“[T]he poem, or the great poem, lets itself be translated. Admittedly, the loss is immense and irreversible. Song, rhythms, cadence, sounds, stanzas are almost always abolished in one fell swoop. And yet, I claim that the voice of the poet, the singularity of his or her musician’s silence, remains, even in the midst of the loss of almost all the music” (27). –Alain Badiou, ‘The Age of the Poets’.
A neophyte of tasks has been arrayed for this essay, namely, the uncovering of Wilfred Owen’s poetical being via recourse through a Badiouian-inspired deconstruction; of course, though an impossible endeavor in anything less than a doctoral dissertation, by delimiting ours ambition to a close examinations of a couple of poems, we may be able to at least glean some of the incongruities dwelling within Owen’s wider body of work. As such, this essay will examine “Greater Love” which displays remarkable failings insofar as each—like the entirety of the Anglo-Saxon poetical canon—negate their own purposes for existing.
Why they negate their own purpose for existing is evident with recourse through Badiou and what he calls ‘The Age of the Poets’, a concept which he defines as “a philosophical category” (4) one which allows a poem to be translated or “visible from the point of view of philosophy itself”. For this essay, building on Badiou’s views of poetry, it is a question of how intellectual and artistic run-off from the Nineteenth Century has coerced certain poets, and by extension poems, to occupy the place of philosophical thinking proper— how the epoch following the Victorian era has instilled within the poem the role of thinking about itself, for itself, by itself. This in itself a sort of negation; it is a closed circle encompassing nothing but its own being. Hence why Badiou makes reference to how “the poets in the age of the poets have been forced to subtract the poem, in its role as thought” (13) from romanticized definitions of poetry which operate with an object, or totalizing cipher (:that which commands the poet to submit his/her creative energies to creating along certain paths, instead of allowing artistic freedom), and are so felled to following “a series of prohibitions, which aim to centre the poem on a tacit concept rather than the power of an image” (13 emphasis Badiou). The poets of this age complete this centering by a “trac[ing] a diagonal stroke through whatever classification one imagines [for language]” (15), which enacts a “short-circuit of the circulation of linguistic energy” (15) and wages war against the totalizing power of objectification wrought by the image. This alone is capable of “mak[ing] a hole in whatever knowledge is concentrated in significations” (16), effectively organizing a “disorientation in thought” (18) that enables the removal of the reader. Subtraction, thus, is “what assembles the poem with the direct aim of a withdrawal of the object” (29) thus allowing for dissemination to “dissolve the object by way of its infinite metaphorical distribution” achieving a “pure multiplicity”.
With this ‘pure multiplicity’, that which allows for a proliferation of meaning, Owen fashions a radical trope out of an antiquated concept: here, in his poem “Greater Love”, Owen utilizes the well-known tendency of classical poets to describe the features of their lover, only Owen adds a twist to his ballad-like piece by tethering the metaphorical feminine body to the hardships and psychological and physical trauma of war; hence, if Owen’s poetry is an event, as in a concept which straddles the ontological emptiness of the void (complete meaninglessness), and the poem’s being itself—being, of course, the multiplicity of thoughts which the poem thinks, that power inherent in words which allows for readers to instigate a variety of differing interpretative claims, then if we must name this being and delineate how Owen’s poetry exists in a radical universe, then it is precisely due to its poetic fidelity to classic regimes appropriating the womanly form.
Stanza one reads
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead (143 Owen)
Immediately perceptible in this first stanza is Owen’s rhyme schema: red/dead, pure/lure, red/stead. “Ur” and “e” dominate and so repeat the most; repetition here, and indeed throughout the whole poem, functions as many theorists have argued—it serves to undermine subjectivity by positing a false reality: the repetition of sounds serves to lull the reader into complacency where they accept the self-enclosed reality of the poem as self-evident. Perhaps more importantly, however, this repetition enables the subtraction of the poem’s being-object. Although it is seemingly an odd claim to make, this object withdrawal is readily completed through the chain of signification associated with Owen’s rhyming structure—‘red’ (line 1) catapults the reader to ‘dead’ (line 2), just as ‘pure’ (line 4) does to ‘lure’ (line 5), a connection which denies any possibility of objectification by favoring a linguistic acceleration; said another way, what happens in this rhyming is the creation of the “pure multiplicity” of which Badiou speaks where the variety of the concept’s manifestations, or, the different ways its being is disseminated throughout (“negativity”), replaces the image as the means of conveyance. This multiplicity of thought in turn denies the possibility of a totalizing object precisely through the bombardment of negativity: the object never materializes because the rhyme never relents space for an object—everything the poem does to convey meaning and thought is done via rhyme.
How meaning is found within a rhythmic structure, however, is only perceptible if we examine some of the words with recourse to semiotics. The rhyming can be seen to be a major part of how the object is subtracted. This in itself though does not inform what the lingual relationships signify, how the poem’s negativity operates linguistically. Rather, we must deconstruct the rhyming partners and their supporting non-rhyming counterparts in order to glean how Owen’s rhyming—his acceleration— subtracts the object.
