Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

The Master is Promoted; Ivor Gurney Packs his Tragedies and Versifies his Thanks; Wilfred Owen’s Shy Hand is not Shy of Praising Sassoon

Less than a week ago, the Master of Belhaven was all alone, pistol in hand, in advance even of the infantry. Dodging a grenade that mortally wounded the infantry Captain behind him, he shot and killed a German soldier at point-blank range. But only two days after these accidental front line heroics he found himself suddenly in command of two brigades of artillery.

Larch Wood, 25th August, 1917

Another tragedy. At 10 o’clock this morning Colonel Street was killed as he was standing outside his Headquarters. The adjutant telephoned to me and I at once went over and took command of the group. It is perfectly extraordinary how history repeats itself; this is now the third time my colonels have been killed and wounded.

Hamilton, by contrast, was doubly lucky–it might well have been him. On the 27th, the Germans captured the very infantry post from which he had gone out with the unfortunate Captain Flack and run into the German grenade ambush.

Today, a century back, he was rewarded for his good work–and his survival:

Larch Wood, 29th August, 1917

During breakfast this morning the staff captain rang up and said “Good morning, colonel.” I asked him if he was pulling my leg, but he told me a wire had just come through appointing me to command the 106th Brigade with the rank of lieut.-colonel; so I have reached that exalted rank at last![1]

 

Ivor Gurney, meanwhile, is preparing for another tour near the front lines (now with the machine guns, he is never quite in the very front line, but rather in support or reserve, which are shelled just as much). Writing once again to Marion Scott, he would prefer to treat the war only in passing. He is more interested in his own personal preparations: he lists the books he will carry with him, and he sends a “pome” back for her.

My Dear Friend: We are off up again, and this is the last letter written in the quiet. (We can write up there however, and do you write). I go up with Brent Young, Harvey, 6 Tragedies of Shakespeare and “The Bible in Spain”, with nothing to fear on that account therefore.

You will find a fresh pome below, though there is no question of volunteering . . . .

And here I break off because they say no letters will be censored up there. “May all the infections that the sun sucks up — fall upon Fritz and make him by inchmeal a disease.”

(Today is August 29)

To M.M.S.

O, if my wishes were my power.
You should be praised as were most fit.
Whose kindness cannot help but flower.

But since the fates have ordered
So otherwise, then ere the hour
Of darkness deaden all my wit.

I’ll write: how all my art was poor.
My mind too thought-packed to acquit
My debt. . . And only, “thanks once more”.[2]

 

Gurney sometimes seems too pure a soul–pure in his devotion to poetry and music and the Gloucestershire countryside, though riven, also, but doubt and madness–to go in for mere wit. But it’s not really so–he does like to be clever in a quiet way. He is often hurried and muddled–by nature, and because of war’s ill nurturing–and without Scott to collect and collate and edit he would be nowhere near the book of poetry that is soon to be published. So thanks are due, and amidst preparations for a march toward the German guns he dashes off a few credible verses on how he is too benumbed and befuddled to manage a credible thank-you…

 

Wilfred Owen, has been so busy of late–that Field Club, writing and editing the hospital magazine, the amateur dramatics, hanging out with Siegfried Sassoon–that he has still a backlog of signed copies of The Old Huntsman to distribute to family members. Today it is his sister Mary’s turn to receive the Huntsman, along with a promise of The Hydra, and a cover letter to boot.

Thursday, 29 August 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Mary,

I was grieved—almost aggrieved—to hear you had had some bad days at Aberystwyth…

The family vacation on the Welsh coast was, evidently, rather unsatisfactory. Owen rolls this familial “cloud”–a little briskly, perhaps–into his pessimism about the course of the war.

… it is not to be wondered at that I was a bit snappy in my Editorial, which you shall have in a day or two.

But a word from Sassoon, though he is not a cheery dog himself, makes me cut capers of pleasure.

My dear, except in one or two of my letters, (alas!) you will find nothing so perfectly truthfully descriptive of war. Cinemas, cartoons, photographs, tales, plays—Na-poo.

Owen has been fond of that word lately–and perhaps I should have glossed it before. Tommy slang, from the French “il n’y a plus,” it means “it’s done, over, kaput.” But Owen seems a bit more confident that Mary will accept his praise of his new mentor and not be “na-poo” for him as a respected reader of war literature. (Dad is another matter.)

