My home in South Oxfordshire is only a few miles from the village of Dunsden, where the poet Wilfred Owen worked before the First World War as a lay assistant to the vicar. It was not a happy time for him: he clashed with his employer and became disenchanted with the Church, which he saw as being indifferent to the poverty and ill-health that he saw all round him. But now Dunsden is understandably rather proud of its association with the awkward young man who went on to become the greatest poet of the First World War, and last weekend my wife and I went to a Snowdrop Sunday at the church there which featured a celebration of the poet and a reading from his work, that included the poem below.
It’s a secretive, anonymous countryside, this southern outlier of the Chiltern Hills, only a few miles from the bustle of Reading, but its lanes and woods can seem little changed from an older time, and it struck me that though Owen wrote this poem during his stay at Craiglockhart in Scotland, this may well have been the area he had in mind when he wrote in the closing lines of ‘half-known roads’ and ‘village wells’ – a very fine example of a village well can still be seen a few miles away at Stoke Row.
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.
He had such a strong, fine line.
Useful to compare with, say, C H Sorley’s All the Vales and Hills Along.