‘The Calls’ – Wilfred Owen

Along with his poem Dulce et Decorum Est, this is one of Owen’s most poignant comments on war.

I have read it called ‘not a great poem’ which I understand, but it seems a pointless and unnecessary observation. Where Dulce et Decorum Est is one of Owen’s finest poetic realisations [excusing the focus of that expression], for me The Calls is as important as any of his others in what it says both about camaraderie and the harsh reality of war, though not as graphically as some.

It is the context and the poem’s final stanza and last line that signifies its impact and importance. Written I believe when Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital, he expresses his genuine sense of commitment to his comrades – this from the officer soldier who told us so clearly what he thought of the lies about war – and he did return voluntarily, not having to, and was killed on this day 100 years ago, one week before the declaration of the war’s end.

The Calls

A dismal fog-hoarse siren howls at dawn.
I watch the man it calls for, pushed and drawn
Backwards and forwards, helpless as a pawn.
But I’m lazy, and his work’s crazy.

Quick treble bells begin at nine o’clock,
Scuttling the schoolboy pulling up his sock,
Scaring the late girl in the inky frock.
I must be crazy; I learn from the daisy.

Stern bells annoy the rooks and doves at ten.
I watch the verger close the doors, and when
I hear the organ moan the first amen,
Sing my religion’s-same as pigeons’.

A blatant bugle tears my afternoons.
Out clump the clumsy Tommies by platoons,
Trying to keep in step with rag-time tunes,
But I sit still; I’ve done my drill.

Gongs hum and buzz like saucepan-lids at dusk,
I see a food-hog whet his gold-filled tusk
To eat less bread, and more luxurious rusk.

Then sometimes late at night my window bumps
From gunnery-practice, till my small heart thumps
And listens for the shell-shrieks and the crumps,
But that’s not all.

For leaning out last midnight on my sill
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I must go.

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