt. It is also worth noting that this poem is one of the most silent that Wilfred Owen wrote; his onomatopoeic style eschewed in lieu of speech, and nothing else. There is no humming guns, no whistling bombs; only the silence of the dead.

Related poetry:   Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

However, just because there is no evidence of blood and gore does not mean that this is not a war poem. The soldier’s loss reverberates through the third stanza, and is felt far more acutely knowing the background behind his death: there is no glory in dying, only ‘the pity of war’, and pity is the emotion that is most acutely felt in this stanza.

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. . . .

In the last part, the speaker admits to the listener – we can assume that this is Owen himself – that he is ‘the enemy you killed, my friend’, and that he recognizes him. Despite the fact that they were on different sides, there is no animosity on the part of the man who died – it seems as though the war has spent all his anger and his violence, if there ever was some. The poem ends on a melancholy note, almost Keatsian, where the speaker invites the listener to sleep with him, and it is assumed that they both have died. If anything is at all obvious it’s that war solves no problems. By the end of the poem, nothing has been resolved; war still carries on, and the men are still dead.

 

Historical Background

Strange Meeting was written in 1918 and stands in the forefront of Owen’s achievements; the quote, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ is to be found carved on Owen’s memorial in Shrewsbury, and Siegfried Sassoon called it Owen’s ‘pass into immortality’. It is made up of 44 lines in iambic pentameter divided into four stanzas of irregular length.

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