But where the lamb

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Wilfred Owen was born on this day in 1893.

Wilfred Owen is one of those poets, it seems, that people wonder what he might have done – even his contemporaries. I own one biography of him and three collections of his poetry and the question does sometimes linger in my own mind. What path might he have taken and how might his talent have developed? We don’t know, and never will know, as 1918 saw the close of Owens life, and the war within a week of one another. This post however is in honour of Wilfred’s birthday. It is a small one on a poem I love and cherish dearly, one which I come back to on occasions and find myself just as moved as I was that first time I found the words.

I first came across Owen (and his works) as I did with Sassoon, reading Regeneration – a novel it seems I will never escape. Of course, Anthem for Doomed Youth was the first (I remained fascinated for weeks at the Latin end for the piece), but there is another of his works which stood out to me more than any other and which earned a place firmly in my heart.

It was The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It’s one which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before, I believe, but I’ve never written much about it. It’s different, in my view to Anthem, so very different and all the richer for it. Perhaps that is why I love it. I find it even more wrenching than that description which lingers long in the mind , ‘and at every jolt..’

Instead, Parable gives me a sense of foreboding with its jerky rhythm that never quite settles and it brings tears to my eyes each time I read it. I find there is a slowness to the piece, as though one is watching Abram and Issaac play out their roles with no alternative, heading toward an inevitable terror. War’s apologist and war’s victim are Owen’s subjects in this piece and there is no other way to the end but the warmongering apparent in the final lines which come as a shock to the reader.

I end this short post with Owen’s own poem and the one which I have written about in this post. It says more for itself than I ever could hope to.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

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Behind the Lines: War Poetry in Leeds

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And the burning lips that Adonis kissed/Had never the glory that haloes thine.

As I have posted previously, I’m currently engaged in a placement year with Leeds Museums. It’s been a wonderful year and one which I am beginning to dread the end of. I’ve met and worked with some fantastic people and been granted so many amazing opportunities that I would not otherwise have had.

One of these things is the opportunity to put together my own exhibition. The idea was first put to me when I began my placement in September – of course I thought it sounded fantastic, but didn’t give much more immediate thought to it. Imagine that – 21 year old me with her own exhibit, ha!

However, here we are in March and I am currently awaiting the first design drafts!

The exhibition is titled Behind The Lines and looks at the war poetry written and treasured by the men and women of Leeds from 1914-1919, how they used poetry to communicate their feelings about the war, from optimism and motivation through to the anger and grief that marked the later years, including the immediate post-war world of 1919. Behind the Lines explores the work of three poets; Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson who was a Captain in the Leeds Rifles, Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who was an accomplished poet in her own right before the war and finally, the work of an unknown soldier found in a box of possessions belonging to a soldier from Armley.

All the poetry comes from the museum collection, and from people who had a connection with Leeds. It’s been an immense privilege to be able to appreciate this work and bring it to a wider audience. Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson’s work in particular is wonderfully evocative in its descriptions and at times, incredibly moving. His collection of poetry, entitled Sunrise Dreams, covers the early idealism of 1914 through to the sharp realisations that 1916 brought. I have chosen two of his pieces, alongside Dorothy Una Ratcliffe’s poem. Her work is addressed to the women of Leeds in their grief at the loss of husbands, sons and brothers, providing a startling glance into one of the most all-encompassing feelings shared by humanity. The remaining poem which marks the start of the exhibition is a semi-surreal but entirely comic look at the rigours of training to become a soldier, written by an anonymous author.

While Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson became a published poet within his lifetime, there are other examples of work in the collection which were never published and remain as extracts from letters, meticulously typed out onto a typewriter, the words no less filled with meaning for their lack of a wider audience. One of the poems which I ultimately decided not to include for reasons of both space and chronology, has the opening line of ‘T’was the break of dawn in Flanders and the morning promised bright.’ The piece, written by an anonymous member of the RAMC in the West Riding Division is another, unique look at war through the prism of a non-combatant’s experience, but one who still saw with acute clarity the terrible continuation of war. The poem also celebrates the camaraderie and the courage of both soldiers and the RAMC.

It was difficult choosing just four poems for this exhibition and I do hope that the rest of the poems in the collection will eventually be showcased at some point, be this during the centenary or afterward.

Behind the Lines is a portable exhibition. Dates, times and locations of display TBA.