“I am the enemy you killed, my friend”

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

That is, to me, one of the greatest lines of poetry ever. It occurs near the end of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Strange meeting,” which portrays two soldiers, on opposing sides in World War I, coming face to face in a lugubrious afterlife.

In their shared human suffering, small distinctions like foe and ally have drifted away. Enemy suddenly, in a jolting equation, becomes friend; killer and killed become equal. All that in ten syllables!

(The line is also a good one to recall in case anyone tells you punctuation doesn’t matter: try moving the comma two words to the left and see what happens.)

The poem begins:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined….

Owen’s experimental use of assonating end sounds–here as often in the poem a dark or incisive d or t sound–ties the scene together in a way that conventional rhymed or free verse could not.

The two converse beyond the grave:

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world….

And after a long disquisition on warfare and its discontents, the “strange friend” reveals, in that remarkable purifying fire (as Dante would say):

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.”

Owen knew all about trench warfare, in which he died a week before armistice day, 1918. He was 25.

Read the whole poem at the Poetry Foundation. Photo from “Poems by Wilfred Owen” (1920) at Internet Archive.


About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
This entry was posted in Peace and War, poetry, War and Peace and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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