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Now you see why I have always extolled Poetry.

The ‘Redeemer’, I have been wishing to write every week for the last three years.

Well, it has been done and I have shaken the greater hand that did it.

‘The Death-Bed’, my dear sister, should be read seven times, and after that, not again, but thought of only…

There is no hint of a Board for me yet! I’m going down to make my Evening Tea now.

Just a card will tell me how you & dear Mother are.

Your loving Wilfred[3]

No hint of a “Board:” he will have some time, yet, to work on his poetry in Craiglockhart. Although he only sings his song of Sassoon in the letter to Mary, Owen is also working on his own poetry. He has begun, by today, a century back, to draft the atypical sonnet “My Shy Hand.” A later fair-copy can be seen at right:

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 378-80.
  2. War Letters, 191.
  3. Collected Letters, 489.

Edwin Vaughan in the Purgatorial Slough; Wilfred Owen Praises Siegfried Sassoon: “If You Don’t Appreciate These Then It’s Na-Poo.”

Near St. Julien, in the Ypres Salient, Edwin Vaughan spent a long day under fire today, a century back, waiting for materials to arrive–his company is supposed to build camouflage screens for the assembly positions for tomorrow’s attack. But the wagons carrying the camouflage were hit on the way up, and the miserable night and day were for nought. Soon the attacking troops moved forward past his position.

There was still no sign of the camouflage, and in any case the heavy rain had turned the ground into a huge swamp upon which it would have been impossible to do any work. There was a terrific congestion of traffic on the road, including tanks, shell-waggons, cookers and limbers. From midnight on our machine guns kept up a constant fire to drown the noise of the tanks crawling up into position.[1]

 

Back in Scotland, Wilfred Owen continues our poetic project of the week, namely to write letters that include a sustained critical reading of Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman.

Or, in Owen’s case, fresh from his first two meetings with Sassoon, to write a letter of unstinting praise. Owen’s confidence is waxing these days–fewer nightmares, many activities, and a burgeoning acquaintance with a real live poet who is at once desirable (socially, physically), friendly (with all due restraint), and guardedly complimentary of Owen’s writing. There could be no surer sign of Owen’s refurbished self-confidence than writing a blithe letter to his father, with whom he is not on emotionally easy terms. Is it foolish to hope that his father will like his new friend’s poetry? Perhaps, but it still seems very good that his hopes are high.

26 August 1917

My dear Father,

I think this work of Sassoon’s will show you to the best possible advantage the tendencies of Modem Poetry. If you don’t appreciate these then it’s Na-poo. There is nothing better this century can offer you. I’ve marked the pieces for first reading, and those underlined are specially good. The Old Huntsman was put in as a title piece, to catch the hunting-people, and make ’em read the rest.

‘The Death-Bed’ is a piece of perfect art.

‘Morning Express’, page 56 is the kind of thing that makes me despair of myself; everyone says ‘I could have done that myself!’

Only no one ever did.

Please send me your Criticisms.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortably editorial again after a fortnight’s rest. Nobody is willing to write about our last Concerts, and it looks as if I shall have to fill half the Mag. myself, between now & tomorrow…

And then a choicely-phrased (he is an editor and writer, now, after all) explanation of why he cannot take leave to visit his family:

Realizing how impossible it is for me to be there has spoilt my holiday here. I was make-believing that I was a free creature here, but it is only that my chain has been let out a little. I should only hurt myself with tugging at it.

Fondest love to all.

Your W.E.O.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 219.
  2. Collected Letters, 488.

Vera Brittain Sick Almost to Despair… and Hopeful Yet; Kate Luard: All Quiet at CCS 6; Donald Hankey: The Student in Arms Needs a New Cap; Herbert Read in the Salient

Vera Brittain is getting run down. She has been nursing six days a week for almost two months now, and, despite her protestations that she doesn’t feel any ill effects from moving to the night shift, she has twice been quite ill, with a fever and chills. But this matters little, now that she has something tangible to look forward to. Roland Leighton will soon have his turn for home leave. Unless the war intervenes.

