Wilfred Owen: Here is Poetry; Sassoon’s Example Furthered, and Traduced; Cynthia Asquith and Duff Cooper on the Air Raid–and (at Long Last!) a Discussion of Rasputin’s Endowment

Wilfred Owen is proving himself to be a man at ease with many roles: he runs a military hotel by day, but in his free time he vies with antique dealers, writes chatty letters to his mother, composes febrile poetry, and attends to the delicate balance of camaraderie and flattery (not to say worshipful enthusiasm) best calculated to hold his new friend’s personal interest while also soliciting his critical attention…

6 December 1917 Scarborough

My friend,

I shall continue to poop off heavy stuff at you, till you get my range at Scarborough, and so silence me, for the time. This ‘Wild with all Regrets’ was begun & ended two days ago, at one gasp. If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry,’ it will be so for me.

What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt in this, and ‘Vision’? Do you consider the hop from Flea to Soul too abrupt?[1]

Alas, I am not sure which poem “Vision” refers to, But the “flea”  bit is Owen is asking Siegfried Sassoon‘s advice about “Wild with all Regrets.” Owen’s self-deprecating comments are not simply pro-forma: the draft needs work.

But there is no lack of confidence here either, as the second paragraph shows. Owen is asking advice, but he is also pointing to a significant innovation in his poetry, the use of what he calls “vowel-rime,” a sort of half-rhyming that is unconventional yet fits very well with what is emerging as his method: to write traditionally-structured poems that go deep into horror and pathos while avoiding triteness. To rhyme in a way more consonant with speech is to avoid chiming, to avoid sounding just a bit too much like Tennyson, who never sung of shell-shocked men or bodies torn apart by explosives.



Following Owen’s presentation of evidence on how Sassoon’s influence is advancing the cause of war poetry, we have a sort of cross-examination to deal with. If Sassoon’s lead in speaking directly of the war’s horrors, of taking a colloquial voice in formal diction (more Hardy than Kipling, in its antecedents; more Drummer Hodge than Barrack Room Ballads) and using it to criticize the war can spur Owen towards his masterpieces of anguish, can his example also be betrayed for the purposes of military propaganda?

Oh, yes indeed. Gilbert Frankau, a rare presence here but a vigorous one during the war as he worked to stake a claim to the literary territory a brow and a half down the ladder of popular taste from Robert Nichols, is eager to support the cause. Even–and, if we are to be consistent, this is much to his credit, in a way–to the point of insisting on the rightness of its most disturbing concomitants. Like shooting your own men for running away. After all, doesn’t one propagandize pour encourager les autres?

Today, a century back, Frankau wrote three stanzas of Sassoonish pith that one would like to read as bitterly ironic. But if the form is Sassoonish, the mode isn’t: this will be the preface to a long, unironic, and “pitiless” poem in which the spirit of the titular deserter is barred from Valhalla…


The Deserter

I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.

The bolt-heads locked to the cartridges;
The rifles stead to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.

‘Fire’ called the Sergeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in cordite-smoke.[2]


It is a commonplace–or should be–of the study of the war’s literature to remind the reader that pro-war poetry and deeply traditional stuff were overwhelmingly more popular than Sorley/Sassoon et. al., during the war, and that “Disenchantment” didn’t set in until the wave of memoirs crested ten years after the armistice. And yet… Frankau’s little piece is not Brooke or “In Flanders Fields” or even an updated “Light Brigade.” It’s not simply pro-war, pro-violence, or a troublingly untroubled depiction of violent death: it’s a vindictive celebration of cold-blooded killing. A bloody-minded jingo could surely argue that “such things are necessary,” and even make the point that these poetic chaps should be commended for reminding us of what happens to bloody cowards, the stick to the carrot of heroic satisfaction…

But that doesn’t it make it any less disgusting. Sassoon perfected the hammer-blow line-end to make us feel the terrible waste of war. Frankau reduces it once more to doggerel, and celebrates that waste.


So much for war literature in England, today.

And what about the war? Well, there was an air raid in the early morning, which Sassoon, in London between hunts, only mentions in passing when he returns to his diary (he will, however, have something more to say about it presently, in a letter). But Cynthia Asquith weighs in with a nice dismissive mot:

Thursday, 6th December

Was woken at five by guns—another air-raid at last! I like them with my dinner, not with my dreams, felt sleepy and bored…[3]


Which would be the best upper-class-diary-mention-of-the-air-raid were it not for Duff Cooper‘s entry in the field. Cooper, on leave for the weekend, manages to undermine his own recent idealization of the halcyon trip to Venice, then give us our most bizarre and tangential mention of the events of Russia’s conspicuously eventful year, and only then get to the air raid…

Dined… in Upper Berkeley Street… Bertie Stopford drove me home. He is a notorious bugger and was very attentive to me, saying I looked younger than when he last saw me which was in Venice before the war, He has been in Russia for some time and talked to me about the murder of Rasputin. After Rasputin was dead, Felix [Yusupov] Elston fell on the body and beat it. Felix told Stopford this himself. He suspects that there had been some relationship between Felix and Rasputin. The great charm of the latter for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever. Also he had three large warts on his cock.

