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I now understand the poem "The Unreturning" much better than I did when I asked this question, thanks to Peter's excellent answer and my reading through it several more times and more carefully. It's about the dead (presumably, given the poet's history, those who were killed in war) being utterly distant and disconnected from the world of the living, tragically so, and apparently causing the narrator to feel spiritual doubt and even distaste towards Heaven itself.

But there's still one thing I don't understand: all the references to the natural cycles of day and night.

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.

[...]

There peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained.

Half the poem is spent talking about day, night, and dawn. Surely this must have some symbolic meaning and connection to the main topic of the dead and their distance from the living.

What is the significance of the references to night, day, and dawn in this poem?

  • This is a great opportunity to try some close reading! – user111 Jun 30 '17 at 16:05
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For my answer, I'm going to build off my previous assertion (found here) that the narrator of this poem is "one who is living in the tension of faith and disbelief" and that the "I" stands for a spiritual doubter in the midst and aftermath of war.

Alongside the context of war, night and day become another dichotomy in the poem to reflect a violent struggle. We have good v. evil, life v. death, war v. peace, faith v. doubt, and now night v. day. In the first line "night crushed out the day." Night starts out the poem on the winning side, which is indicative of the tone the whole poem will take. A force of evil, of darkness, has triumphed over good, over the light. Given the spiritual struggles contained herein, I think it's appropriate to see Genesis echoed here. It's not "Let there be light" and "God saw that it was good." Instead, Owen begins the poem with the inverse of Genesis and gives us an image of darkness winning in a battle against light. The violent triumph that the phrase "crushed out" connotes is essential to how Owen establishes mood here immediately.

Night then becomes a time of "stillness," a time that is the absence of life or human presence. It is a void: "no ghost woke" and "never one fared back to [him] or spoke." Again in Genesis the void, the chaos, is prior to light existing; here we are back in that dark void. In a sense Owen is inverting the order of Genesis. By having night triumph over day, he can effectively subvert traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of lightness and darkness (or at least call them into question) and further underscore the spiritual doubt of the speaker.

We might traditionally expect that with the coming of a new day at dawn, light would again be victorious, life would appear, and all doubts would dissipate. That is not what Owen presents. Instead, dawn is "indefinite" and "unshapen." This is quite a contrast to night crushing out day. Here dawn seems battered, "vacant." There is no triumphant "Let there be light" proclamation. The dawn is weak and "sad as half-lit minds," possibly like the minds that still believe that good will defeat evil.

What then we arrive at in the final stanza is a conclusion that the forces of death and darkness have defeated those of goodness and light. The consequence of war is the inversion of the moral order of Christianity. Good is not the victor; instead, night reigns, having weakened the forces of light.

  • Interesting answer, thank you. A couple of thoughts: 1) If night and the void are a place where no ghost woke, why does the first stanza say "a stillness such as harks appalled / When far-gone dead return upon the world"? Unless I'm misunderstanding, this is saying that the night and void are where ghosts should return. 2) Could the dawn also symbolise the Allies winning the war but life not improving, a sort of hollow victory? I thought of this as soon as I read your penultimate paragraph, but you hardly mention war here. – Rand al'Thor Jul 1 '17 at 13:41
  • Great questions both of these. As for 1, maybe it is the narrator's expectation of a return being subverted? The poem also uses the simile "such as," so it's not necessarily the stillness of the ghosts returning but it is a stillness like it. As for 2, that's a compelling reading. I focused more on the spiritual implications of night and day, but there's definitely another reading of them that invokes WWI more directly. – Peter Jul 2 '17 at 6:49
  • Turns out the poem was drafted in 1912-13, so that's my second interpretation out of the window. Btw, you might be interested in this earlier draft of the poem. For a moment I thought the last word of the 2nd line was "Void", like the void you mentioned, but it seems to be "Vald" - not sure what this means. – Rand al'Thor Jul 2 '17 at 10:48

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