This is the preface Wilfred Owen drafted for a collection of war poems intended for publication in 1919.
“This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
(If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved fresher fields than Flanders…)”
I quote it here because every year it seems to me that we give too much credence to
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I wrote this song out of disrespect. Not disrespecting those who suffer and die in battle or as a less direct result of warfare, whether or not the world called them heroes; not disrespecting those who lived on, suffering injury or the loss of loved one; but I have no respect at all for those whose ‘respect’ is founded on seeking political and commercial advantage. When I added this note in 2015, that cynical capitalization on tragedy seems, if anything, even more in evidence than it was in the 1980s.
Sleep well old man, and don’t look down from some heavenly aerie
To see the edifice we’ve built on your philosophy
The sacrificial fires below bear the devil’s mark
But it was hands a lot like yours that struck the first spark
Sleep well old man, while history gathers dust
Logicians shake their heads and accountants check the cost
The shattered bones and bombed out lives are yesterday’s stale news
But it was hands a lot like yours that cut and primed the fuse
Rest in peace, old soldier: time has obscured the words
Carved in granite long ago on behalf of a grateful world
An alien soil feeds on the bones that deserved a better bed
Than the shit and slime of the shell-torn trench where your body splintered and bled
Square up to the judge and fear no grudge of the old men left behind
Who grasped the glory with greedy hands, irreversibly blind
To the faces behind the statistics, the bones beneath the clay
Who robbed you of your humanity and threw your life away
And for all they stole from you, they gained less than nothing and yet
They travel the same barren road, savagely, immutably deaf
Though they heard over and over the pacifist logic, the widow’s curse
And though our team of backroom boys sweated blood for ten thousand years
To find a way out of the spider’s reach, but they don’t even see the web
Nothing was gained, no lesson was learned, only new ways of dealing death
And so you died, trying to play fair, but who formulated the rules?
The implacable logic of history, generations of wise old fools
Sleep on, unborn child: don’t try the door
They’ll call you a war baby, but Christ only knows which war
Best to opt out with your faith still intact and your innocence undefiled
Before they become sublimation, a dustbin for wasted ideals
Prophets will offer causality, idealists will offer you dreams
Holy men offer you brimstone and visions, opportunists ways and means
But would you let one marry your daughter? Sell you a second-hand fire?
Trade you a soul for a rope and a gun, and drag your corpse through the mire?
Rest in peace old soldier, secure from the lure of the drums
Safe with your secrets in heaven or hell, your sanity is restored
And I’ll stand by your grave, a soldier of sorts – different army, same old war
You with a rifle, me with these words, both prey to causality’s laws
We fight the same battle on different sides – but there are no sides
Caught in the same vicious circle, unable to stem the tide
And still we contend with the same spider’s web
And ask the same questions, but who can resolve the riddle of the rain?
The sort of very long message song that I don’t feel the urge to write nowadays, and am unlikely to sing in public. Nevertheless, the lyric still works for me.
David Harley: vocal and acoustic guitar