I have forgotten to mention that at five o’clock this morning there was an air raid…

So the bombing didn’t make the biggest impression, being less notable, on first consideration, than third-hand information about Rasputin’s genitalia. What a piece of work is man, etc.

Cooper, who had never yet been in London for a major air raid, found it strange. “It was difficult to realize that this was war going on in London.” But he was not unduly alarmed, and considered it a good first test of his courage under fire. He was back in bed before the anti-aircraft guns ceased….[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 514-15.
  2. See Hibberd and Onions, ed., Winter of the World, 190-1.
  3. Diaries, 377.
  4. Diary, 62.

Rhapsodizing to Plymouth

Hotel McAlpin
Greeley Square
New York City
24 May [1914]

Dear Eddie,

I got hundreds & hundreds of lovely letters yesterday, & most of them from you.  Yours were all very nice to read… I grew green with envy at your account of L. Abercrombie’s Saturday to Wednesday. Even the best of the people in Ryton–nay, Dymock itself–must have seemed to him a little tame after that. Raymond Buildings must be littered with dropped smocks. May I add a well-worn paréo to the heap on Friday week–a day or two after you get this? I’ve just cabled to you to find out if you will be in London then. For the agony of doubt conquered my deep & secret desire to wander in on you, all unexpected, one lovely June morning. I am a romantic at heart: but the practical lies deeper…

Thus Rupert Brooke to Eddie Marsh, his good friend, frequent host, social enabler, Georgian collaborator, and idolizer. The playful, slightly naughty tone is characteristic of the correspondence, as is the semi-veiled reference to extra-literary hijinks. I, for one, wish I knew just what had been going on at Lascelles Abercrombie’s… but onward. To the practical, and the romantic, and the lovingly satirical.

Actually, Brooke is a little overwhelming, and will figure here again soon, so perhaps we’ll just have a quick biographical sketch to start us off and then whisk ourselves away on a cloud of his delicious, air-popped verbiage.

Let’s see: shy, but popular; prone to melancholy, yet a steadily productive writer; a keen scholar with the gift of making light verse and witty repartee seem effortless; good at pretty much everything, loved by pretty much everyone, yet leaving a trail of former friends, cut loose and often much the worse for wear, in his wake.

The son of a Rugby master, Brooke had been a successful schoolboy (house colors in cricket and rugby, cadet corps, fast friends, scholarly prizes) but, at Cambridge, he had committed himself to the identity (and lifestyle) of the literary aesthete. He wrote, but he also began to be famous for being handsome and daring and fabulous. (It is, for instance, incumbent upon anyone mentioning “Rupert Brooke” and “Cambridge” in “print” to note that he once went skinny-dipping with Virginia Stephen.) He was called “young Apollo” and he found himself amidst a clutch of “apostles” or “neo-Pagans.” Had this been only a half-century back he would not have escaped being described as poetry’s “rock star”–the divine or celestial comparisons were mandatory.

A rock star, though, poised to hit that queasy moment of breakout from indie renown to widespread fame, a turbulent passage which leaves early fans and roadies from back in the aerostar days feeling stranded on a far shore, bitterly clutching that first EP and complaining of selling-out and the forgetting of those who knew him best when. Although Brooke continued his scholarly work (Elizabethan drama) he had early established himself as a new poetic voice–not radical, but frank enough to cause mild scandal and a vociferous admixture of disapproval to the general he acknowledgment of his skill. By 1912, the year he turned twenty-five, he could be accounted an early associate of the Bloomsbury Group, was probably the most influential and best-regarded member of the newly christened Georgian Poets, and was also, amazingly, more loved than resented by the rustic and generally much-less-stylish Dymock poets, with whom he also consorted. From here the leap began.

