Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

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?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.