Examining the first rhyming pair, ‘red—dead’, there is the obvious reference to blood and death—red heightens the expectation by giving a false impression, that the poem’s focus will be on purely bodily features, while ‘dead’ further heightens the expectation by way of revelation: the poem will be fixated on battlefield casualties and appropriates feminine beauty in order to manifest the analogy. This is why the supporting cast of ‘stained stones’ (line 2) should command attention as it acts as a fulcrum due to its augmenting ability: the metaphorical body posited in Owen’s poem, again, assumed to be a woman dressed in finery, is clearly not as fine, or existentially and emotionally real, as these ‘stained stones’ soiled with the lifeblood of Englishmen; nationalistic jingoism here relents in favor of mourning and so becomes a sort of national allegory for British involvement in the conflict and so acts as an indictment of British imperialism.
The second rhyming pair, ‘pure—lure’, advances this indictment by extending the social commentary. Line three, though only a supporting series of words, supports the indictment by relating those slain Englishmen to people, mostly working class youth, seduced into fighting by the bourgeoisie. This is the “wooded and wooer” while the “kindness” stands-in for nationalism proper; in order for there to have been a war, men needed to be recruited into the armed forces by some other social strata. Considering the time of England’s industrial development and the contradictions in the world capitalist markets, ‘wooed and wooer’ can only be the proletarian and bourgeoisie, while ‘kindness’ must denote the only force capable of mobilizing one class to fight on behalf of another—nationalism. “Losing lure” (line 5), accordingly, becomes radical as it denotes a severe disenfranchisement with not only British participation but seemingly nationalism in general: ‘shame’ (line 4) thus transforms ‘kindness’ into a negative augmentation, “their love pure” (line 4), henceforth, becomes the tearful reminisces of a survivor musing on his killed fellows, those people who gave everything they had for their nation, something which could only be described as a ‘love pure’; this is related back to and reinforced in line five when Owen writes of “when I behold eyes blinded in my stead” as he is actively relating the horror of war. Digging deeper, even ‘blinded’ means more than Owen lets on as it seems that death, is perhaps, the true sign of what ‘blinded’ signals as the ‘—ed’ suffix informs of the past and contextually has a sense of finality which adds to the degradation of the supposed female body of the poem, while positing an awareness of modern warfare.
Stanza two reads
Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knifed-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.
Owen continues his analogy of a woman’s body being related to modern warfare. Even so, the contortions of this frame is precariously absent from most of the stanza except for the metaphorical woman’s bodily state (‘attitude’). Even so she does have presence insofar as her transitory actions—‘trembles’ (line2)—is related to the wartime ravages of fighting men’s bodies. However, if it is has the analysis have thus far promoted, that this female body is a incarnation of the contradictions of bourgeois society, then this second stanza evolves this metaphor by having the stanza’s only rhyming couplet—‘knifed-skewed’ (line 8) and ‘decrepitude’ (line 12) weighing in (intensely) on the finite, and violent, nature of repressive social apparatuses during a period of capitalistic decay; ‘trembles’, as such, is representative of this decay by its very differentiation (“not exquisite like”) from the afflictions of the fighting men, thus drawing a line revealing a difference between the female body and the fighting men as subjects (that the body and masculine subjects are not experiencing affects similarly, that there is a difference of purpose for Owen in what the subject and female body is supposed to achieve). Before we can understand the nature of this couplet, specifically how the metaphorical body and the subject interact, we must examine this stanza’s additional rhyming properties, those which operate through a three-fold chain: ‘there—care—bear’. Like the previous rhyming couplets in stanza one, this trifold arrangement displaces the object by accelerating significations between the words until the negativity is the thought of the poem itself. In this case, the thought conveyed by the string of words illustrate, directly, a set action: people are ‘there’ (line 9) (somewhere) while ‘God seems not to care’ (line 10) about their powerful love which they must ‘bear’ (line 11). The supportive words in line nine, “rolling and rolling” stress an incessant action, as though the trembling—the convulsions in bourgeois civilization which leads to war and unending mourning for the dead—will never cease, even during a historical moment (World War I) where the convulsions seem ready to tear the world apart. ‘Care’ is then related back to this social anxiety by way of disillusioned, or in the least a jaded outlook, that even God himself cannot bring himself to ‘care’ for the ‘love’ bared by the soldiers in defense of country (and by extension capitalism and the state). It is in this despairing mood, understood to have social connotations to the pessimism of British troops, which one may now examine the rhyming couplet of ‘knifed-skewed’ and ‘decrepitude’. Grafting on what we understand about the rhyming triplet onto this couplet, we perceive the logical endgame of the troops’ pessimism, of their inability to transcend the reactionary ideology of their government, will inevitably result in the forfeiture of their lives—‘knifed-skewed’ hints at a clumsy set of bodily appendages: limbs ‘knifed-skewed’ would be only able to function in a oafish, cartoon like manner and would promptly fall into ‘decrepitude’, which in this context equates to death.
Stanza three reads
Your voice sings not so soft,–
Though even as winds murmuring through rafted loft,–
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear,
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.
