Let’s start with the opening to Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting‘:
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 soldier travels the tunnel and finds “sleepers … Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.”
The soldier prods one of the sleepers, who reacts by springing up with “piteous recognition in fixed eyes”, and with a “dead smile”.
“And by his smile”, says the narrator, “I knew we stood in Hell.”
Then consider this, the opening lines of David Bowie’s 1970 classic ‘The Man Who Sold the World‘.
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes: “I thought you died alone
A long, long time ago”
To me, for years now, Bowie’s and Owen’s dead men have been merging. Where one has the tunnel, one has the stair; and where Bowie speaks to his undead friend “of was and when:, Owen’s companion – in the central section of the poem – tells of the “was and when” of the battles he’s seen and the live he’d lived.
I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
While one man is selling and the other brought down by war, both men have ended up part-worldless and in part animated in some other reality: Hell, or a house in the living that he roams as a ghost.
Two living men, two situations, speaking with the dead — or (in Bowie’s case) imagined. Little connects the two pieces but every time I hear the opening guitar riff of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ I see Owen’s soldier climbing out of that tunnel.
I love those uncanny connections that art doesn’t intend yet can’t help but let us make. It’s apt that, in the context of such a statement, Wilfred Owen’s poem should be named ‘Strange Meeting’.
And yet there is something similar, in essence, about both pieces. Just as death closes out ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ —
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazeless stare, at all the millions here
We must have died alone
A long long time ago
— it’s the punchline of Owen’s poem that, after Hell’s piteous soul laments his lost life, it turns out that the narrator is his murderer and that he (surprise, surprise), is dead too. So it goes:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .
Bowie’s song deals with death of a different kind. But it’s there, mentioned twice and lurking throughout the song, and — at least in my mind — so is Wilfred Owen.