The Show by Wilfred Owen

Most of Wilfred Owen’s [biography] poetry was concerned with the act before the battle, or after it; seldom did he write poems that took place during. Of an estimated 46 poems and fragments, less than one third deal with a full-pitched battle. With other elements of the war, such as patrols – Exposure – or movement – Dulce et Decorum Est – yes, but the horrors of a planned battle is the lesser known of Owen’s evils. The Show is a poem written in November in 1917, and revised in Ripon in May, 1918, and it starts with a quote by Yeats that is not a part of this article:


We have fallen in the dreams the ever-living

Breathe on the tarnished mirror of the world,

And then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh.

Which is a misquotation of the speech by Forgael in The Shadowy Waters. Ironically, Yeats was not himself a fan of Wilfred Owen:

 Though William Butler Yeats was a considerable influence upon Owen, the great Anglo-Irish poet manifested a singular blindness towards Owen’s work. Omitting Owen from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats defended his decision by calling Owen “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper” because “he is all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick.”

 

The Show Summary

The Show is set upon a battlefield during an assault between British and German troops. Large parts of it were directly inspired by the book, Under Fire, published in 1917, by Henri Barbusse. Relevant sections are included below:

The man at the end of the rank cries, “I can see crawling things down there”—”Yes, as though they were alive”—”Some sort of plant, perhaps”—”Some kind of men”—

And there amid the baleful glimmers of the storm, below the dark disorder of the clouds that extend and unfurl over the earth like evil spirits, they seem to see a great livid plain unrolled, which to their seeing is made of mud and water, while figures appear and fast fix themselves to the surface of it, all blinded and borne down with filth, like the dreadful castaways of shipwreck.’ (Chapter I, The Vision)

And:

In the middle of the plateau and in the depth of the rainy and bitter air, on the ghastly morrow of this debauch of slaughter, there is a head planted in the ground, a wet and bloodless head, with a heavy beard.

It is one of ours, and the helmet is beside it.’ (Chapter XX, Under Fire)

 

The Show Analysis

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,

As unremembering how I rose or why,

And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,

Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,

And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Owen brings the reader into a dying land, exuding hopelessness. The use of the word ‘dearth’ in particular is poignant enough to drawn an image within the reader’s eye – ‘dearth’ means famine. The land itself, not merely the soldiers, have become char during the battle, and this shows that there is no innocence during war that cannot be exploited or touched upon. Whatever exists in peacetime will be rend by the war, even something as implacably huge as nature. Similarly, by describing the land as ‘gray, cratered like the moon’, Owen creates an associating image of an environment unsuitable for human living. There is nothing within the land that belongs to humanity any longer; the war has eaten it to a husk, leaving behind a barren nightmarish landscape ‘ittered with great pocks and scabs of plagues’. One wonders if, perhaps, Owen is alluding, as some of the more outspoken Romantics did, to the idea of humanity as a plague – though given the Owen’s understanding of war (‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’) it is more likely that he is viewing war itself as a haggard plague, destroying everything that it touches.

 Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,

There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.

It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs

Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

Much like the environment has become inhospitable to human life, human life is scarcely reminiscent of being human. Owen’s comparison is that his fellow soldiers – which the poet is viewing from on high – have been reduced to nothing more to ‘thin caterpillars’, unable to fight their way to freedom, and thus dehumanizing them. They have ceased to become anything more than animals. The war, much like it has destroyed the land, has destroyed them.

 By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped

Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

 

From gloom’s last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,

And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

Further allusions to the complete animalistic nature of soldiers are referenced in the above two stanzas. So broken and beaten by it, that they leave ‘slimy trails’ (the avid reader might wonder just what these trails comprise of; it gives a horrifying image of soldiers dragging themselves forward on their hands, trailing blood behind them), and vanish down ‘hidden holes’. Weakened and monstrous, these soldiers are as far from dulce et decorum est pro patria mori as it is possible, and this was the ultimate goal of Owen’s poetry: to show the readers of his poems that war was hell.

 (And smell came up from those foul openings

As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

This could be a reference to political lies. The reference to ‘deep wounds deepening’ shows that the true hurt of what has happened has scarred the land beyond belief, and there is no way of pulling it out of its mire.

 On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,

Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,

All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Owen’s not critical at this point of The Show, but pitying. The poet is looking back upon his comrades; their misery is his misery, their torment is his torment, and so far above them, he can only helplessly watch as they limp towards each other. The powerful image behind ‘migrants from green fields, intent on mire’ shows the madness of war. ‘Mire’ itself is a dulled word, evoking the image of mud and misery. That these ‘migrants from green fields’ are fighting so much only to be rewarded by dullness is absurd.

 Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,

Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,

I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

It was no secret that the German army was better equipped and better positioned that the British. In many cases, their battles were futile, as the German army would hold a hill, or they’d be manning stronger guns. However, note the frenzied violence in this stanza: like the British soldiers, the German soldiers have been reduced to a mechanism, a war machine that is content on eating and eating and eating. There is no end, not even for them.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,

I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

 

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.

And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid

Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,

Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,

And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.

The Show ends abruptly, and on a sad note. The speaking poet realizes, with a twist of guilt, that he has lead his soldiers to this, and that there is his head, sitting on the ground. The hopelessness evidenced at the start has nowhere else to go; there is no good ending to The Show, no better interpretation, no heroism, no peace. He is doomed to watch his soldiers chewed up and die, knowing that he has led them to this fate, and left them alone.

 

Historical Background

Owen wrote to his mother, Susan Owen, describing his conditions at the front. One particular line references The Show: ‘No Man’s Land is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer … no Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness’. 19 January 1917.

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