Not all that very long ago, Wilfred Owen was overjoyed to be part of something as polished and literary as The Hydra, Craiglockhart Hospital’s in-house literary magazine. But he has come far in recent weeks, not least in his own estimation. Two days ago, a century back, he wrote to his mother in long-suffering-editor mode.
Thursday, 10 p.m.
My own dear Mother,
Glad to have your reproach this morning & to think my letter could not arrive long after your posting. The Result of the Board has not been officially announced, but before it Dr. Brock said I should be kept on. In a few minutes I must go down to a special meeting about the Magazine. We have a new House President now, who is willing to lay out more money for it. At last, moreover, there seem to be people capable of helping to it. Sassoon is too much the great man to be bothered with it, and I wish I had back again the time I have wasted on it. I was cajoled into promising to act in the next big play, but had the fortitude to get out of it again.
I think one of the most humanly useful things I am doing now is the teaching at Tynecastle School…
Owen will now do his utmost to get out of any further editing duties, but he was responsible for the issue of The Hydra which hit the breakfast room at Craiglockhart today, a century back. It included one of his latest poems, a naked homage to Sassoon, published anonymously:
The Next WarWar’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death, —
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.
In another hospital only a few miles away, Ivor Gurney, is writing his own verse–but he is not pleased with it. Nevertheless, like Owen, he wishes that his cure might take just a little while longer…
29 September 1917
Ward 24, Edinburgh Military
My Dear Friend: I have just turned over a page, just finished writing a most unsatisfactory piece of verse with which I shall not trouble you.
And would you really be polite enough to ask how I am getting on? Then you shall learn that the will of the doctor still keeps me in bed and on Light Diet; as that does not include bully-beef and biscuits I am not unsatisfied altogether, but it does mean Lightness, and that is not good. And the little baccy I have is of the most distressing; cigarettes are no companions like a pipe, and one tires of them. They do not care for classical music much here; my head is thick; my fingers stiff; the weather dull; there is nothing worth reading.
So there you are out of my grumbles. For to lie between clean linen in a light room is no small thing; nor to be able to buy todays papers a small blessing. It is good to wander surreptitiously from ones own room to another and listen to Scots tales of battle and winter hardship — if one does not look forward. Rest is good, and for the present that is all my business. Would to God I had a cough — a cough! What can a gassed man do without something hoarse or rattly? My chances are small, for my chest betrays me, of staying peacefully “in silk and scented down”.
Gurney then makes a black comedic allusion–he has no doubt that Marion Scott will catch it–to Alan Seeger:
“I have a rendezvous with Fritz
By some disputed barricade”
and that before long.
Gurney, released from the strictures of censorship, then sketches all his movements–with the real place-names–and some of his actions. Frustratingly, when he now could tell us everything that has happened to him, he only distractedly sketches a few scenes and hints at a few notably horrible moments.
This next bit, however, is remarkable. Does he have any regrets about his time just behind the front lines?
O the souvenirs I might have had! But only officers have any real good chance of souvenirs, since only they can get them off. The men find things, and people who live in dugouts will hang them up and brag of great deeds in that old time. But the men, who could not carry very well, and had no place to store things and hardly a leave, will be empty-handed. You see, if one finds something interesting, it may be in a hot comer, and how is one to carry it, for the haversack is full… And if a wound comes all your stuff is lost. A man found a quartermasters stores at Omiecourt, near Chartres, with hundreds of brand new helmets, but all that could be done was a little traffic with officers. I had two books and some papers for you, all lost at Vermand. Men hang on to revolvers and badges, watches and compasses etc, all that can be easily carried. There is too much sniping for the fighters to get souvenirs, the salvage and burial parties get them. (Will this letter interest you? And if so, why?)
Of course it will: from the far side of the experiential gulf it feels like a privilege to identify with the humble fighting soldiers–and against the knaves and R.E.M.F.’s who cheat them of their booty… and this is poetry:
People unfitted for the line, lunatics, funks, bosseyed idiots and such like, from whom an officer with 50 francs may make himself rich with booty — and reputation, the ASC do well, for they have room to store. R.T. officers, with Real Homes. Brass Hats can get what they would. Only the poor fool who goes over the top — and under the bottom — seems to be without anything at all. It is only fair to say that he is easily contented—with bare life, warmth, and food he must be counted rich; so by all means load weights of discipline on to him till he cares not whether he is in Rest or in the Line. And doesnt care a ha’peny obscenity about souvenirs save in his leg or arm; marketable, magic-carpet-like, transmuting talismans as they are. What an ode Bums would write to a Piece of Shrapnel! I hope for a letter from you very soon:
Your sincere friend – Ivor Gurney
References and Footnotes
- Collected Letters, 496-7. Coincidentally, (Owen's soon-to-be intimate friend) Charles Scott Moncrieff published, on the same day as this letter, a review of Alec Waugh's novel of adolescent love, writing wryly that "If I had been given the alternatives--to lie about in Flanders and, in mid-August, occupy Langemarck, or to return to England, about the same time, criticise 'The Loom of Youth', I know not which of these adventures, alike so arduous and so gratifying, I should have chosen. But I had no choice..." See Chasing Lost Time, 137. ↩
- War Letters, 208-210. ↩