1914 - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of 1914

Owen writes about the birth and growth of civilisation in terms of the seasons of the year. The classical Greek roots of civilisation he compares to spring, which finds its fulfilment in the blossoming summer of the Roman Empire. Modern history has been the autumn harvest of these seeds and now in 1914 the onset of the First World War, which he sees as emanating from the German Kaiser’s dictates in Berlin (the capital city of Germany at the time), brings in the ‘Winter of the world’. The seeds needed to replant for the new spring will come from the blood of those killed in the war.

Commentary on 1914

This is thought by some critics to be Owen’s first poem about the war. If it was drafted in 1914, Owen would have been in the South of France working as a language tutor, well before he joined up and saw action. If so, he may have redrafted it at Craiglockhart in 1917.

Literary context

Owen wrote to his mother from France on 21 December 1914, his anger and despair perhaps the sort of motivation behind the poem.

‘When I read that a shell fell into a group of 16 schoolboys and killed fifteen, I raved. Talk about rumours of wars and earthquakes in divers places… The beginning of the End must be ended, and the beginning of the middle of the end is now.’

WWI casualtiesHere, Owen alludes to Jesus’ prediction about the end of the world in Matthew 25:6-8. In a poem looking at the totality of destruction wreaked by modern warfare, he would not have been the only one for whom such allusions seemed appropriate.

In 1914 itself, Owen makes allusions to Shelley’s poem The Revolt of Islam. He had been given a complete works of Shelley’s poetry for his 21st birthday in March 1914. The Revolt of Islam, canto 9 stanza 25 reads:

‘This is the winter of the world; and here'
We die, even as the winds of Autumn fade…’

The narrator of Shelley’s poem tells his men to throw down their weapons and embrace the enemy who have recently attacked them. He wants them to recognise their common humanity. The two sides gather together in the ‘strange meeting’ from which Owen took the title of a subsequent poem.

Owen also alludes to his other favourite romantic poet John Keats’ Ode to Autumn. Keats celebrates autumn as the:

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with his how to load and bless
With fruits the vine, which round the thatch-eves run.

More on: Ode to Autumn by John Keats?

Investigating 1914

  • Owen alludes to Shelley’s poem The Revolt of Islam in 1914. From that poem he also takes the title and the idea of Strange Meeting.
    • What is Owen’s view of the war in 1914?
    • How has his view changed by the time he writes Strange Meeting?
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