Greater Love – Wilfred Owen
This poem was inspired probably by a letter Owen wrote in May 1917 which had a quotation from the Gospels. This poem has unexpected twists and turns that is not often seen in Owen’s poetry. Most of Owen’s poetry deals with the trials and tribulations of the soldiers who were fighting the WWI. Most of the time, he does not distinguish between the different nationalities for all of them suffered alike. But here the topic is a greater love than which is spoken about generally.
This is a poem which has presented problems to critics. Brotherhood and comradeship are themes that Owen has dealt with in his poems. Critics have said that unconventional love has also found treatment in some of Owen’s poems. In some other poems also the poet has rejected the idea of formal love. Here too he rejects conventional aspects of romantic love like ‘red lips’.
The stones stained by the blood of the English dead beat the redness of lips. Eyes are beautiful but they lose their allure when compared with the eyes the poet has blinded. The limbs cut by knives beat the exquisiteness of love’s attitude rolling as they do where God does not care. The extreme decrepitude forces them to cramp up the fierce love they bear.
Love’s voice is not as soft as that which sighs through a ‘raftered loft’ nor is it as dear as the voices that can no longer be heard as they have been stopped by earth. The heart of someone peppered with shots will be larger and hotter than others. The hand may be pale as the hands of those who carry the cross “through flame and hail”. You may not touch them so you need to cry.
Owen’s ambivalence with the idea of conventional love is the theme of this poem. ‘Red lips’ is one of the symbols of conventional love but Owen debunks it by saying that it is no match for the redness of the stones stained by the English dead. A war is replete with horrible happenings and in the face of it, things like ‘red lips’ seem superficial is what Owen seems to say. The eyes that Owen has blinded are more beautiful than others. This is a macabre image that seems out of place in a poem about love.
In the second stanza, more macabre images follow. The poet says that your attitude is not as exquisite as the limbs that have been severed. They harden in death’s grasp and go where God does not care. The voices of the dead soldiers cannot be heard but they are more compelling than love’s voice. Next the poet addresses the heart as says that it cannot match the heart that has been shot at as it larger and warmer. He has paler hands in the battlefield. No matter how much one weeps, they cannot be touched.
Owen’s poems that deal with suffering in the trenches and untimely death of the young soldiers have a ring of truth and immediacy than Greater Love than seems contrived and obscure. For the average reader, this poem presents several paradoxes.