First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Lines Written On My Nineteenth Birthday

LINES WRITTEN ON MY NINETEENTH BIRTHDAY by WILFRED OWEN March 18, 1912

Two Spirits woke me from my sleep this morn; Both most unwelcome were; for they have torn Away from me the shady screens of ease And unreflecting, unself-scanning Peace Wherein I used to hide me from annoy In years which found and left me still a Boy. The First rose solemn, with a Voice of stern Monition; and it said: 'Look back! and learn To number life by moments, not by years; Know that thy youth to its completion nears. This night the final minute hath been laid Upon thy nineteen Springs. Aye, be dismayed To see the Fourth Part of thy utmost Span Now spent! What then? Affrighted dost thou plan To crowd the Rest with Action, every whit? Ev'n so essay; but know thou canst not knit Thy web of hours so close as to regain E'en one lost stitch! For ever gaps remain!' Hereat it ceased; for now a second Shade Caught all my senses to't; no sound it made; No form it had; but quietly it drew Its tightening hand of Pain through every thew Of my frail body.... Pain?---Why Pain today? Sure, not a taste of what this tingling clay Shall suffer through the year? And yet, if so, 'Twill be but my most rightful share, I trow, Scarce worse than the keen hunger-pinch that racks Numberless wretches all their life. Pain slacks Its hold on one, only to grasp another; And why should I be spared, and not my brother?

So thinking, quickly I pass the day. And lo! What kindnesses the Friends around me show! How many eyes in warm solicitude Have smiled upon me! Tongues that have been rude Are gentle now.... Yet still, how do I miss Thine eyes, thy voice, my Mother! Oft I kiss Thy portrait, and I clutch thy letter dear As if it were thy hand.

                  At this, fresh cheer

Comes over me; and now upon my couch Of ruby velvet, o'er the fire I crouch In full content. I only pause from reading To scribble these few lines; or, scarcely heeding The dismal damp abroad, to mock the rain Shooting its sleety balls at me in vain. ---Ho, thus, methinks, hereafter, when the weak Creations of a Mental Mist shall seek To quench my soul, I'll thwart them by the shield Of crystal Hope! For there have been revealed Heart-secrets since the coming of this day, Making me thankful for its thorn-paved way. Among them this: 'No joy is comparable Unto the Melting---soft and gradual--- Of Torture's needles in the flesh. To sail Smoothly from out the abysmal anguish-jail And tread the placid plains of normal ease Is sweeter far, I deem, than all the glees Which we may catch by mounting higher still Into the dangerous air where actual Bliss doth thrill.'

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