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Allusions to Wilfred Owen's "An Anthem for Doomed Youth" in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.

In the seventh chapter of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (NY: Perennial Classics, 2000. 1947), Lowry makes two explicit but subtle allusions to the World War One poet Wilfred Owen's "An Anthem for Doomed Youth." Through Geoffrey Firmin's musing observation about the guns of a Mexican firing practice that recalls the rifles of Owen's poem, Lowry suggests how Firmin's wife's former affair with his friend Jacques Laruelle has figuratively killed their marriage. Additionally, in the novel's conclusion, Firmin literally dies in a manner that recalls the brutal deaths of Owen's young men.

In the first scene, Firmin has just been imagining Laruelle's affair with his wife and specifically thinking of the man's penis as "that hideously elongated cucumiform bundle of blue nerves and gills below the steaming unselfconscious stomach [that] had sought its pleasure in his wife's body" [...] (217). Shortly after this thought, Firmin sees the "puffs of smoke" and hears the "rattle of musketry" as he looks out over the balcony toward the site of a live ammunition drill by a local contingent of the Mexican army. (217) The "rattle of musketry" recalls the third line of Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" that refers to "the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle" (The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy. [NY: Norton, 1986]: 76, my emphasis). Firmin then says aloud to Laruelle, "Mass reflexes, but only the erections of guns, disseminating death" [...]. (217) Although Laruelle does not hear his remark, Firmin's subtle allusion to the second line of Owen's poem suggests how deeply wounded he has been by this affair.

The second line of the poem runs, "--Only the monstrous anger of the guns" (my emphasis; 76). Lowry often disguises allusions in the novel through changing some of the words in the original phrase. In this case, he precedes the allusion with "Mass reflexes" and the conjunction "but;" replaces Owen's phrase "monstrous anger" with "erections;" and concludes with "disseminating death." In this way, he makes Firmin's comment ostensibly refer to the guns of the Mexican soldiers, but it subtextually recalls Jacques's erect penis, already referenced earlier in the passage. The implication of the allusions to Owen's poem is profound. Firmin feels he has been wounded even unto death by this affair. Jacques's "gun" has disseminated death because this sexual dalliance kills Firmin's relationship with his wife.

Firmin is doomed as surely as the unnamed youths of Owen's poem are, and he will literally die at the end of the novel, shot by the Chief of Rostrums. There is no mourning for him, just as there are no mourners for the dead youths in Owen's poem except for the whistling mortar shells. More important, after Firmin falls, he hears a bell: "A bell spoke out: Dolente ... dolore!" (389) Owen's poem opens with the ironic question, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" (76) and the irony extends to the slain Geoffrey Firmin; although a bell rings at his death, only he believes it is signaling his death. His body is thrown into the ravine, followed by a dead dog, suggesting he dies in a dehumanized fashion like Owen's youths who "die as cattle." Malcolm Lowry's allusions to Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" encapsulate the figurative death of Geoffrey Firmin's marriage because of his wife's affair with Jacques Laruelle and his literal, dehumanized murder by the hand of a Mexican firing squad of one.

Richard Rankin Russell, Baylor University
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Author:Russell, Richard Rankin
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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