Tag Archives: Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Well here we are – the big man at last. Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) is perhaps the greatest of all the war poets. His

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collectio...

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, found in a collection of his poems from 1920. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

shocking, realistic depiction of the horrors of trenches and gas warfare, heavily influenced by his friend Siegfried Sassoon, stood in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time, and to the confidently patriotic verse written earlier by war poets such as Rupert Brooke. You know the drill, what follows is mostly the work of Mr. Wikipedia.

Prior to the war, having been educated at Wakeman School and what is now the University of Reading, Owen worked as a private tutor teaching English and French  at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France.

On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4 June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. Owen started the war as a cheerful and optimistic man, but he soon changed forever. Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as “expressionless lumps”. However, Owen’s outlook on the war was to be changed dramatically after two traumatic experiences. Firstly, he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing among the remains of a fellow officer. Soon after, he became trapped for days in an old German dugout. After these two events, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was while recuperating at Craiglockhart that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter that was to transform Owen’s life… [dun dun dun! Sorry Mr. Wikipedia, you know we're just playing around here].

After a period of convalescence in Northern Ireland, then a short spell working as a teacher in nearby Tynecastle High School, he returned to light regimental duties. In March 1918, he was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. After returning to the front, Owen led units of the Second Manchesters on 1 October 1918 to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. However, only one week before the end of the war, whilst attempting to traverse a canal, he was shot in the head and killed. The news of his death, on 4 November 1918, was given to his mother on Armistice Day. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was awarded the Military Cross, an award he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet, but the award was not gazetted until 15 February 1919. The citation followed on 30 July 1919:

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

As our dear friend at Wikipedia oh so subtly implied earlier, Owen’s meeting with Sassoon at Craiglockhart had a profound effect on the former’s poetic voice, and his most famous poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth (both below) show direct results of Sassoon’s influence. Manuscript copies of the poems survive, annotated in Sassoon’s handwriting. Owen’s poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. While his use of pararhyme, with its heavy reliance on assonance, was innovative [apparently - who knows what that means] he was not the only poet at the time to use these particular techniques. He was, however, one of the first to experiment with it extensively. As a part of his therapy, Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry. Sassoon, who was becoming influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, aided him here, showing Owen through example what poetry could do. Sassoon’s use of satire influenced Owen, who tried his hand at writing “in Sassoon’s style”. Further, the content of Owen’s verse was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon. Sassoon’s emphasis on realism and “writing from experience” was contrary to Owen’s hitherto romantic-influenced style, as seen in his earlier sonnets. Owen was to take both Sassoon’s gritty realism and his own romantic notions and create a poetic synthesis that was both potent and sympathetic, as summarised by his famous phrase “the pity of war”. In this way, Owen’s poetry is quite distinctive, and he is, by many, considered a greater poet than Sassoon. Nonetheless, Sassoon contributed to Owen’s popularity by his strong promotion of his poetry, both before and after Owen’s death, and his editing was instrumental in the making of Owen as a poet. [Anyone else sensing some strong love for the S. man?]

Thousands of poems were published during the war, but very few of them had the benefit of such strong patronage, and it is as a result of Sassoon’s influence [surprise surprise], as well as support from Edith Sitwell and the editing of his poems into a new anthology in 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured Owen’s popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960s which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye.

Now for the tricky part… Every one of Owen’s poems deserves a mention. After great deliberation I have selected three, the last of which is typically considered to be the best poem of the war. I hope you enjoy them.

Anthem For Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
 
Inspection
‘You! What d’you mean by this?’ I rapped.
‘You dare come on parade like this?’
‘Please, sir, it’s -’ ”Old yer mouth,’ the sergeant snapped.
‘I takes ‘is name, sir?’ – ‘Please, and then dismiss.’
 
Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,
For being ‘dirty on parade’.
He told me, afterwards, the damned spot
Was blood, his own. ‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.
 
‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’
 
Dulce et Decorum est
(sets the bar for the rest of us. See here for an analysis)
 
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
   
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
   
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
   
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
 
 

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Robert Graves

Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) is probably my favourite poet of the war era. I’m sure that means you guys will like him too. There is so much to say about him that I have pretty much copied / pasted the following from wikipedia, from what was an unusually thorough article.

Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools until in 1909 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse. There, in response to persecution (in the most part due to the German element in his name and his relative poverty) he feigned madness, began to write poetry, and took up boxing, in due course becoming school champion at both welter- and middleweight. He also sang in the choir, meeting there an aristocratic boy three years younger, G. H. “Peter” Johnstone, with whom he began an intense romantic friendship, the scandal of which led ultimately to an interview with the headmaster. Among the masters his chief influence was George Mallory, who introduced him to contemporary literature and took him mountaineering in vacations. In his final year at Charterhouse he won a classical exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford, but would not take his place there until after the war.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet and was one of the first to write realistic poems about experience of front-line conflict. At the Battle of the Somme, he was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die and, indeed, was officially reported as having died of wounds. He gradually recovered, however; and, apart from a brief spell back in France, he spent the remainder of the war in England.

One of Graves’s close friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, also an officer in the RWF. In 1917, Sassoon rebelled against the war by making a public anti-war statement, which later became known as the Soldier’s Declaration. Graves feared Sassoon could face court martial and intervened with the military authorities, persuading them that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and that they should treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, a military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen (there will be more details about this epic meeting of giants in a later post). Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was officially called, although he was never hospitalised for it.The friendship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in Graves’s letters and biographies, and the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves’s collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains many poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a “heavy sexual element” within it, an observation supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves became a friend of Wilfred Owen, who would often send him poems from France.

Graves’s army career ended dramatically with an incident which could have led to a charge of desertion. Having been posted to Limerick in late 1918, he “woke up with a sudden chill, which I recognized as the first symptoms of Spanish influenza.” “I decided to make a run for it,” he wrote, “I should at least have my influenza in an English, and not an Irish, hospital.” Fair enough. Arriving at Waterloo with a high fever but without the official papers that would secure his release from the army, he chanced to share a taxi with a demobilisation officer also returning from Ireland, who completed his papers for him with the necessary secret codes.

After the war (this is me again) Graves earned his living from writing. In addition to his poetry, he was a scholar/translator/writer of antiquity specializing in Classical Greece and Rome, and the author of several popular historical novels including I, ClaudiusHis memoir of his early life, including his role in the war, Goodbye To All That, is definitely worth a read, not only as a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the war, but also as a ‘who’s who’ of early C20th English society. Graves was a well connected man, or at least he paints himself in such a light. In Goodbye to All That we see him bump into the great and good of London: amongst other people, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy, D.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Lord Asquith, Walter Raleigh, H.G. Wells and A.A. Milne. It is also fascinating to see the relationship between Graves and Sassoon as Graves presents it, although the publishing of Goodbye To All That did lead to a fall out between the two men, who were never properly reconciled. Graves was twice married and had eight children. He died in from heart failure on 7 December 1985 aged 90.

This may come of a shock you, but I may have to break my self-imposed ’2 poems per poet’ rule in this post, because I can’t narrow it down beyond 3 in the case of Graves. He’s just that good.

To Lucasta on Going to the War – For the Fourth Time
 
It doesn’t matter what’s the cause,
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws,
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?
Lucasta, when to France your man
Returns his fourth time, hating war,
Yet laughs as calmly as he can
And flings an oath, but says no more,
That is not courage, that’s not fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride sends him here.
 
Let statesmen bluster, bark and bray,
And so decide who started
This bloody war, and who’s to pay,
But he must be stout-hearted,
Must sit and stake with quiet breath,
Playing at cards with Death.
Don’t plume yourself he fights for you;
It is no courage, love, or hate,
But let us do the things we do;
It’s pride that makes the heart be great;
It is not anger, no, nor fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride keeps him here.

The Next War

You young friskies who today 
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers. 
 
Goliath and David
(written for his friend, David Thomas, who died at Fricourt, March 1916).
 
Once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from a brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.
 
Striding within javelin range
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink.
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubit’s high.
Says foolish David, ‘Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.’
 
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout: but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for Beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre cut –
‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries,
Throws blindly foward, chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

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Charles Sorely

English: Cropped and retouched version of a po...

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Charles Hamilton Sorely (19 May 1895 – 13 October 1915) is named by Robert Graves in his autobiographical novel ‘Goodbye To All That’ as one of the three (British) poets of importance to be killed in the war, [the other two being Isaac Rosenberg (the subject of the next post in this series) and, of course, Wilfred Owen].

The son of the professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University, Sorley was extremely intelligent and won a scholarship to Marlborough College, the same school as Siegfried Sassoon.

Sorely was in Germany when war was declared, having accepted a place at Cambridge for the following year, but he immediately returned to England and enlisted in the British Army. He joined the  Suffolk Regiment as a First Lieutenant, and was sent to the front in May 1915.Sorely was shot in the head at the Battle of Loos on 13th October, 1915, soon after his promotion to Captain. 37 complete poems were found in his kit when returned to his family. His style is often contrasted with Brooke’s sentimental depiction of war, and in many ways he might be seen as a forerunner to Sassoon and Owen.

