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Eavesdropping on Owen

On BBC Radio 3 this weekend British General Richard Dannatt cynically uses the poetry of Wilfred Owen to try to connect with the common squaddie.

Shirley Dent

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This week is Wilfred Owen Week on BBC Radio 3. For both poetry lovers and anyone interested in history, that’s a good thing: Owen is a great poet who voiced and recorded the tragedy of his generation.

But in the final Radio 3 programme on Owen, it is the current crisis of authority among today’s military elite that comes to the fore. This Saturday, in a special edition of Radio 3’s Between the Ears entitled ‘The Soldier’s Poet’, serving soldiers give their own responses to Owen’s poetry. This includes General Richard Dannatt, who notoriously took the opportunity of an interview with the Daily Mail recently to criticise the war in Iraq. Dannatt chooses Owen’s ‘The Chances’ to read and pass comment on – and unfortunately, he misunderstands and misinterprets it.

In the programme, Dannatt tries to claim allegiance, not just with Owen, but also with the common-or-garden squaddie through the work of Owen. In his seven-minute commentary he constantly refers to the ‘soldierly language’ used by Owen in ‘The Chances’. The public-school-educated Dannatt has chosen one of the very rare poems by Owen in which he wrote in a different voice and register, trying to capture the vernacular of certain working-class soldiers. Before reading the poem, Dannatt announces: ‘I am not going to read in Mancunian because I am not Mancunian – it is written in soldier vernacular, so let’s see how we go….’

Throughout the reading and commentary, Dannatt seems pretty obsessed with what he quaintly calls ‘soldierly language’. Yet despite his careful attention to the register of the poem’s language, his misunderstanding of Owen and his canon – and more tellingly his inability to connect this ‘soldierly language’ to any bigger picture of history or society – means he makes a total fudge of what the poem is about.

‘The Chances’ features a conversation between a group of soldiers before they go over the top. One of them says there are about five things that could happen, from being killed outright to being wounded or taken prisoner. The poem ends with an unexpected chance: one of the soldiers goes mad. Dannatt uses the poem’s endpoint of madness as a chance to discuss that word we all know from the First World War: shell-shocked. He talks about his admiration for Owen’s recovery from being shell-shocked and his ability to ‘get himself back into it’. He seems to miss the broader point. Madness in Owen’s poetry is not only about the almost-broken-but-plucky squaddie ‘getting himself back into it’: it is about the madness of Western civilisation wiping out its own future through mass war. Indeed, this theme came to dominate poetry for many years after Owen, from Eliot’s The Waste Land, to the ‘Howl’ of the Beats in the Fifties and Sixties. Fundamentally, Owen wrote of the shell-shock of a generation, as well as the shocks to individual soldiers.

Listening to Dannatt talk about ‘The Chances’, you can’t help feeling that he is hankering after a ‘common voice’, the voice of the ordinary soldier which apparently captures the reality and meaning of war. In other words, this highest-raking officer seems to be desperately trying to connect with the common soldier, many of whom today are disgruntled, over Iraq, over a lack of direction, and over uniform and weapons shortages. Throughout the programme, Dannatt talks about ‘The Chances’ as ‘eavesdropping, snooping on a private conversation’. He says ‘it was in soldier-speak, a private conversation we are listening in on’. The real snooper here is Dannatt, disingenuously using the voice of common soldiers as a moral sandbag to shore up his own lack of vision or purpose today.

If Dannatt, as an officer and gentleman, really wanted to present an honest picture of the rank-and-file experience of war and life in the army, as well as honour Owen’s war poetry, he might have chosen the poem ‘Inspection’, which captures something of the friction between officers and privates. In this poem, Owen the officer chastises a young private for having a bloodstain on his uniform. It begins: ‘“You! What d’you mean by this?” I rapped / ‘You dare come on parade like this?”’ The young private later explains that the ‘damned spot’ that Owen-the-officer has noticed is his own blood. The poem ends with the private’s own voice:

‘“The world is washing out its stains”, he said.
“It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.”’

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