Wilfred Owen: Dating Your Heroes (And Writing Through Hard Times)

Never fear: Thank Home, and Poetry, and the Force behind both. –
Wilfred Owen

Hello, again! With Laura still on hiatus, I’m still hanging around, writing articles in between podcast episodes and crossing names off of my list of interesting, historical, and queer figures. This week keeps us in London (sort of) with a reader-requested and Grace-approved poet, Wilfred Owen. There will be some discussion of shell-shock and post-traumatic stress disorder in this article, in case that bothers you. Wilfred Owen was a war poet who served in the First World War; his experiences on the field led not only to the aforementioned mental illness, but also to some truly evocative, anti-war poetry, and to a romance with fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

According to Pat Barker and Stephen MacDonald, Wilfred Owen was born on March 18th, 1893. His youth included an education at Shrewsbury Technical School, and he would eventually pass the entrance exam at the University of London, but his family’s poverty would prevent him from attending (Barker). Owen would go on to work as an English tutor in France up until World War I began (Barker). He didn’t enlist in England’s army, however, until October 1915 at twenty-two years old (Barker). All of this information suggests that Owen had a fairly standard English childhood. He didn’t distinguish himself from his fellow students in school, though he did show signs of intelligence, and after he had left the school he did what he had to do to survive. Wilfred Owen was something of an everyman up until the beginning of World War I.  

Then, however, in 1915, he enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles, only to then be commissioned by the Manchester Regiment (Norton). His first stint of service lasted from January 1917 to April 1917; it was during this stint that he became shell-shocked (Wilfred Owen Association). Shell-shock is effectively what we now understand to be post-traumatic stress disorder; it became more severe the longer it went without recognition or treatment. Unfortunately, doctors during World War I had no proposed effective treatment for shell-shock; sometimes they had difficulty recognizing it, at all. It’s argued that almost all of the soldiers who fought in World War I came away shell-shocked to some degree. Mental health care in England at this point, as briefly touched upon in Virginia Woolf’s article, wasn’t exactly fantastic; even the treatments that did exist for vaguely recognized mental illness often led to a worsening of symptoms instead of an improvement.

It was while Owen was ‘recovering’ from his shell-shock, however, that he first met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was a fairly popular poet before his engagement with the war; The Wilfred Owen Association claims that “[he] was writing furious poems of protest aimed at the civilian conscience, hoping to persuade the public of the need for immediate peace negotiations.” Owen, who had written poetry previously, was captured by Sassoon’s cause and writings. It is said that when he met Sassoon, it was with a stack of Sassoon’s books in his hands that Owen hoped the poet would be inclined to sign (Baker). Sassoon took to him at once, first as a poetry protégé, then later on as a lover. Sassoon has a recorded history of male lovers, but his partnership with Owen was notably strong. The work the duo produced together is of great note, as well. Owen, after meeting Sassoon, delivered the following statement about his work: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." 

Poetry became a way for Owen to express the pain war had brought him. He and Sassoon worked together to capture the tragedies of war with their words, making activists out of themselves as they begged the British Government to seek peace instead of extended war. According to Barker and MacDonald, “to Sassoon and…Owen, poetry was not simply literature or art; it was a means of expressing oneself, or making a point, be it about the beauty of a summer afternoon or the incompetence of the British generals.”
Let’s look, then, to Owen’s poem, “Arms and the Boy.” The poem reads:

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

There is obvious war imagery throughout the whole of this poem, so we won’t focus on that. Look, instead, to the verbs, Owen chooses to use. The first phrase, “let the boy try,” leaves us with “try” both in the sense of an attempt and in the sense of growth, or a test of adulthood. A boy must try his hand at a bayonet-blade; in this, he must try his hand at manhood. Look, next, to the verbs that follow: they include “stroke,” “long,” and “nuzzle.” Owen’s poetry was known not only for its war imagery but also for its homoeroticism. While the aforementioned verbs are paired with aggressive imagery, they still imply a sensuality to the work that the boy is doing. If we want to get Freudian (and usually we don’t), the bayonet-blade or the blunt bullet-leads could be read as phallic. This, tied in with the “antlers” cited in the final line of the poem (indicative, arguably, of English or Celtic fae imagery; fae which are notably youthful, playful, and genderless in nature) add an unusually erotic nature to a poem full of “malice”, madness, and animalistic pain. Here is an example, then of the conflagration of beauty and pain that Baker and MacDonald mentioned above.