The poem below, which Sorely wrote just before his death, entirely does away with the idea that war might have something to do with pride, honour and duty, handed down from the age of Antiquity, and paints a stark and matter of fact picture instead.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead,
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore. 

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Edmund Blunden

Edmund Blunden

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Edmund Blunden (1 November 1896 – 20 January 1974) is one of the most underrated poets of the Great war. I admit I struggled to get to grips with his autobiographical account of his front-line experiences – Undertones of War – but I find some of his poetry to be wonderfully subtle, and much in need of sharing.

Fresh out of Christ’s Hospital, Blunden was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Sussex Regiment in August 1915, and served with them throughout the war, taking part in the actions at Ypres and the Somme, and receiving the Military Cross in the process.

Unusual for a junior infantry officer, Blunden survived nearly two years in the front line without physical injury (Sassoon, for example, was invalided to England 3 times). However, he bore the mental scars from his experiences for the rest of his life. As well as composing his own poetry, Blunden was crucially responsible for bringing the work of his fellow war poets to greater public attention. In particular, he edited an edition of Wilfred Owen’s poems (1931) alongside Siegfried Sassoon. A war survivor himself, Sassoon understood the psychological burdens this imposed, and the two men became close friends. At a dinner in Blunden’s honour, Sassoon provided the burgundy.

Blunden’s poetry avoids the graphic edge that characterises the work of Sassoon or Owen, which I suspect is one of the reasons why it is not as widely appreciated. Instead it dwells on how the ghosts and memories of war can haunt a man every time he shuts his eyes. I have selected two poems for your consideration. The second was published in 1936, almost 20 years after the ending of the war.

The Ancre At Hamel: Afterwards
 
Where tongues were loud and hearts were light
I heard the Ancre flow;
Waking oft at the mid of night
I heard the Ancre flow.
 
I heard it crying, that sad rill,
Below the painful ridge
By the burnt unraftered mill
And the relic of a bridge.
And could this sighing river seem
To call me far away,
And its pale word dismiss as dream
The voices of to-day?
The voices in the bright room chilled
And that mourned on alone;
The silence of the full moon filled
With that brook’s troubling tone.
 
The struggling Ancre had no part
In these new hours of mine,
And yet its stream ran through my heart;
I heard it grieve and pine,
As if its rainy tortured blood
Had swirled into my own,
When by its battered bank I stood
And shared its wounded moan.
 
Can You Remember?
 
Yes, I still remember
The whole thing in a way;
Edge and exactitude
Depend on the day.
 
Of all that prodigious scene
There seems scanty loss,
Though mists mainly float and screen
Canal, spire and fosse;
 
Though commonly I fail to name
That once obvious Hill,
And where we went and whence we came
To be killed, or kill.
Those mists are spiritual
And luminous-obscure,
Evolved of countless circumstance
Of which I am sure;
 
Of which, at the instance
Of sound, smell, change and stir,
New-old shapes for ever
Intensely recur.
 
And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.

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Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke

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Rupert Brooke (3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) was by some measure the most idealistic of the war poets. By the time the war started in 1914, the man who Yeats allegedly described as the ‘handsomest young man in England’ had already made something of a name for himself, both for his poetry and for his good looks, among the Bloomsbury group of writers and the Georgian Poets.

Brooke is most famous for the 5 sonnets he wrote about the war. The poems were published as a collection, entitled 1914, in May 1915 and were used as a part of Kitchener’s propaganda programme.

On 28th February 1915, having been commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Brooke set sail  for Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. On the way, he developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915 in a French hospital ship moored in a bay off the island of Skyros in the Aegean. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, he was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros, Greece, where his grave remains today.

Brooke’s poems painted a picture of war as the sort of place where right fought wrong, and men died in noble pursuit of a worthy cause. He is often contrasted in this regard with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but it is worth remembering that Sassoon’s earlier poems followed a similar pattern to Brooke’s. Just as Sassoon would go on to be arguably the anti-war poet of his time, I cannot help but feel that Brooke might have also changed his tune, if he had survived to bear witness to the horrors at Gallipoli and the slaughter on the Western Front. But he didn’t. He died with an idealised image of war untarnished in his mind, no doubt confident that he was playing his part, like so many of those young men who joined up without understanding what they were getting themselves into.

Here is the fifth and best known of Brooke’s sonnets.

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
 
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
 

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