Strange Meetings: Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen and Poetry of War
In their poetry of war, Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen substantially revise or reject outright the idea of the sublime, traditional theories of the lyric, and Romantic standards of poetic value that assert the superiority of ahistorical and non-didactic verse. Rather than being faced with an “anxiety of influence,” they confront the immense difficulties of finding a means of adequate poetic response in an age of mechanized mass death.
Whitman and Owen similarly but independently propose the physical body as the basis for all shared reference and language. Although Whitman will employ the bodies of those wounded and killed in war as substantiation for his vision of the democratic ideal, the overwhelming reality that they represent eventually undermines his assertions and endangers his sanity. The unknown and anonymous dead in war also create a crisis of naming and language for Whitman, a crisis that results in an increasingly desperate use of metaphor and threatens his poetic voice with silence. Owen constantly emphasizes the effects of war on human embodiment and repudiates the trope of immortality. He argues that a poet must stress immanence over transcendence; the alternative is non-referential language that avoids the physical and human consequences of war.
Both Whitman and Owen use the idea of song in verse to further their interpretations of war. For Whitman, sound and rhythm are a means of establishing structure and order on the anarchy of war, a chaos that destroys even the most basic metaphor of the proper name. Owen, by accentuating the poetic techniques of pararhyme, assonance, alliteration, and consonance, reflects the nightmare, unreality and madness of the modern battlefield through sounds that overwhelm and music that disorients. Through his technical practices Owen makes his words disconcertingly tangible, directing his readers towards a rediscovery of the roots of poetry and language.
These poets not only mark a dramatic transformation in the nature of verse written about war, but they also anticipate the most significant developments and tropes of 20th-century poetry in general.
First World War
U.S. Civil War