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.