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Compare and contrast Wilfred Owens Strange Meeting with Keith Douglass

Vergissmeinnicht
The principal similarity between the two poems is the exploration of the faceless killing of
the enemy. They both fantasise a narrative for a dead German enemy combatant. Douglas and
Owen purposely disobey the orthodoxy of the military and the sense of looking at the only
enemy as a target. In spite of the overwhelming anti-German feeling during the times when
these poems were written, both poets insist on showing humanity of their dead enemy. The
poets, by mirroring part of themselves reveal the Germans are not too different from not only
Owen and Douglas, but readers themselves.
Douglas wrote Vergissmeinnicht in the middle of the Second World War and Owen penned
Strange Meeting in The Great War. The relationship between the reader and the narrator
would have been much closer than the audience of the present day. A synchronic reading
reveals that the readers would be fighting in the war themselves or at the very least be
majorly affected by the events. The anti-German mentality would be just as prevalent in both
periods and both poets demonstrated significant independence of mind in combating the
general consensus. There was a real risk for both writers to be labelled as German
sympathisers or as unpatriotic, even treacherous. According to Desmond Graham,
Douglas was probably referring to Vergissmeinnicht in this letter to Edmund Blunden of 3
September 1943:
I am afraid it may be a bit grisly for TLS: but on the other hand not clever
enough for Tambimuttu and his clan. What I am aiming at is a series of
pretty simple pictures.1

Keith Douglas. Desmond Graham (Editor), Keith Douglas. The Letters, (Caranet Press, 2000), p.297

This shows how unsure Douglas was about the reception of his work. He knew that the
imagery was perhaps unpleasant for some and feared that the poetry collectives would think
the poem too simple. The images Douglas evokes may be pretty simple aesthetically, but as
this paper will explore are loaded with deeper meanings that compose a rich text.
Douglas actively studied Owens work at school2. Indeed, it is conceivable
Vergissmeinnicht was inspired by Strange Meeting. Douglas also read the poems of
Siegfried Sassoon. Douglas, however, crafted his poem for the purpose of being more direct
version aimed at his contemporary audience. Sassoon was one of Owens contemporaries,
and had a major influence on his poetry compilation, Wheels (1919):
Owens political understanding of the war was as unquestioning as most
peoples until he met Sassoon in 1917.3
Strange Meeting itself written between January and March 1918, is a serious analysis on the
senseless killing and a outspoken resistance to the consensus at the time, Sassoon
corresponded with Owen on draft version and recommended specific alterations:
The Others speech incorporate a version of Earths wheels, the
exhortation Wilfred has addressed to Sassoon at the end of 1917, but the
tenses are altered from will to would have.4
These amendments by his friend make a crucial difference to the poems meaning. Sassoon
would later comment that Strange Meeting provided Owen a passport to immortality.5
The opening passage of Strange Meeting is similar to an iconic scene in Lewis Carrolls
Alices Adventures in Wonderland (1865) when Alice follows the White Rabbit Down the
2

William Scammell, Keith Douglas. A Study (Faber and Faber, 1988), p.7
Dominic Hibbard, Owen the Poet (Macmillan, 1989) , p.58
4
Dominic Hibbard, Wilfred Owen (Phoenix, 2003), p.392
5
Wilfred Owen. Harold Bloom. Isaac Rosenburg, Poets of World War One (Infobase Publishing, 2001) p.22
3

Rabbit-Hole6. The first words It seemed are indicative of the poet not being sure of the
preceding events. In Carolls narrative, Alice is revealed to have been asleep all time and this
is the sense that the reader has in Owens poem. The poet had a history of intense dreaming.
He wrote to his mother while at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917: At present I am sick
man in hospital, by night a poet[...]7. Battling through stages of delirium he would
experience episodes of hallucination. Clearly, in this state his poetry and his dreams are
interconnected.
If Strange Meeting is a dream-vision then Vegissmeinnicht is a waking nightmare
happening in a real time and space. Immediately the direct image of a soldier sprawling in
the sun is thrust into the audiences mind. The startling picture is compounded by the use of
the verb sprawling, opposed to the past tense noun sprawled. This technique favours a
sense of immediacy and action, even animation. This creates the disturbing experience of a
vivid paradox. A body cannot be sprawling unless the person is alive. This signals to the
reader that the narrator is visualising this soldier, as if they still maintain a semblance of life.
This is the sinister focal point in which Douglass story-teller uses to tell his nightmare.
The poems utilise different prosodic means to communicate mimetically with the reader.
Strange Meeting is written in heroic couplets. This is a rigid, classical arrangement which
has been used as a military meter throughout history. Dryden used heroic couplets for his
translation of the Aeneid and Pope for the Illiad and the Odyssey. Owen breaks the tradition
of using full rhymes and implements off rhymes throughout. Rather than the spirit of working
in unison, like a typical military poem, the poet is showing there is discord occurring. The
narrator is not dogmatically visualising the enemy as simply a target but attempts to humanise

