A Terre – Wilfred Owen
This is the lengthiest of Owen’s war poems, running to 65 lines. It is bitter in tone and mourns the loss of time on earth. He suggests that it would be preferable to be a germ or a rat on earth because they don’t need to die in war. This poem lacks the heightened tone of a Dulce et Decorum Est or the startling images of a Strange Meeting. Still it is significant as it elaborates the poet’s philosophy.
The poem is conceived as a one-sided conversation between the injured and dying poet and the reader or a bystander. The medals and the ribbons – symbols of glory to soldiers – become meaningless appendages. The dying officer recollects that at one time he and other young officers used to speak disparagingly of old age, but now he is ready to live up to dotage but time is denied to him. Violence is all that he will be able to teach his son as that is all he learned while in the army. The officer lies trapped in the mummy case that is his body when even his servant, who though lamed in war, still is about to shout loudly. Owen would have been content to be his servant’s servant if he could have been unharmed. Even germs and bacteria are able to live long but he has to pull on only till his body gives up its struggle.
The central idea of this poem, as with the rest of Owen poetry, is the waste of young life in the name of the country’s honor. This poem is tinged with bitterness as it shows an officer who is grievously injured and not likely to survive. He feels that all the living creatures around are better off than him as they can live out their live in peace whereas his life is being cut off its prime. The servant who cares for him, the germs and mites that live on cheese, microbes and plant life live till life’s logical end. But he will soon be enriching the soil with his body which will turn to food for plants. Surely he is getting a raw deal? Why should it be so? Shouldn’t he too be allowed to live peacefully? These are the questions the poet asks in the poem.
Owen presents this poem as being the philosophy of many soldiers. At any rate it is his philosophy. This poem is in the form of a monologue by Owen with an unseen and unheard listener nearby. The serviceman who is an officer lies wounded and dying. He is blind and his limbs are shattered.
The medals and ribbons that he cherished are of no use to him now. The medals are good only to weigh down his eyelids when he is dead. The ribbons, now in shreds, can be used as book- marks.
There was a time when as a young man he used to hate the idea of old age. But now he longs to live and grow old. He is so steeped in violence that he will be capable only of inculcating violence in his son. He had wanted to earn money but now that he has only about a year left on earth, all that he will use up is air. He feels jealous of his servant who though lame, has a lusty pair of lungs to shout with. He is ready to swap places with the servant and sweep his floors so that he can live longer.
Even rats that live in warrens are safer than men. So are the living mites in cheese. Owen makes comparisons with living things that are way down the ladder than humans but they seem to be better off than men. The dead soldier will only serve to fertilize the earth with his body.
Once dead, the soldier can rest at peace among the meadows with grass and flowers for company. Wars and booming guns will not touch him. Soft rain and gentle sun will fall on him and comfort him.
Very soon Owen will just be a sad memory in the hearts of his friends. Thinking of him now may bring on a sob but soon that too will be gone.
His spirit has to be weaned from the little blood that flows out of his wounds because soon even that will cease.
This poem is suffused with the bitterness of knowing that he has but a short while to live. The officer is dying of his wounds; he would like to swap his life with that of another but at the end of it all he knows death is near.