Monday, January 26, 2009

Ghost Story

Space, time, and gravity will all fall away--
it matters not how deeply trapped
we are in them today.

The English war poet Wilfred Owen
shortly before his death in late 1918

While Wilfred Owen was serving in the trenches as a Royal Army infantry officer during World War I--and simultaneously winning great fame as a young war poet--his brother Harold became a naval officer. Harold was aboard a Royal Navy ship in the Atlantic off Africa when he heard in November of 1918 that the war had come to an end, but at first he found no relief in the good news: "It bothered me that I could not, to myself, account for my restless unease. I felt horribly flat."

He quickly recovered his spirits, however: "I stared out over the incredibly blue expanse of glittering sea, and perhaps something in the limitless stretch of water and sky affected me. I realized with a surge of happiness that the war had not broken my own family. My brother Wilfred must be all right now; he was safe, and so was I."

Wilfred Owen may well have been safe, but the place that provided him with safety was no longer a part of the reality that the living share from minute to minute and day to day. Shortly before the war ended, he had been killed by the Germans at the front, a fact that did not, apparently, stop his spirit from traveling through the ether to visit Harold Owen on his ship.

Harold carefully recorded his experience of ghostly visitation:

"I had gone down to my cabin to write some letters. I drew aside the door curtain and stepped inside. I felt shock run through me with appalling force. I did not rush towards him but walked jerkily into the cabin--all limbs stiff and slow to respond. Looking at him I spoke quietly, 'Wilfred, how did you get here?'"

For there Wilfred was, sitting in his brother's chair at his brother's desk in his brother's shipboard cabin. Harold Owen recounted the scene with such detail and clarity that it seems impossible to dismiss it as a dream:

"He did not rise and I saw that he was involuntarily immobile, but his eyes which had never left mine were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand; when I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile.

"I felt no fear--I had not when I first drew my door curtain aside and saw him there; only exquisite mental pleasure at thus beholding him. All I was conscious of was a sensation of enormous shock and profound astonishment that he should be here in my cabin . . .

"I must have turned my eyes away from him; when I looked back my cabin chair was empty. I felt another power in senseless, absolute loss. I knew with certainty that Wilfred was dead."

Harold wasn't able to confirm the paranormal perception that his brother had been killed until days later when his ship arrived in England. But dead? Isn't "dead" a rather strange word to use in this context? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Wilfred Owen had slipped the bonds of flesh and gravity and found the freedom to move through time and space at will, rushing along the spiritual pathways of his compassion to bring a message of conquest over death to those whom he loved best?

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