Resonating in World War I:
Keats's 'To Autumn' and Wilfred Owen's 'Spring Offensive'
In 1917 one of Wilfred Owen’s junior officers, John Foulkes, who incidentally had no idea that Owen was a poet, quoted a piece of Keats’s work to him and noticed how his face ‘shone with wonder and delight’. Unknowingly, he had touched a sweet spot for Owen. The late scholar of Wilfred Owen’s life and work Dominic Hibberd called him ‘the last great heir to the Romantics’, and though he also noted that Owen thought Shelley a ‘greater genius’ than Keats, with a conception of the social role of the poet that would sustain him in the trenches, it was Keats rather than Shelley whose influence can be traced in what Hibberd described as Owen’s ‘last and best war poem’, ‘Spring Offensive’.
Owen had absorbed Keats’s work in his late adolescence, and Hibberd’s assessment is that ‘Keats taught him how to use the sound of words and the shapes of poems’. My contention is that ‘Spring Offensive’ draws on the atmosphere and words of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’, to evoke a scene of beauty poised on the brink of hell. It was not that Owen had a copy of ‘To Autumn’ open in front of him as he wrote ‘Spring Offensive’, but the subconscious influence I would argue is clear.
That very situation of ‘Spring Offensive’ recalls ‘To Autumn’, for the scene that Keats conjured up in his poem, the Hampshire landscape around Winchester, is also trembling on the brink of destruction. Winter will sweep in and, we all know, put an end to the warm tranquil landscape Keats was describing. It was poised, like the soldiers in ‘Spring Offensive’ on the brink of change.
Owen’s poem begins with an image of ease: having walked up a long valley some of the soldiers ‘carelessly sleep’ (‘on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep’ - Keats) . On the march through the ‘warm field’ (‘until they think warm days will never cease’ – Keats ) ‘the buttercup had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up’(‘conspiring with him how to load and bless’ - Keats) and now, on the ridge, the soldiers who did not sleep looked back on the valley and saw ‘the long grass swirled by the May breeze’.
‘In a wailful choir the small gnats mourn’ wrote Keats in To Autumn; the grass that the soldiers look upon is ‘murmurous with wasp and midge’ and though ‘the summer oozed though their veins/Like an injected drug for their bodies’ pains’ ‘(Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours ….. Drowsed with the fume of poppies’ -Keats) they know this cannot last. ‘Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass’; the ridge over which they would have make their attack and leave their temporary haven of warm restfulness behind is beckoning ominously.
There are other echoes from Keats: The men who look back over the valley (‘Marvelling they stood’ seem like ‘stout Cortez’ looking for the first time on the Pacific in Keats’s On first looking into Chapman’s Homer). And a fragmentary line in Spring Offensive - ‘they breathe like trees unstirred’ – as well as the entirety of the poem’s first three stanzas - recall for me the deep stillness evoked in the opening lines of Keats’s ‘Hyperion’:
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.’
The soldiers, one could say, were in that kind of suspended zone, it’s the same kind of atmosphere, and is, I would say, an importation of a tone and ambience originating in Keats’s work into the midst of a battle zone in 1917.
'They remained there
‘Till like a cold gust thrills the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle’…..
The order has come, and
‘Soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; earth set sudden cups
In thousands for their blood…..’
And so Keats’s hidden destructive winter is brought into play by Wilfred Owen. He goes beyond Keats, or realizes the hidden and implicit element of To Autumn, and leaves him behind at that point.
But he has used him, I would argue, to great effect, creating a hugely poignant contrast between images drawn from Keats relating to warmth, rest, peace, tranquillity and natural bounty and the hellish realities of the First World War.