Wilfred Owen Hies Himself to the Bookshop; Snowy Observations from Raymond Asquith and Noel Hodgson; Grim Scenarios for Kate Luard and Siegfried Sassoon

A few brief updates as several of our writers are moving about, hither and yon.

Today, a century back, the November 1915 enlistees of the Artists’ Rifles were sent to London for a course of lectures, and instructed to find their own lodgings. Wilfred Owen, of course, chose Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, which had subsidized bedrooms upstairs. It would seem that he tried to hang about and catch the attention of the poetical impresario, possibly providing him with a sheaf of sonnets. But Monro was out at night, and Owen at his lectures during the day, and no great impression was made…[1]

It is amusing–tantalizing, from our point of view–that Owen and Edward Thomas were so close together–cadets of the same regiment, in the same camp–and both thinking about Monro. Only a few days ago, probably within some few yards of Owen’s hut, Thomas was cattily writing to Robert Frost–one secretly powerful poet to another whose power is just being recognized–about this very minor poet and poetical tradesman who imagined himself to be “doing a useful or necessary thing (words to that effect) in continuing the Poetry Bookshop.”

There could hardly be a better example of one man looking up and another man looking down, at the exact same thing. Or person, rather: Thomas looks down upon Monro and resents him as a popularizer, while Owen would love to appoint himself tribune of that very populace…

But despite this narrow, shared angle of view, it’s a big, bustling camp, and Owen and Thomas don’t seem to have known each other. If they had, they would have talked poetry. Or, rather, Owen would have talked poetry and Thomas would have recoiled from the younger, brash, earnest, unproven man and tiptoed off to write a worried letter. In any case, they would have swiftly discovered mutual interests and an uncomfortable, unbridgeable difference–in age, in temperament, in intellectual maturity–that would have, in all likelihood, prevented their discovering that each was on his way to being an important, beloved poet.

 

And Raymond Asquith is in rare form. Or rare for him: he admits to a certain comfort, and he is not only willing to wax lyrical, for the benefit of his wife Katherine, but also to mar the mood only with over-the-top pedantry, rather than the usual cynical undercutting of sentiment.

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.

23 February 1916

It’s been snowing here the last 2 days with fine frosty nights. It must be ghastly in the trenches, and an officer in the Welsh Guards who has tried life in tents, if you please, at Calais, tells me that that is infinitely worse than the trenches, and from what one knows of the seaside, I can well believe it. In spite of the dullness of things here I am driven to congratulate myself on missing this bit of the war. The snow is rather beautiful in the streets and squares when the stars come out and reminds one of one’s sweet innocent childhood, Santa Claus, St Agnes’ Eve, Virgil’s description of life in Lapland (see the pocket book one of the Georgics)…[2]

 

Noel Hodgson, only a day after taking casualties and narrowly missing a fire-fight, devotes himself to a rather more conventionally lyrical description of the snowy trenches.

…it was extraordinarily picturesque up in trenches. Great wastes of snow & the black lines of the trenches lying across them, occasionally illuminated by a brilliant flare, & a serene moon over all. But it was a wee bit cold; everything was frozen stiff as a doornail. Men were sleeping on the firesteps with snow all over them, but they seemed to sleep all right; they snored anyway, you could hear them all down the line on the frosty silence.[3]

 

Kate Luard, too, writes often of beauty. But she is our tough, representative nurse: practical first, sentimental after, and even then generally tending to an appreciation of moral strength rather than material beauty. Snow, for her, means frostbite cases. And shells mean something worse. Today there is only ugliness and suffering:

…The Flying boy is very ill; gas gangrene has set in and he is not in a condition to survive another amputation higher up–so all we can do is to try and arrest the gangrene by the saline drip open method treatment. He cannot be left, so there has been a lot to do–with ten other officers upstairs and the bombed baby Leopold from the Hospice; he is pretty bad too–bless him.[4]

 

Is this resolution after discord? No, just cacophony in symphony. Siegfried Sassoon is going home on leave, and for him the weather means neither beauty, just now, nor suffering–only disappointment.

February 23

Off to England; leave Mericourt 9.30 by a leisurely train to Amiens and Havre and get to town about 10 a.m. next day. Weather bitterly cold and hard frost. Very poor prospect for getting a hunt.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 179.
  2. Life and Letters, 243.
  3. Zeepvat, Before Action, 157-9.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 43.
  5. Diaries, 40.