6
7

Carroll, Alices Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Cosimo, 2010), p.1
Owen, Collected Letters, 480

the soldier. Additionally the choice of rhyme structure stresses the concept of duality in the
poem.
This composition of rhyming couplets supplies a restricted feel to the imagery. John
Middleton Murry comments on the effect this has on the first time reader when introduced to
Strange Meeting:
At first he feels only that the blank verse has a mournful, impressive, even
oppressive quality of its own; that the poem has a forged unity, a welded
and inexorable massiveness.8
The oppressive quality is not only expressing the feeling of the tunnel but also the nature of
the dream. The narrator is not purposely looking to make contact with this soldier. Like a
dream the direction cannot be controlled; the dreamer is a passive participant in the
adventure.
By contrast Vergissmeinnicht is comprised of iambic tetrameter. Traditionally this metre is
used for story poems, for example, Robert Frosts The Road Not Taken and Christopher
Marlowes The Passionate Sheppard to His Love. For the first three stanzas, Douglas forms
lines which are not quite iambic pentameter. With this ambiguity he is able to tell the
narrative in the first half of the poem nearer to a traditional poem the reader is most likely
more attuned to observing.
The scansion becomes notably clearer in the fourth stanza where there are three lines of true
iambic tetrameter. The second half of the poem, the last three stanzas keeps to a stricter
rhythmic structure. Douglas now fully exploits the contrast between the soldiers view of the
dead enemy and Steffis perspective of her lost lover. The emotive empathy is intensified by
Douglas faithfully abiding by an orthodox four metrical feet form in the last couple of verses.
8

D.S.R Welland, Wilfred Owen. A Critical Study, (Chatto and Windus, 1968), p.118

The poem begins in straightforward fashion with Douglas and his fellow comrades returning
to the site of deadly combat. He conveys this in the past tense, as he recollects the scene:
we found the place again, and found
The soldier sprawling in the sun. (3-4)

There is a separation between the reader and Douglas at this point the audience are spectators.
The focalisation switches in the third stanza with the imperative, Look. Douglas effectively
demands, even forces the reader to imagine these images. In the fourth stanza the meaning of
we possesses a different connotation. Douglas treats his audience like a fellow soldier in his
brigade. The purpose is to give immediacy to proceedings, as if the reader has joined to the
poet on the battlefield. The use of the conjunction But in the fifth stanza produces a jarring,
startling effect. This technique provides clarity between the divisions of the poets view of
the dead man and the girlfriends.
Strange Meeting is also internally focalised, a perspective solely from the view of the
narrator. By contrast Owen does not include the reader in his experience. There is a
purposeful distance created and the audience are the spectators as the poet relays the
unfolding drama.
The texture9 in the third stanza of Strange Meeting is especially significant. The effect of
the pararhymes throughout provides intensity (grained/groaned, moan/mourn), and
emphasises the sense of elegy:
the second rhyme is usually lower in pitch than the first, giving the couplet
a dying fall which musically reinforces the poem's tragic theme.

