Jon Stallworthy on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon
Tell us about the poets of the First World War -- Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was a decorated soldier. A man of legendary courage, he was known as “Mad Jack” because of his bombing exploits. He used to go out at night on patrol with a pocket full of hand grenades and throw them at the enemy, and then come back again when he didn’t actually need to. Maybe he thought it was a game, but it was something that he liked to do.
Then he became persuaded by left wing friends, mainly in the grounds of a big house called Garsington not very far from Oxford, that the war was being unnaturally prolonged, that peace could be negotiated now, that the Germans would negotiate peace but the British government was out to crush Germany. And Sassoon was encouraged by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher, and Harold Massingham, the editor of a prominent newspaper to the point where he made this public protest.
He wrote to his commanding officer saying, “I am a soldier speaking for soldiers and I must protest that the war on which I entered as a war of defense has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” Now I suppose it is not unthinkable that he could have been court-martialed and shot for that, but he wasn’t. He was something of a hero because he had the Military Cross. He had a medal; the public knew him.
The government was severely embarrassed by this. His protest formed the subject of a question in the House of Commons. An MP read out this protest and the government sort of hemmed and hawed, and a medical board was hastily arranged and fixed. Sassoon was dragged in front of this board, where they said, “Poor old chap, he’s got shell-shock, doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
They had his friend, Robert Graves the poet, testify that his friend had hallucinations of a corpse-strewn Piccadilly. I don’t know whether that was true or not, I think probably not true. But in all events Sassoon was whisked away and not exactly locked up, but whisked away to Edinburgh, a long way from London and sent to a military hospital called the Craiglockhart, which was a hospital for people suffering from shell-shock. And it’s quite clear that Sassoon was not suffering from shell-shock, but this was a good way of getting him out of the way.
Now Wilfred Owen was already at Craiglockhart and he was suffering from shell-shock. It is thought that he had come by this condition, first of all by falling into a cellar through a hole in the floor and hitting his head. He was in this cellar for a couple of days, I think, with only a candle to keep him company.
They got him out of there and then he was in a railway cutting that was shelled, and all around him the shells were falling and one of his brother officers was dismembered and bits of him were blown all over. When he came out from that, his commanding officer, I think it was, noticed one morning that he had a slight shake, and his memory wasn’t very good, and he was behaving rather oddly, and I think probably he had the start of a stammer, which he didn’t normally have.
He was sent off to a first aid post where he was diagnosed as having shell-shock, and he was sent back to England and fetched up with this hospital where his friend Sassoon was. Sassoon’s book, The Old Huntsmen and Other Poems, had just been published with the first war poems of his that Owen had read, and Owen was immensely impressed by them; he thought they were better than Shakespeare. So it came about that Sassoon in a sense, undertook the tutelage of Owen.
Owen had written poems for years. He’d been a very serious poet, but he hadn’t written good poems up to that point. One of the symptoms of shell-shock is terrible dreams, normally the same dream that recurs, often linked to a situation for which you feel guilty. Owen’s recurrent dream takes us back to Edmund Blunden’s eyeball.
Owen dreamt of blinded eyes because in January 1917, he had placed a sentry in a trench at a position where the poor man was blown down the steps by a German shell and blinded. It wasn’t Owen’s fault, but the shock and horror of that stayed with him, and his dreams were full of blinded eyes.
Look at “Decorum Est”: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunged at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” He sees these, the blinded eyes at the end, when he turns to make his address to the reader. In his dreams he sees these writhing, blinded eyes. The psychologist at Craiglockhart then went to work, talking Owen through his dreams and talking him out of shell-shock. He was cured.
Before Owen was cured, Sassoon went back to the front, and between Owen and Sassoon there was this understanding that their job, the job of the poet, was to bear witness. When Sassoon was wounded for the third time and sent back to England, Owen was on the point of accepting a home posting. He would have been an instructor in a cadet battalion, but when Sassoon came back it’s very interesting that Owen seemed almost at once to accept that he must go back.
I think he knew that he had to take Sassoon’s place. He had to go back to the front to bear witness. He says in one of his letters, “I came out to lead these boys as well as an officer can, and to watch their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.” He goes back so that he can testify to the horrors of the war, and I think he goes, knowing he won’t come back. Indeed he didn’t come back.
Seven days before the armistice, he was killed crossing the Sambre-Oise canal, and by a most curious and strange sort of mythic connection, as the bells were ringing for the armistice in Shrewsbury, where his parents lived, as the bells were ringing on the 11th of November, their front doorbell rang, bringing the telegram saying that he was killed, the telegram they had dreaded for three or four years.
Owen was never as political as Sassoon, but he was influenced by him, and he felt very strongly about the generals, and the war profiteers, and the bishops.
Owen was working towards publishing a collection of poems. There are, I think, three draft lists of contents in his own hand, where he’s adding poems and crossing them out, arranging them, and so on. It’s a very important document, although it’s a very fragmentary piece of writing; he never finished it.
First of all he says, “I am not concerned with Poetry”, poetry with a capital “P.” There are various points in his poems where he rejects literary artifice. He says, “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets will be truthful.” He sees his task as bearing witness truthfully to the horrors of the war, and this got him into interesting trouble.
After his death his book is published, and in 1935 or 36 the great poet of the day, W.B. Yeats, comes to edit what would be the important anthology after Quiller-Couch, The Book of Modern Verse. Yeats takes more room in his preface explaining why he leaves Wilfred Owen out than why he puts most people in, and Yeats’s view is that his passive suffering is no subject for poetry.
He misreads Owen in a most interesting way, because Yeats is really the voice of the old poetry, with a capital “P.” Yeats saw artists generally as the architects of civilization, and their task, as Yeats saw it, was to reinterpret the heroic, the great images for successive generations. He writes poems about Leonardo painting the Sistine Chapel with images of perfect sexuality so that all the young people who to go to the Sistine Chapel would see a perfect Adam, a perfect Eve.
Yeats thinks that what poets should be doing is celebrating courage, and poets who say, “I don’t like it here. It’s wet and my friends are getting killed,” were abdicating the poet’s proper role. He doesn’t actually spell this out, but I’m sure this is what Yeats had in mind. He leaves Wilfred Owen out. He leaves Rosenberg out. He has Rupert Brooke in. He leaves in Julian Grenfell, who is about the only major poet of the First World War to celebrate fighting, and he gives the most space to Gogerty, who has more poems in that anthology than any other poet.
He explains how Gogerty, during the Irish Civil War, was imprisoned by his enemies in a house beside the Liffey, and pleading a natural necessity, he went into the ice-cold Liffey. What Yeats is celebrating is the courage of this man Gogerty, who says he wants to go have a pee in the garden, then plunges into the river. His enemies all shoot at him, he escapes, and this is an heroic act. Yeats speaks of Gogerty’s heroic song.
What Yeats liked is heroic song, and he didn’t find heroic song in Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. You get, then, a very interesting clash between the old poetry and the new poetry, and of course all readers today would feel that if you had to judge between those views, obviously Wilfred Owen and the new poetry are right. The poet must be truthful, as Owen and Sassoon unquestionably were.
We now see Owen as a very interesting and peculiar kind of war hero. When he was diagnosed as having shell-shock there is some suggestion that he was accused of cowardice. