Question:
Present a detailed commentary on the poem ‘STRANGE MEETING’ by Wilfred
Owen. To include – Explanation of the ideas expressed in the poem. Links
with specific moments with other Owen poems. Discussion of how the poem
works in term of poetic technique.


Answer:
STRANGE MEETING is probably Owen’s most problematic poem. It’s title comes
from Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” – “Gone forth whom no strange meeting
did befall.” It was written in the spring or early summer of 1918, the year
he died. It was based on an earlier poem “Earth’s Wheels” which I reproduce
as Appendix I. The poem recounts a dramatic meeting in Hell between two
soldiers who had fought on opposing sides. No longer enemies they find it
possible to see beyond conflict and hatred in a shared awareness of “the
truth untold” and the need to proclaim that truth. As Owen said in his
famous Preface, “All a poet can do is warn”.

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The poem is written in first person and hence we tend to assume that the
first speaker is Owen, but Owen’s message is delivered by the second
speaker. This has lead to a speculation that the second speaker is an
apparition of the first. In the first verse the first speaker dies and
finds his way to Hell. “Titanic wars” imply not just this war, but
conflicts throughout history on a gigantic scale.


In the second verse the first speaker realises that he is in Hell after
seeing the dead bodies, which however were groaning under the burden of
their suffering. He prods one, which gets up, recognises him and blesses
him. “Piteous” is a key word here, which connects to almost all his poetry
that, really is about the pity of war. The similarity of the dead in this
poem to the “living” or should one say dying in his other poems is
intentional. Compare the living of Mental Cases “-Thus their heads wear
this hilarious, hideous, Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses-” to the
dead of Strange Meeting “By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell”.


In the beginning of the third verse Owen compares Hell with war. There is
no blood, no smoke, no noise in Hell but all these are there in war. Vivid
descriptions of these are a hallmark of his poems. “If you could hear, at
every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” from
Dulce et Decorum Est “What murk of air remained stank old, and sour With
fumes from whizz-bangs,” from The Sentry .


The first speaker addresses the second as “strange friend”. Much mystery
has been attributed to this paradox, but to my mind he uses strange because
he does not know the person and friend because from this point on they will
share a common destiny. In response to the first speaker’s statement that
‘here is no cause to mourn’, the second replies that they have to mourn the
years of their life they spent fighting each other. Precious years in which
they could have fulfilled their hopes and achieved their desires. Lines 17
to 23 (“After the wildest beauty in the world” etc.) refer to Owen’s quest
for beauty and truth which he believed he had inherited from Keats and
Shelley and which perhaps may have been the subject of his poetry had not
it been for his experiences in the war which changed everything. “So must I
tempt that face to loose its lightning. Great gods, whose beauty is death,
will laugh above, Who made his beauty lovelier than love. I shall be bright
with their unearthly brightening.” from Storm. He began to write about the
pity of war; purely about the pity unpolluted with other emotions. It
became his mission to tell the “truth untold”, the real and monstrous
nature of war, which became the subject of all his later poems. The untold
truth negates the old lie that it is a sweet and seemly thing to die for
one’s country. This is the subject of Dulce et Decorum Est. The poet says
that in the future will accept a world shattered with war as the norm and
do nothing about the bloodshed and violence. A prediction that has come
true with frightening accuracy. In the remaining part of the verse the
poet, through the second speaker, says what he as a poet wants to do and
hence in general what poetry should do. He says that poetry has the courage
and wisdom, the mystery and the mastery to heal and is not tainted by war.

The poet would have liked to bring this life-giving water from ‘sweet
wells’ and spread it without restraint. He would like to tell the world the
truth that war is not glory and honour but stark pain. In poems such as
Greater Love and Anthem for the Doomed Youth the images of love and delight
are transformed into images of death. These transformations are the
experience of his generation. “Red lips are not so red As the red stones
kissed by the English dead…” Here Owen perhaps refers to his decision to
fight rather than be a conscientious objector. This decision was taken
because if Owen wanted to write about the pity of war, he needed to
experience that pity. And his writing about the pity would hopefully be a
balm to the next generation.


The poem ends with the enemy killed showing no hatred; no feeling of
vengeance for his killer imparting the message that mankind must seek
reconciliation. The “friend” of this verse contrasts ironically with the
friend of Dulce et Decorum Est – “My friend, you would not tell with such
high zest…” The friend of Strange Meeting is a stranger who’s views are
Owen’s views whereas the friend of the latter poem is a known person
(likely reference to fellow poets who glorify war) who’s view Owen
disagrees with.


The study of the structure of a poem is known as prosody and comprises
meter, rhyme, and verse. Structurally the poem comprises 44 lines of iambic
pentameter with pararhymed couplets. I have come across different verse
structures in the various places I located the poem – one, three and four
verses. Since I referred to the version in the 12th Grade textbook, 19th
and 20th Century Verse, I will stick to that. Lines 1 to 3 comprise the
first verse, lines 4 to 10 the second, lines 11 to 39 the third and lines
40 to 44 the fourth. As the ideas get more complicated, more philosophical
the length of the verse increases. Though the bulk of the poem lies in the
third verse, it is the last verse which has the most impact and Owen has
intentionally saved it for the end. The second speaker has recognised the
first as his killer in the beginning itself and could have revealed this
vital information immediately but does not do so. He launches into the
undone years and truth untold and only after finishing what he has to say,
he dramatically but softly reveals the relationship between the two – “I am
the enemy you killed, my friend.” No wonder these words have been chosen to
adorn the poet’s memorial in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey. The iambic
pentameter which consists of five “feet” each having one unstressed and one
stressed syllable, is the most common meter used in English literature. The
reason probably is that it is just the right length for a narration, not
too short – not too long. Shakespeare used it in his plays and Wordsworth
used it in his Preludes and Excursions. In this poem too, it provides an
easy flow to the narration. Pararhyme, or half-rhyme as it is often called,
is an imperfect rhyme in which the final and the preceding consonants of
the last stressed syllable agree but the intervening vowel sound does not.

Examples from the poem are “world – walled” and “years – yours”. Owen
brilliantly uses pararhymes as an instrument in imaging the discords which
were his subject. Full rhymes tend to bring smoothness in flow of the poem,
whereas half rhymes jar the flow a bit which goes well with the ugliness of
the subject.

“Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried, but my hands were loath and cold. ”