Terry Eagleton, How to Read Poetry (Blackwell Publishing, 2011), p.120

The assonant endings in conjunction with monosyllabic pararhymes mimic the echoing
sounds of the tunnel. These reverberating intonations possess further connotations. In his
chapter on Owens choice of half-rhyme in his poetry, Welland observes:
Half-rhyme is right for this poetry because its note of haunting uneasiness,
of frustration and melancholy, accords perfectly with the theme and the
mood.10
Owen felt uneasiness, frustration and melancholy this was the true spirit of war. The
poet wrote in a draft for the preface of his Collected Letters, All a poet can do today is warn.
That is why the true poet must be truthful11. In the context of this poem, the warning as
Owen perceives is imparting his honesty. His expressed hope is that his audience will
consider the killing the enemy one of the problems because their foes could be the ones to
bring about peace.
Douglass narrator is situated in the open air of the battlefield and implements consonance in
his rhyming patterns instead. This can be interpreted to represent the dichotomy of themes
raised. These divisions are between himself and his doppelganger, the dead soldier, along
with both soldiers and the girlfriend. Additionally, there is also a separation between the
reader and the narrator.
Stark and chilling imagery is presented to the reader throughout Strange Meeting, some of
which is intensified from Owens intrinsic knowledge from ancient mythologies. There are
unmistakeable Christian connotations:
That Owen derived this in part from his religious upbringing, as well as
from his reading of Romantic poetry, is clearly established in Strange
10
11

Welland, p.119
<http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37828>, accessed 27 th February 2012

Meeting[...]The implied reference to Christs agony and bloody sweat is


inescapable, illuminating, and wholly successful...12
Lines 37-40 emphasise the burden of sin and the commandment Thou shall not kill. The
majority of Owens audience would have been of the Christian faith and would easily
recognise these motifs.
The religious subtext in Vergissmeinnicht is not as pronounced but there are subtle strokes
of Christian iconography. The most noticeable is the simile on line 8. This symbol of a
demon is similar to the Hell imagery used by Owen. Both poets subscribe to the idiom that
war is hell.
Viewing the text from a strict Christian perspective, the text can be read in a slightly different
way than a modern audience may interpret. Other Douglas poems such as, Enfidaville13,
Adams14 and Devils15 contains even more overt Biblical imagery that Vergissmeinicht.
This point of view therefore is a legitimate stance to take:
[...]Christian theologizing in discourses and practices shows itself how we
understand ourselves, others, and the world; in how we interact with the
world; and in how we witness to the world.16
Through this lens, allusions to the resurrection of Jesus Christ become apparent in this
Douglas poem. Line 17 indicates that the girlfriend would weep if she saw the sight the
narrator is looking at. She symbolises the mourners that gathered outside of Jesus tomb, or
cave which is named in line 20. This is where Jesus spent three days before being
resurrected. The literal meaning on line 24 declares that by the German soldier dying, he has
12

Welland, p.67
Douglas, Graham, p.306
14
Douglas, Graham, p.199
15
Douglas, Graham, p.235
16
Joe R. Jones. A Grammer of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine,
Volumes 1-2 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), p.77
13

hurt his lover side (opposed to the killer) as well as meaning his girlfriend. The word
mortal is an underlying reference to the Son of God being flesh and blood. In this
Christian reading the fact that this lover (Jesus) is hurt is referencing the crucifixion. The
message here is on a wider scale the lovers of the world, Gods children, are casualties
from the sinful killers. The crucifixion of Jesus is an allusion Owen utilises to great effect in
line 39 in Strange Meeting. In addition to this similarity of religious themes between
Strange Meeting and Vergissmeinicht, there is a common association regarding the state
of mind and the belief systems of the narrators. Both poets lived in a time of uncertainty;
some clung to their faith whilst others explored different ideas:
At the time of the first World War and after in a Europe unsure of itself,
overflowing with unsettled ideologies and ways of life, and pregnant with
disaster certain writers distinguished by instinct and insight find a method
which dissolves reality into multiple and multivalent reflections of
consciousness.17
The two poems both communicate with a deceased soldier. As previously mentioned, this is
executed through the medium of a state of sleep, a dream or a nightmare. Owen and
Douglas could have made their work more direct with supernatural elements, even
proceeding into the realms of necromancy. The emphasis of the enemy being similar to
themselves and the idea of the doppelganger is more prevalent and effective. The issue of
sleep portrays the poems as self-reflections rather than actually communicating with some
other entity. According to Sigmund Freud, the leading psycho-analyst in the poets period,
dreaming is about wish-fulfilment:

17

Erich Auerbach. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton University Press,
1968), p.551

