Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wilfred Owen: "In poetry we call them the most glorious."

Wilfred Owen was a poet who was killed in the First World War, at the age of 25.  If you're familiar with his poems I don't need to tell you about them. If you're not, I don't know what to say.  I suppose his most famous poem is "Dulce et Decorum Est."

Recently I came across a collection of his letters, edited by John Bell (who published Owen's complete letters in 1967, and these selected letters thirty years later.)  Owen's war poetry is so bitter, sharp as bayonets, shaking with rage, that I was surprised to find another side to him in his letters:  light-hearted, enthusiastic, and frequently funny.  Most of them were written to his mother.

When war broke out in 1914, Owen was living in France, working as an English tutor.  He did not want to do this for the rest of his life; in fact, he had no clear plan for his life at all.  He wrote poetry but barely allowed himself to dream of making it his career.  He did not enlist until 1915, and spent over a year in officers' training.  Although he had been in no hurry to join up, military life seems to have suited him well.  His letters home are invariably cheerful.

On his first day in France (before reaching the front lines), he cut his thumb and joked about it being his first war wound: "I could only squeeze out a single drop of blood."  Once he arrived at the Somme, the tone of his letters changes completely:
16 Jan. 1917

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days.  I have suffered seventh hell.
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is a "dug-out" in the middle of No Man's Land.

We had a march of 3 miles over shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded trench.  After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top.  It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water.  Men have been known to drown in them.  Many stuck in the mud & only got out by leaving their waders, equipment and in some cases their clothes.

High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us.

My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air.
One entrance had been blown in & blocked.
So far, the other remained.
The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't.
Those fifty hours were the agony of my happy life.
I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees.

In the Platoon on my left the sentries over the dug-out were blown to nothing.  One of these poor fellows was my first servant whom I rejected.  If I had kept him he would have lived, for [officers'] servants don't do Sentry Duty.
The short, choppy sentences are also atypical for him.  About a month later he wrote:
4 Feb. 1917

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost [worse] than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind.  By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches' periscope.

We had 5 Tommy's cookers between the Platoon, but they did not serve to melt the ice in the water-cans.  So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold.  As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back, but I am not able to tell how many have landed in hospital.

. . . My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. . . . The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living.  I thought of you and Mary [his sister] without a break all the time.  I cannot say I felt any fear.  We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives.  I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day and frightfully difficult by night.

. . . I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness.  Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one's own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth.  In poetry we call them the most glorious.  But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the "soldierly spirit."
A footnote informs us that he wrote the poem "Exposure" based on this experience.  His toes gave him trouble for the rest of his life (which means, about a year and a half.)

This was the incident that got him officially diagnosed with shell-shock:
 25 Apr. 1917

For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep.  For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out.  I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment.  A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head.  Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway Cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron.  My brother officer of B Coy [Company], 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole.  But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest be a 9-days Rest.  I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.
After this he remained in hospital for several months and was eventually sent back to England.  Nonetheless, he tries to downplay his "illness" in his letters.  This one is to his sister:
8 May 1917

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here.  I certainly was shaky when I first arrived.  But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever.  (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal.  You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2/Lt Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand.  I hope you don't!
In June 1917 he was sent to Craiglockhart, an old hospital near Edinburgh which was used for cases of severe shell-shock.  (I recommend Pat Barker's historical novel Regeneration for a description of the Craiglockhart experience - Owen is a minor character.)  At Craiglockhart occurred the defining event of Owen's life:  he met poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Sassoon was seven years older than Owen; he had enlisted even before war was declared, and his berserker courage and ferocity in combat had earned him the nickname "Mad Jack" and the Military Cross (Britain's third-highest medal.)  In 1917 he turned against the war and wrote an open letter condemning it ("I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.")  He would have been court-martialed for treason if his friend, fellow poet Robert Graves, hadn't convinced the higher-ups that Sassoon was temporarily insane - suffering from shell-shock - so they sent him to Craiglockhart instead.

Very soon Owen came to idolize him.  He showed Sassoon his poems; the great man liked some of them! and arranged for him to meet various publishing figures, including Robert Ross (friend of Oscar Wilde, whom I've blogged about before.)  Soon a book of Owen's poetry was underway, although it did not get published until after his death.  We're told that five of his poems were published in magazines during his lifetime; moreover, when he attended Robert Graves' wedding he was introduced to everyone as "Owen, the poet."  On a later visit to London he writes to his mother that he had "more invitations to lunch & dinner than I could manage!"

Despite his joy and pride, he was still in the Army, and his shell-shock had been pronounced cured.  Various people were trying to get him non-combat assignments . . . but it seems that he wanted to go back to the front.  He felt it would give his anti-war statements credibility; or, as he once put it:  "I hate washy pacifists as temperamentally as I hate whiskied prussianists [i.e., war-mongers].  Therefore I feel that I must first get some reputation of gallantry before I could successfully and usefully declare my principles."

On August 31, 1918 he was sent back to France.  His letters to his mother insist that he is happy and safe (when he was safe), but to Sassoon he writes:
You said it would be a good thing for my poetry if I went back.
That is my consolation for feeling a fool.  This is what shells scream at me every time:  Haven't you got the wits to keep out of this?
 (Sassoon had already been sent back to France, wounded again, and sent back home.)

On October 3, 1918 Owen was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry," which in this case included capturing a German machine-gun nest.  He wrote to his mother:
I came out in order to help these boys - directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.  I have done the first.
 Once again, his letter to Sassoon strikes a slightly different note:
I cannot say I suffered anything; having let my brain grow dull:  That is to say my nerves are in perfect order.
It is a strange truth:  that your [poem] Counter-Attack frightened me much more than the real one: though the boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour.
. . . I shall feel again as soon as I dare, but now I must not.  I don't take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.
His last letter to his mother, written October 31, 1918, is not much different from his other letters.  He tells her that he's safe and happy:
There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here; . . . Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.
Wilfred Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918.  His family received news of his death one week later, while the bells were ringing for the Armistice.

This is why I'm anti-war.

No comments:

Post a Comment