In this instance, Owen’s rhythmic operations herald a six-fold chain: soft—loft—dear—dear—clear—hear. Throughout the stanza we see the further degradation of the metaphorical female body, all of which is tied to the musical qualities of the body’s ability. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the previous stanza, in which the female body was almost absent, in this stanza the reverse is true—most of this passage is devoted to detailing her voice. Additionally, the passage is overly negative, even sarcastic; line fifteen utilizes ‘dear’ twice to a sarcastic end, the double usage forcing a negative onto what had been the ambiguous nature of line thirteen (whether the speaker meant his words in a regretful or harsh manner is forthrightly vanquished by the repetition of ‘dear’), something confirmed in line sixteen through the comparison of the female body’s voice to that of the slain soldiers. In contrast to the troops voices, which are ‘gentle’ to the point of being like an ‘evening clear’ (perhaps a reference to an blissful evening without shelling), we must assume that this female form has a voice rough and coarse, perhaps akin to an evening blanketed by mortar rounds and artillery shells. Furthermore, this is a coarse voice which seems even crude. Line eighteen includes ‘piteous’ to describe the solider-victims; if we were to reverse-engineer a definition for the female body, then we can accurately say that this is a metaphorical body lacking in deserving pity: she seems to be in a situation unlike those of the soldiers whom are silenced by dirt: clearly she is far removed from such travesties and so if we were to link this removal to the hostility of the speaker toward her and remember this is a body supposedly acting as a stand-in for bourgeois society as it stood in Owen’s time, then the radical nature of what this female body represents can then be expanded to include a value judgment: that the English bourgeoisie do not, at least from how this analysis has read the poem thus far, care for the plight of the ‘piteous’ solider and as such, deserve no pity themselves.
Stanza four reads
Heart, you were never hot.
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.
Owen’s final stanza brings the female body to a thunderous finale. The rhyming structure reflects this with a rhyming duo and a trio. ‘Hot’ (line 19) and ‘shot’ (line 20) in addition to the trio which is seen in ‘pale’ (line 21), ‘trail’ (line 21), and ‘hail’ (line 22). Each arrangement constructs a tenacious view of the postulated female form, which, in the final analysis, combine in the final line to summon a biblical allusion, thus providing readers with a view of capitalist society which is as depressing as it is angry.
As reflected by ‘pale’, the metaphorical form is dying. This is made clear in the rhyming duo: the female body’s heart was never ‘hot’, a word which could indicate a literal interpretation signaling a lack of flowing blood, but in this context seems to point toward a metaphorical context since Owen is using line nineteen in relation to a metaphorical form; as such, ‘hot’ appears to denote a passion, some great love. With ‘never’ acting as a modifier, line twenty then reveals that this hotness is associated with never being like those hearts “made great with shot” which, again, if we look at metaphorically, indicates a tension—perhaps a dialectic—between the metaphorical form and those soldiers who die by their millions. Remembering what the female form represents, this lack of hotness and ‘shot’ sounds as though Owen is deriding the English capitalist class for their absent role from the conflict, that though they led these young men into combat, they themselves abstain from the slaughter. Accordingly, it is not surprising when Owen writes their hand as being ‘pale’: their lack of a passion for their own people tells the horrible truth of their uncaring apathy… as a class they are bankrupt, dying. And yet, “paler are all which trail/ Your cross through flame and hail” (lines 22-3). ‘Hail’, of course, being an important signal for it follows ‘trail’ in the rhyming schema telling of hardship—these soldiers can only follow grudgingly while enduring the ‘hail’, the bullets and bombs, of the bourgeois class; something related to the carrying of a cross (“Your cross through…”) which, speaking religiously, tethers itself to the final line referencing John 21: 15-17; the weeping and the refrain in physical contact, the lack of ascendance to Heaven, can be aptly translated to Owen’s metaphorical female body to indicate a lack of an ability to change, both as a class and as individuals, on the bourgeoisie’s part (something which, if it were true, would be a remarkable display of radicalism on Owen’s part).
As surprising as it may seem, Owen, as the critique above illustrated, was concerned about the role of nationalism in English society, specifically, how it was used on interpellated subjects to draw them into armed conflict. Using techniques used by Shakespeare to illustrate a class while also drawing on Biblical allusions, in addition to his own wartime experience, he paints a vivid picture of soldiers’ plight. It is a well-organized plight, however, as it draws the reader into a web of thought via a denial of an escape exterior to the poem itself: historical allusions and information aside, the reader must stay focused within the confines of the poem’s universe in order to unravel a version of its thread.
Moreover, Owen stands in line with what Badiou calls “the Age of the Poets” in that he organizes his poetry with the express intent—stated or unconscious—to withdraw, or, subtract, a totalizing object. Open to multiple interpretations and a plethora of outlooks, Owen’s writing evokes a vast multiplicity of meaning; the poem here does not so much as think as it ponders on the world’s wider questions of existence and class.
Owen, Wilfred. “Greater Love.” The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. New York: Norton. 1986. Print.
Badiou, Alain. The Age of the Poets. Trans. Bruno Bosteels. London: Verso, 2014. Print.