The lives of those who are strikingly beautiful (and talented and, at least in the circles in which they move, famous) are different than ours, and Brooke must have learned early how to deflect and absorb the adoration of others so as to convert it into the sort of friendship he could rely on (or, more cynically, use). This seems to be the gist of his close relationship with Eddie Marsh. Yet not every relationship was so converted. We would call Rupert Brooke bisexual (we do call him bisexual, that is, although the term was not used in his time) since he was clearly attracted to both sexes, men more consistently, for most of his life, than women (although poetic idiom often, with writers of his vintage, contributed, as we will see, rather more to the idealization of the former than the latter). Sexual activity, whatever its relevance to the writing, can be hard to discern through the coy or obfuscating language of century-old letters, even when they were not destroyed or bowdlerized by later editors determined to repress any mention of homosexuality (not to mention his none-too-conservative political and religious ideas).[1] Yet it’s clear that Brooke’s attractions to other school boys were intense (although this can be said of many Public School contemporaries who were committed heterosexuals as adults) and sexual (this too). Several schoolboy crushes turned physical, and there was true schoolboy love, and–as a letter to James Strachey not published until 1998 makes quite clear–sex.[2] It is difficult to tell, though, if Brooke merely became attracted to women as well as he grew older (and came into contact with women, a notable obstacle to even the most ruggedly heterosexual intentions of Public School boys), if he found himself becoming less sexually interested in men, or if he pressured himself to seek out the socially permissible sort of relationship and suppress the problematic and forbidden desires. (If he did, he did so without anger or hypocrisy, since Marsh was not his only close gay friend during the years that he carried on public flirtations–and sexual relationships–with women.) Yet the last seems most probable, and so we enlightened moderns are in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether we should in part forgive him for the wretchedly callous treatment of a spurned lover because we guess that his self-loathing was rooted in his refusal to accept a homosexuality that he could not straightforwardly acknowledge without devastating consequences for his career and public life?

Bad stuff. It seems, to say the least, that by 1912 Brooke was focusing his sexual energies in a heterosexual direction. A breakdown of sorts followed the collapse of an affair with Katherine Cox, and the recovery involved both a year-long world tour, en route, a relationship with a Tahitian woman that seems to have been deeply satisfying, if extremely temporary.

Brooke is fascinating, and he would be maddening if all the coyness were his fault. But of course it’s not. Let’s continue with the homeward-looking letter from America, which gives not only a clear sense of how much Brooke was looking forward to a return to England but shows how well he could write about England, and how deftly he combined lyrical overdrive and florid sentimentality with gentle self-mockery and semi-pastiche.[3]

…I sail from New York on May 29th, and reach Plymouth–oh blessed name, oh loveliness! Plymouth–was there ever so sweet and droll a sound? Drake’s Plymouth, English Western Plymouth, city where men speak softly, and things are sold for shillings, not for dollars; and there is love, and beauty, and old houses; and beyond which there are little fields, very green, bounded by small piled walls of stone; and behind them–I know it–the brown and black, splintered, haunted moor. By that the train shall go up; by Dartmouth, where my brother was I will make a litany; by Torquay, where Verrall stayed; and by Paignton, where I have walked in the rain; past Ilsington, where John Ford was born, and Appledore, in the inn of which I wrote a poem against a commercial traveller; by Dawlish, of which John Keats sang; within sight of Widdicombe, where old Uncle Tom Cobley rode a mare; not a dozen miles from John Galsworthy at Manaton; within sight almost of that hill at Drewsteignton on which I lay out all one September night, crying–and to Exeter, and to Ottery St. Mary where Coleridge sojourned; and across Wiltshire, where men built and sang many centuries before the Aquila. Oh noble train, oh glorious and forthright and English train! I will look round me at the English faces, and out at the English fields, and I will pray—-reach Plymouth, as I was saying when I was interrupted, on Friday, June 5th.”

Rupert comin’!

References and Footnotes

  1. I've discussed elsewhere that speculating on past acts and then subjecting them to our sexual typologies is not too useful, but on the subject of Brooke's sexual identity, with more than merely sexual spoilers, see Keith Hale, e.g. here.
  2. See Keith Hale, Friends and Apostles, 252. A fascinating letter to read--a document of 1912 (describing an earlier encounter) yet giving a graphic account that seems to belong to the Clintonian/Prince Charlesian rather than the Edwardian world. It's a good way to get a sterescopic headache without any of Sassoon's literary stylings, but yes, Virginia, even back then boys did indeed "copulate with" each other (the inverted commas are Rupert's, although he was not so Latinate earlier in the account). In any event, "There was a dreadful mess in the bed." But enough prurience.
  3. A note on my sources seems appropriate here. The first quoted section is taken from his published letters; the section below from a memoir by Eddie Marsh--see page 143 here, but don't click if you don't want foresight into the century-back future--which seems to quote a different section of the same letter. But I could be wrong about that: it may be a different letter, omitted from the original Collected Letters and written earlier the same week. I doubt that Marsh is freely paraphrasing. I won't go into any more detail on that textual question here, for reasons theoretical but also practical: I haven't (yet) done enough reading on Brooke to fairly present his poetry or untangle his sexual identity. I don't think we need to, really: everyone found him attractive, and there was no loud scandal about his activities at the time, so we all stand in admiration of the golden god.