The first dream which we have considered was the fulfilment of a wish;
another may turn out to be the realization of an apprehension; a third may
have a reflection as its content; a fourth may simply reproduce a
reminiscence.18
The wish Douglas and Owen want fulfilled is an opportunity to talk to the enemy and their
poetry provides a medium for this. The ability of self-reflection is similar to themes raised in
Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The last scene is the novel is notable
because this is where Dorian Gray confronts the picture that has been both the cause of his
success and deep worries; he grabs the knife that he killed Basil Hallward with:
As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painters work, and all that it
meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be set free.
It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he
would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.19
In the act of Owen and Douglas killing their enemy combatant, they have also killed a part of
themselves. Another late Victorian work of fiction may have been an influence on the poets
texts. Robert Louis Stevensons Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is a classic
text examining duality. Hyde, the evil side of Dr. Jekyll represents the murderous soldier
within Owen and Douglas.
The evidence of Owens romantic influence begins with the title Strange Meeting. This
probably comes from Percy Bysshe Shelleys poem Revolt of Islam:

18
19

Sigmund Freud, A.A Brill, The Interpretation of Dreams 3rd Edition (1911), chapter 3
Oscar Wilde, Donald L. Lawler, The Picture of Dorian Gray (W.W Norton, 1988), p.169

The reconciliation of enemies, the sense of the brotherhood of man, and of


the ultimate conquest even of death, as well as the title phrase Strange
Meeting are common to both poems...20
Thematically Owen was also inspired from Shelley, indeed the impetus of the poem may
have originated from reading his work, because of the similarities.
The title Vergissmeinnicht is evokes a different response to Owen. The choice of a German
word instantly creates a paradox in the mind of an English reader who also knows the
meaning of the word; forget-me-not. The almost cacophonic phonemes that comprise the
German lexis are incongruent to the sweet sentiment.
The word Vergissmeinnicht is mentioned again in line 11. In Germany in the fifteenth
century, ladies would wear forget-me-nots as a sign of faithfulness and enduring love. This
corresponds to the next line in which Steffi has written in gothic script, a medieval
reference.
A closer analysis of forget-me-not conjures up associations with the species of flower. The
reader is able to view the imagery as if through a shaded blue lens like the colour of the
petals. This intensifies the moroseness and melancholic feeling throughout the poem.
Douglas was a fan of the cinema, which is why he may have insisted on creating simple
pretty pictures. In his letters he mentions that he went to see the Hitchcocks The 39 Steps21,
Three Loves Has Nancy22, The Man From Down Under23 and Time and the Conways24. In a
letter of May 1940 to Toni Beckett he mentions watching a colour film:

20

Welland, p. 100
Douglas, Graham (ed.), p. 130
22
Douglas, Graham (ed.), p.202
23
Douglas, Graham (ed.), p. 331
24
Douglas, Graham (ed.), p. 55
21

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Ive also been to see Gulliver which seems pretty feeble and very obviously
copies Snow White.25
Disneys 1937 motion picture Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length
animation in Technicolor and was the most successful film of 1938. In fact, in an undated
letter to Beckett, Douglas confesses to owning an original watercolour on celluloid from the
film Snow White.26 He does not mention the image of the slide; however, in the film the
character Snow White wears a forget-me-not colour blouse. With this in mind, the symbolism
this protagonist reinforces her innocence, just like Steffis state in the poem. The magic
mirror in the tale directly relates to the themes in Vegissmeinnicht. The idea of the
doppelganger is especially prevalent. The most significant comparison is the final scene of
the film, in which Snow White has fallen into a deep sleep after eating the poisoned apple.
This can be compared to the killing of the dead soldier. Douglas is playing the part of The
Huntsman by giving life to this dead soldier. After all, in the film Snow White does not return
home, she goes off with The Huntsman to his castle, perhaps a symbol of renewal and new
life. Directly comparable to the symbol of The Huntsman, along with himself and the
fictional German soldier that Douglas has created in his mind are interwoven, as Line 21
confirms the lover and killer are intermingled.
The imperative Look (line 9) also indicates a cinematic aesthetic. The description of the
dug-out is like a tracking shot which draws closer to the photograph of Steffi. This is
reminiscent to the momentous ending of Orson Welles ground breaking Citizen Kane
(1941). The camera moves through the scene as the childs sled is tossed into the incinerator.
The frame cuts to a soft focus close-up shot of the letters ROSEBUD fading away as the
sled burns. This significant word represents the happiness and innocence experienced in

