Wild With All Regrets by Wilfred Owen

Wild With All Regrets takes its title from a Tennyson poem – one called ‘The Princess’ which had a quote that read as ‘Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; / O Death in Life, th, days that are no more!’. It is an apt title, and an apt source poem, considering that Wild With All Regrets takes place in the last few minutes of a dying soldier as his body shuts down, and he grows immobile, and as the rest of his life leaches from him, he is left to think about all the losses in his life, all the things that he has missed.

Wild With All Regrets evolved into ‘A Terre’, and one can notice the similarities in diction, in language, in phrasing; although it is a poem of its own right, Wild With All Regrets links very well to ‘A Terre’, and to read them both side by side is to see the development of a ‘what if’ narrative. In Wild With All Regrets, the poet-soldier dies; in ‘A Terre’, he lives. It is difficult to say which is the worse punishment.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

– Wilfred Owen in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon.

There has been a lot of debate about the precise relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Scholars, on both sides, defend their views strongly; what one side believes to be a passionate letter between two lovers, the other take as no more than an expression of emotion in a dire situation. What cannot go unexplained, however, is the fact that Sassoon and Owen both had strong relationships together, and that Sassoon became Owen’s sounding board for a variety of his poems. ‘A Terre’, and its original permutation Wild With All Regrets, are two of those poems.

When Owen drafted Wild With All Regrets, he wrote to Sassoon and told him that he had finished it in one sitting, but that he had doubts about the poem; he said, ‘If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say, ‘Here is poetry’, it will be so for me.’. Wild With All Regrets was finished in April, at Ripon, and Owen called it a
‘photographic representation’ of an officer dying of his wounds; it was later on in July that the poem turned fully into A Terre, the poem that was subtitled ‘being the philosophy of many soldiers’.

 

Wild With All Regrets Analysis

My arms have mutinied against me — brutes!
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats,
My back’s been stiff for hours, damned hours.
Death never gives his squad a Stand-at-ease.
I can’t read. There: it’s no use. Take your book.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We said we’d hate to grow dead old. But now,
Not to live old seems awful: not to renew
My boyhood with my boys, and teach ’em hitting,
Shooting and hunting, — all the arts of hurting!
— Well, that’s what I learnt. That, and making money.
Your fifty years in store seem none too many;
But I’ve five minutes. God! For just two years
To help myself to this good air of yours!
One Spring! Is one too hard to spare? Too long?
Spring air would find its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.

The opening two lines to Wild With All Regrets are the same as the last two lines of the first stanza of ‘A Terre’, and yet their power is not dulled here; it still paints the image of a broken and miserable soldier, his body betraying his control and not doing as he was told, from the arms that have ‘mutinied against me’ to the fidgeting fingers, which could very well be a sign of shellshock. The stiffness of his back implies that he has been resting in the same position for quite some time, and that his joints have all locked up; this helps to imply the image of loneliness, the idea that his final few hours are filled with discomfort and there is nothing he can do about them. ‘Death never gives his squad a ‘Stand-at-ease’, he states, which shows how long he has been fighting with precisely this problem, how long he has been hurting.

The soldier laments that he has wasted his time wishing that his life was ‘short and merry’ – from the diction that he uses we can infer that he is a soldier of some standing, as ‘my buck’ is usually used by men of a rich social background – and that ‘not to live old old seems awful; not to renew my boyhood with my boys’. There is so much loss, so much that the man will be missing out, that it is impossible not to feel sorry for him, impossible not to look at the language and pity the soldiers who were ferried out in their dozens on a promise that their lives would matter. Propaganda and the British war machine swallowed up entire generations of families, leaving them tattered and broken; this soldier, as we can tell, is one of them, and he knows it. When he speaks about how he wants ‘just two years / to help myself to this good air of yours’, and that it would restore him, it is with a sense of bargaining and loss, pleading and want.

Yes, there’s the orderly. He’ll change the sheets
When I’m lugged out, oh, couldn’t I do that?
Here in this coffin of a bed, I’ve thought
I’d like to kneel and sweep his floors for ever, —
And ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
For I’d enjoy the dirt; who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust, —
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn?
Dear dust, — in rooms, on roads, on faces’ tan!
I’d love to be a sweep’s boy, black as Town;
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
A flea would do. If one chap wasn’t bloody,
Or went stone-cold, I’d find another body.

In the second stanza, the soldier goes on to say that he wishes he could do something – he wishes his body still had the capacity of movement that the war has robbed from him. He envies the movements of the orderly. Even menial jobs are good for him, because he would ‘enjoy the dirt’, and he asks ‘who’s prejudiced / Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust’. At this stage in his life, he feels even less alive than ‘specks that in the sun-shafts turn’; he is not quite yet dust, but his body has abandoned him, and so he might as well be.

Mostly, this stanza is overinundated with loss. Owen was righteously and rightly angry when he saw young soldiers heading to their deaths, and his poems were a constant resurgence of attempting to get them to stop, attempting to tell the real story behind the war, behind their service. He wanted to tell everyone that the service the British promised was nothing that they could manage, and Owen succeeded. Today, the First World War is not glorified, but lamented. Remembrance Day exists to take into account the millions that died during the First World War.

Which I shan’t manage now. Unless it’s yours.
I shall stay in you, friend, for some few hours.
You’ll feel my heavy spirit chill your chest,
And climb your throat on sobs, until it’s chased
On sighs, and wiped from off your lips by wind.

I think on your rich breathing, brother, I’ll be weaned
To do without what blood remained me from my wound.

Notice how quickly a man dies; the soldier knows that he will be missed for the moment, and then forgotten, and he says as much – the man who’s visited has a life, a family; he has nothing but death behind him, and memories that have left him unpleasant and unable to move. He has nothing but the war, which has hollowed him out and used him, and left him broken.

And he has made his peace with it. There is no escaping death, and one gets the sense that the man wouldn’t want to, even if he could; he has seen too much suffering to want to prolong his existence, and so the end of the poem is oddly hopeful. There will be, after all, no more suffering when he dies.

 

Historical Background

Owen wrote this in 1917, although some believe that he wrote it on his deathbed in 1918.

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