Tuesday December 14th—Wednesday December 15th

When I went on duty at night I heard various disquieting rumours that another big move is impending on the Western Front, & that all leave is cancelled. I felt dreary and depressed, & sick almost to despair, for I have very little hope that he will get leave now–or that he will not be mixed up in this offensive, since he missed the last. This work is almost impossible without hope, and to lose what little there is leaves life a mere grey emptiness. This wretched war is as rich in postponements & disappointments as in more tremendous calamities.[1]

Yes. Yes, it is. But as the fiancée of a man at the front, there is loin-girding to be done, and letter writing. Rumor is never enough, and hope must be offered even where it isn’t felt. She reworks these lines as she reaches out to Roland:

1st London General, 15 December 1915

I would like to write you a specially nice letter to-night, because I expect this will be the one I promised you should have for Christmas–that is, if posts are delayed as much as we have been warned they will be. It would be nicer still, perhaps, if I were not a little disquieted by vague rumours that are going round here of a big movement impending on the Western front, and a consequent cancelling of all leaves in the near future. . .

This is such a wretched War–so abundant in disappointments & postponements & annoyances as well as more tremendous things,—that I should scarcely be surprised to hear that everything I was looking forward to, which temporally make life worth living, is not to come off…

Fight it!

She does. Knowing that it is, at the very least, unhelpful and impolite to mope one’s way through a trench-bound letter, Vera switches gears, and gives Roland a thorough description of her day off with her family… and his. I’ll excerpt, since we have read much of this already:

I went down to the Grand Hotel at Brighton, which I had never seen before. Fortunately lack of sleep does not
make me sleepy, and I thoroughly enjoyed yesterday, which was made still better by most glorious weather. The war of course is much in evidence down there, but not so much in its sadder aspects, such as I see here. At Brighton there is more of the social side of the War, if one can so express it. The Grand Hotel  possessed an abundance of honeymoon couples and slightly wounded officers, and officers belonging to the various battalions stationed down there. It was delightful to take off my uniform and get into some decent clothes, & wrap myself up in my beloved fur coat & feel really warm for the first time for weeks.

But the most momentous part of the whole proceeding is that our respective parents have actually managed to meet at last!

…Mother looked very sweet, and I felt overshadowed & chastened, but Mrs Leighton seemed a good deal more interested in Father… he and Mrs Leighton contributed most of the conversation during the afternoon, with great vivacity; Father didn’t even seem to mind when she criticised his beloved Edward in quite her usual style. She told Father she thought Edward inherited his lack of comprehension of women from him, and accused him of not being very interested in anything else but money! He didn’t appear to mind even
this . . .

Dear me. Mrs. Leighton and Mr. Brittain indeed. Never mind the easy snide/Freudian things that one could say about the dominant parents and their offspring: this is quite a direct shot at Edward. Mrs. Leighton could hardly be more explicit about her suspicions of his sexual orientation–but apparently none of the Brittains notice, though she seems to be aiming rather close across the bows. Vera, smitten with the mother at one remove (and with no real knowledge of men to draw upon), could hardly guess, but is it possible that either of her parents picked something up, and grimaced silently through?

Vera’s letter is almost a parody of obliviousness–sweet obliviousness:

. . . I was actually quiet for once & instead of talking sat opposite Mrs Leighton, and watched your sweetest expression coming & going on her face as she smiled…

The rain is pouring down on the hut roof, & I wonder if it is pouring down on you too, amid your cold & mud & tumbleddown dug-outs. I am just longing to see you, with a chance of being clean & dry at last, sitting with me in a comfortable room before a nice warm hotel fire…

Is it an absurdity to wish you a merry Christmas, in the midst of sodden trenches, & cold & damp & misery? It seems so–with the enemy only comparatively a few yards away, and the Dead sleeping beside you & behind you & beneath your feet–the Dead who perhaps were struggling bravely in spite of cold & suffering, to create a gay spirit for Christmas time–this time last year…

Well then, a Merry Christmas! Perhaps soon after you get this you will be here again to answer it in person, in a better way than with pen & ink. And perhaps–not. But somehow I feel the end is not destined to be here and now. We have not fulfilled ourselves— ‘and Someday we shall live our roseate poem through’……..

