The best inspirations for poetry, or any art, really, as with the case of Owen’s 1914, come from anything that is real and important in the life of the writer. For Wilfred Owen, inspiration could be found in his first-hand experience of the First World War, for which he is well-known today; his poetry, written based on his own experiences in the trenches and battlefields of that war, serves as a vivid account of the brutality of that war. His writing is honest and uncensored, painting powerful images that are beautifully written while simultaneously being horrific in nature. In the poetry of Wilfred Owen, 1914 lives on in his work named after that fateful year.
War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art’s ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love’s wine’s thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.
The topic and theme of 1914 is extremely evident from the first two words. Between these and the poem title, a correlation is easy to make; this poem references the First World War, and the year it began. The “Winter of the world” is evidently a metaphor for the way the war influences Europe. In winter, there is less light, less warmth, and a great deal of death in the plant and animal kingdoms. In this sense, it is an excellent metaphor to say that being at war is like being in the midst of winter. Coupled with this is the following analogy comparing the war to a tornado, effectively emphasizing the chaotic reach of the war. It is as if the whole of Europe isn engulfed in the reach of a massive tornado. Everywhere there is loudness and chaos, and beneath it all is a winter that threatens to never end.
To “rend” something is to tear it, to break it, and this tornado is destroying the “sails of progress.” A ship without sails is one that isn’t moving, or one that is moving very slowly, and with large amounts of strain and effort (through oars). So, Owen is saying, progress has slowed in favour of war, and Art — conceivably the opposite of war — has been all but forgotten. There is a “Famine of thought and feeling,” a truly sad analogy to describe the way the minds of so many can be consumed by the war, slowly degrading everything else until love and art and inspiration are meaningless before the Great War.
The rhyming structure of 1914 is an interesting one. The first verse uses simple rhymes in a less-than-simple pattern — ABBA, to be precise. It reads somewhat unusually, but still manages to flow. In truth, it is the language that makes this poem; the heavy metaphorical language and powerful imagery is what solidifies its form more so than its structure of rhyme.
For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.
The second and final verse for 1914 is no less metaphorical than the first, but focuses more on chronology than present. If Winter is Owen’s metaphor for the war, then it makes sense for there to be a Spring, Summer, and Autumn as well. The descriptive words in the first two lines use more euphony than the rest of the poem; the idea of Spring “blooming” and Summer “blazing” helps to create a positive image of these seasons, which are used to represent times before the War began. Autumn continues this trend; it falls “softly,” and is marked by a period of increase.
The poem ends on a very sad note, one that points out that in the present there is Winter, and there is only Winter, and that the only thing that can be done about it is to prepare for the eventually-coming Spring… but the seeds that are being sown to bring about that spring are made from blood, indicating that in times of war, bloodshed is what begets peace, and that is the reality of 1914.
Historical Context to 1914
It should come as no surprise for anyone to learn that Wilfred Owen was an English soldier as well as a poet, who served during the First World War between 1915 and 1918. Many of the poems he wrote during his life were written during this period, and described the conditions and mental status of soldiers in the field. Many of his poems, 1914 included were influenced or edited by Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet and soldier of the time. Together, the two men used poetry and writing as a means of coping, and also as a way of changing public perception of the war. At the outbreak of war especially, serving one’s country was a glorious ambition, one that countless young men were eager to partake in. No one truly understood the nightmarish terror that was trench warfare until they were actually fighting, at which point it was too late. Poetry like Owen’s, like 1914, did much to change public perception, although many of Owen’s poems were not published until after his death, when the war had ended. Still, his works had considerable influence on those who did read them, as well as on those who continued to believe that fighting in war could be a thing of glory and excitement. He became known for his honesty in poetry that accurately portrayed events from his own life during his final years, as he was killed in action only a week before the end of the war. In 1914, his experience and his reflections are able to live on for any who will read them, even over a hundred years later.