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Wilfred Owen's poem "The Unreturning" (full text here) seems remarkably free of context - it never says explicitly what it's about, what's happening, which "dead" are being talked about, who or what are "unreturning", or what the point of the poem is. Therefore I'm hoping that this is a poem which will lend itself well to close reading, and that our understanding of it will be greatly increased by doing so.

One of the first questions this poem made me ask is: who is the narrator? The poem is written in the first person in at least a couple of places:

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.

This makes it sound like the narrator might be God, calling the dead as they leave life ...

I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

... but this suggests that the narrator fears heaven, which surely God would not.

So I can't really work it out. Who is the first-person speaker?

  • Does this question need the [meaning] tag, or [close-reading]? – Shokhet Jul 16 '17 at 21:55
  • @Shokhet Hmm. I don't think it needs meaning, because it's not about the meaning of any word or phrase in the text, but more about the whole thing. Maaaaaybe character-analysis? There is a tag called close-reading, but I'm not really sure what kind of questions it's for, and it certainly isn't used on all questions which require or invite close reading of a specific text. Might be worth a meta post, or just wait until the tag has been used enough for us to see a proper usage pattern. – Rand al'Thor Jul 16 '17 at 21:58
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+100

Note: my reading of this poem is informed by the brief analysis of it provided here by the Wilfred Owen Association. That said, I think I take it in a slightly different direction.

There are clearly spiritual implications in this poem thanks to the final line referencing the doors of heaven. I think the poem can be interpreted effectively using three different personae for the "I" in the poem: "I" as generic poetic "speaker" (in this case a sonneteer), "I" as spiritual doubter in the midst and aftermath of war, "I" as Owen himself.

The analysis I linked to connects the "I" to Owen. The critic there makes this argument:

"First drafted late 1912 or early 1913 THE UNRETURNING allegorises Owen's own religious heartsearchings emanating from his dislike of the narrow evangelicalism practised at Dunsden by the Reverend Herbert Wigan. What makes the link evident is Owen's early draft having on its reverse side a drafted letter to Wigan setting out his objections to a 'Christian Life' that 'affords no imagination, physical sensation, aesthetic philosophy', its one dimensional 'strait line upwards' and its 'one interpretation of Life and Scheme of Living among a hundred.'"

There is some value in this interpretation; however, it limits the scope of the poem. The narrower the "I", the less relevant the implications of the poem become for the rest of us. Therefore, I'd like to take up the two other ways of looking at the speaker, the first of which is really a vehicle for arriving at the second way.

"I" as sonneteer

Examining the poem through the lens of the typical tone of a sonnet sheds light on some of the irony therein. The theme of unrequited love in a sonnet is as old as the style itself. However, the sonnet takes a different turn by having the people themselves not return, rather than the abstract construct of love. Looking at the narrator as a writer of sonnets, we can notice the way Owen plays with the conventions of sonnets. For example, consider the final two lines of the second quatrain:

But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled,

And never one fared back to me or spoke.

The narrator is the lover rejected, the lover alone and pining for an answer or at least a response. Now, it is nature, the world, the cosmos that is working against the narrator.

From a structural perspective, this idea is strengthened by the final three lines of the closing sestet:

And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,

Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds,

I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

The use of Wing here alludes in my mind to George Herbert's poem "Easter Wings," which directly (and famously in the world of poetry) connects Christ to a winged creature. Here, the Wing gags and smothers. Reading this idea through the lens of the sonnet structure, we see the sonneteer living in this "love triangle": Wing -- The Unreturning -- The Speaker.

Focusing on structure and the conventions of a sonnet, we can see how the narrator is stuck in this position of unrequited love. In this instance, however, the force preventing any sort of return or even response seems to be "God as Wing," which leads to...

"I" as spiritual doubter in the midst and aftermath of war

Clearly this is great irony in a sonnet where the divine smothers and gags, chains people in, and leaves those still alive in the world disconnected from those who have died. This narrator then stands for the consciousness that simply cannot allow two ideas to coexist: a religious belief in a loving God and the death and destruction of war. When people go off and die and don't return, giving no assurance of anything beyond this world, then there is cause for doubt, especially when war is what leads to death in such massive numbers. The narrator then is one who is living in the tension of faith and disbelief, a tension made worse by the world in which the narrator lives.

  • I reread the poem several times while reading your answer, and I now understand much better what it's all about and what it's actually saying. (Maybe I was just too tired to read it closely enough or understand it properly last night.) This is a really interesting answer, especially the sonnet simile and the Wing allusion, neither of which I would ever have thought of. Thank you. – Rand al'Thor Jun 29 '17 at 10:57

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