[Au Revoir, dearest.][2]

 

Donald Hankey, meanwhile, is making a name for himself. The first of his “A Student in Arms” pieces has just been published, and it is attracting much attention, in this case from the wife of his prep school master:

E Brigade, Officers’ Mess, Charlton Park, S. E., Dec. 15,

Dear Mrs. Wathen,

Yes, I had an article called “The Honour of the Brigade” in last week’s Spectator. I think it must have been one of my best because a publisher wrote and asked if I had anything to publish! This is the second time that has happened and I am getting a swelled head. Next Saturday I think there will be one called “The Religion of the Inarticulate.” I have also got swelled head about that…

This is all very nice for an “amateur” and as I say, I shall have to get a new cap. Yours affly.,

Donald Hankey[3]

 

And behind the lines at Casualty Clearing Station 6, in Lillers, Kate Luard confirms the winter calm. One patient has been left with them for more than six weeks and is, unexpectedly, improving. The town is briefly enlivened by the Scotsmen of the 15th Division–“that got farther than anyone else beyond Loos and Hill 70, and would have chased the flying Boches back to Lille if ‘the Staff Work’ had backed them up”–and are now in billets. The primary medical problem, other than the constant flow of shrapnel wounds, is the prevention of trench feet. “Nothing doing in the Base Hospitals or up here; sisters going home on leave everywhere.”[4]

 

Finally, today, progress from a wayward writer: Herbert Read has reached the trenches for the first time. He has been unsure of himself, a poetry-reading officer without the solid upper middle class background of most New Army subalterns.[5] Today, it seems, was his first real day of mud and fear, deep in the Ypres salient. His battalion, the 7th Green Howards (The Yorkshire Regiment) will hold the line now on and off for several months, but Read, struggling to find his footing in the human and geographic mire of wintry trench duty with a green battalion, is perhaps not keeping up his diary.[6] He has been elusive, for us, because of this… but eventually his diary and his poetry will make him one of our most distinctive voices.[7]

For today, however, we can draw upon something he wrote later, in a fierce anarchist/Modernist style (and in the third person), yet clearly drawing upon his first days at war. The piece is called “First Blood:”

Snow falling all night: in the morning the world will be white. The earth will be covered with a nice new coat of paint, to hide the scars and pockmarks. For the earth is in a bad way-a battered old scarecrow, blackened, ragged, her fingers and toes all splintered. Oh such a mess!

Sanctuary Wood: the god of this sacred place is Moloch, and he is a very fierce old god, and people say that to seek sanctuary in his arms is to say goodbye to your beloved’s. His sanctuary a wood, a dark gloomy glade, full of caves and ditches. If you wait till daylight you will find that the trees have no branches, but are whiskered with splinters. Tatterdemalion trees, you might say; all higgledy-piggledy, like darts in a target. An acre of frenzied brushwood. It is the worst place in the Salient (the Salient, not a salient: just as we say the Cross when we mean a cross on which mankind is crucified).

A salient is a secret symbol. As the war stiffened its hold on men’s imaginations and became, not a controllable event but a ravage that must mount the scale of fever and slowly fall, the Salient became a fixed idea. To maintain this thrust in the enemy’s side was the insane will of a whole army. It was not justified in a strategic sense. It was a blind impulse, to which hundreds of thousands of lives were sacrificed…

…it is nervy business for a raw subaltern. The first time he goes out in the daylight, a shot from the front cracks like a whip in his ear. He draws in his breath and the blood deserts his face. Immediately the air cracks behind him and a bullet ricochets from the bank he faces.

Terror melts his limbs. He falls to the ground grasps the rungs of the duckboard.

He had forgotten. He had not realised that death could be so imminent, waiting for him round the corner, his first day in the front line. They had said to him: You must crawl. But it is not easy to remember to crawl; it is not an attitude that comes natural to a man…

The crux of the story–which would seem to fictionalize different events of the coming weeks–is the constant danger from snipers. The “raw subaltern” is spared their worst, but not all of his men are so lucky…

But this semi-fictional mode does not come naturally to Read, and we will save deeper inquiry into his writing for those months when his diary is most complete…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 294.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 199-201.
  3. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 322.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 36-7.
  5. Or so it would seem--but his writing persona is very different, and he allowed few gleams of his contemporaneous writing into print.
  6. Or squelching it--I'm not sure.
  7. Cecil, Herbert Read and the Great War.