25
26

Douglas, Graham (ed.), p. 140


Douglas, Graham (ed.), p. 93

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childhood before Kane became a mean-spirited, cantankerous old man. This is not unlike the
dishonoured picture of Steffi. In the same way, Kanes nice side is represented in a motif
being disrespected, Steffi symbolises the German soldiers genial and good side. Although
working in two different mediums, Welles and Douglas successfully accomplish conveying
the humanistic and conscientious dimensions of their villains. Owen achieves the same but
takes his sources from literary influences, especially Dante, which is focused on later in this
paper.
Another difference between Strange Meeting and Vergissmeinicht is Owens poem makes
an allusion to a topical event. The double meaning of titanic in line 3 is simultaneously a
classical reference as well as a significant historical event which occurred in Owens lifetime.
The obvious connotation relates to Greek mythology; the Titans, a race of gods which
reigned in the Golden Age. The Titanomachy was a ten year war between them and the
Olympians. Owen is likening the magnitude of this legend to convey the intense, brutal
battles that must have took place down the tunnels.
The RMS Titanic sank on the 15th April 1912 when a total of 1,513 lives were lost27. This
passenger liner had been marketed as unsinkable, due to the revolutionary series of
compartments at the base of the ship. In theory, up to four of these sections could let in
water. On the Titanics maiden voyage from Southampton to New York she crashed into an
iceberg. Holes were formed below the water line on the starboard side, causing five of the
compartments to be flooded. The tunnels that Owen occupies in Strange Meeting are of a
similar construct. This may also account for Owens choice of lexis in line 34, into vain
citadels that are not walled. The Allies would have entered the tunnel like seawater and

27

John Carey (Editor), The Faber Book of Reportage (Faber and Faber, 1989)

12

killed the soldiers inside. Both situations would have scenes of terrifying panic, chaos and
death. A fireman who was aboard the Titanic recalls his harrowing experience:
I went on deck and saw a great pile of ice on the well deck before the
forecastle, but we all thought the ship would last for some time, and we
went back to our bunks. Then one of the firemen came running down and
yelled, All muster for the lifeboats. I ran on deck, and the captain said,
All firemen keep down on the well deck. If a man comes up Ill shoot
him.28
The fight for his life continues to reveal the inability to save two young babies and an Italian
woman. Owen himself spent [...]fifty hours in a flooded dug-out.29 This emotional turmoil
is what Owen would have encountered with his comrade, which the enemy soldier may of
encountered before his demise. The Hell in Strange Meeting is more than a Dantean
allusion.
Hell is a trope used throughout Wilfred Owens poetry. The poem Mental Cases30 is an
exploration around a Hell filled with distraught soldiers, an allusion to the patients he was
with at Craiglockhart. Mental Cases and Strange Meeting borrows themes and ideas from
Dante Alighieris Inferno. This first part of the Divine Comedy is evidently Owens main
influence for his allegory. The narrator, Dante, and Virgil journey into underworld and
through the nine circles of Hell because Dante cannot find the right way to salvation. The
opening of Strange Meeting is similar to this katabasis; Owen explicitly mentions I knew
we stood in Hell(10). The meeting with the Florentine politician and poet Bruno Latini in
Canto Fifteen has a particularly pertinent parallel:

28

Carey, p.435
John Purkis A Preface to Wilfred Owen, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1999)
30
Wilfred Owen, Poems of Wilfred Owen (Forgotten Books, `1949), p.8
29

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Follow your star and you will never fail


To find your glorious port, he said to me,
if in that lovely life I judged you well.
And if I hadnt died when you were so young,
seeing the heavens smile on you so kindly,
I would have given you strength to do your work31

This description of Latini imparting advice to his protg, Dante, is similar to the relationship
Owen might have had with his vision of the enemy soldier, also a poet. This bond is
analogous to his association with Sassoon, especially knowing how he gave advice to Owen
when writing Strange Meeting. If these characters were not dead there is a possibility of
them doing much good to the world. The difference between the two is that Owen has
actively killed this poet and possesses a great deal more guilt than Dante.
In conclusion, these poems are both cautionary tales about treating the enemy with humanity.
The unfortunate irony is both poets lives were claimed as a result of being inhuman targets.
Douglas and Owen became the dead doppelgangers in their poems. They left their friends,
lovers and the chance to improve the world, because of the nature of war. This can be best
expressed by General George S. Pattons aphorism:
The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other
bastard die for his.32

31

Dante, Anthony Esolen (Trans), Inferno, p.157


Boatright, Spessard. The Unknown Journey: An Autobiography of Spessard Boatright. (Authorhouse, 2008),
p.185
32

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