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The Poetry is the Pity: The War Requiem and Poetic Consolation

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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem sets nine of Wilfred Owen’s war poems alongside the words of the Missa pro defunctis, allowing these texts to interrogate and comment on each other. Owen’s poems describe the horrors of trench warfare, and often, harshly indict both church and state for their complicity in war-mongering. Scholars such as Philip Rupprecht, Heather Wiebe, David B. Greene, and George D. Herbert have explored how Owen’s texts work to subvert the text of the Mass, and deny religious and musical consolation. Such readings place the War Requiem in line with Owen’s preface to his Collected Poems, in which he rejects consolatory mourning. This article, however, suggests that moments in the War Requiem work to deconstruct Owen’s preface. Britten’s juxtaposition of Owen’s poems with the text of the Missa pro defunctis, specifically in the Agnus Dei and Libera me, works to undermine Owen’s poetic goals as outlined in the preface, bringing out irony not immediately apparent in Owen’s work. This article closely examines Owen’s poems in the context of Britten’s settings and compares Owen’s poems to their Latin counterparts. It reveals moments in which Britten’s text setting alters the implications of Owen’s words to allow moments of consolatory mourning that directly contradict Owen’s purported poetic goals and cast doubt on the possibility of completely non-consolatory mourning. It concludes that the War Requiem offers a new kind of consolation, in which the acknowledgement of the impossibility of musical and poetic consolation becomes a tool to confront grief.


War Requiem, consolation, Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten, deconstruction

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