Owen’s ability to capture the harsh nature of war had been present before his affiliation with Sassoon, but Sassoon’s influence soon punctuated all of his work. Owen is said to have been originally intimidated by Sassoon; Liam Hoare writes that “[Sassoon’s] status as a published poet, his height, his good looks, his crisp aristocratic voice…[and] Above all, his reputation for courage” all left Owen in a state of “hero worship.” Hero worship is never a great way to start off a balanced relationship. Luckily for Owen, Sassoon took quite a liking to him. Sassoon had already culled a history of being involved with other men; his ex-lovers included Ivor Novello, Prince Philipp of Hesse, and Glen Byam Shaw. His affection for Owen, however, was no fickle thing. There are several quotable lines from the letters the two men sent one another. I’ll share two with you here.

The first comes from a letter sent on November 5th, 1917, with Owen as its writer. Owen says, “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.” There is no subtext to weave through here, no complicated code to decipher. This is a blatant love confession, tied in with a sweet affectionate emphasized by the imagining of Sassoon’s smile. It’s enough to make the heart grow three sizes.

Then there is what is perhaps the most noteworthy quote to come from the letters shared between the two men. Owen, in another letter to Sassoon, says, “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 like a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.” Here is the poet at work, stringing metaphors along while emphasizing not only the men’s working relationship but rather their romance with one another.

This letter came promptly and highlighted the true impact Sassoon had on Owen’s life, despite the extremely real shortness of Owen’s life. Shortly after the two men had met, Sassoon was removed from the Western Front of the war (Barker and MacDonald). Baker and MacDonald continue, stating that Owen was left “with a dilemma: Sassoon had demonstrated to him the need for a poet to be in France to ‘tell the truth about the war’…To Sassoon’s horror, Owen returned to France in July.”

His need to serve in the position of war poet would eventually get Owen killed. He died on November 4th, 1918, one week before the war would come to an end. Sassoon, according to Rictor Norton, was “plagued by survivors’ guilt”; to console himself, he published Owen’s work, which received ‘instant success.'” It was not only the guilt of losing a companion to war. However, that drove Sassoon to continue to interact with Owen’s memory. Liam Hoare states that “Sassoon, who survived the war and died in 1967, would later write, “[Owen]’s death was an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back—not his poems.”

This is a near-textbook tragic love story. Owen felt he had a duty to his country, and, inspired by the man he loved, undertook that duty until it killed him. In return, Sassoon ensured that Owen’s voice would be heard and that his memory, along with his work, would be preserved. This devotion both to a cause and to a person suggests a certain strength in the passion a person holds; a strength that transcends the environment in which it was born. Perhaps we, too, can look to those people or causes that we love as we move forward and take strength in knowing that, like Owen, our passion can preserve us and inspire those around us.

Sources

Barker, Pat and MacDonald, Stephen. “Sassoon and Owen: A Meeting That Changed The Course of Literature.” TheatreCloud. 18 Sept 2014. Web.

Hoare, Liam. “Britain’s Gay War Poets.” Outward. 10 Nov 2014. Web.

“Wilfred Owen: Poet of the Trenches.” The Wilfred Owen Association. 

“Owen the Poet.” The Wilfred Owen Association.

Norton, Rictor. “You Have Fixed My Life: The Gay Love Letters of Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon.” Gay History and Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton. 1998. Web.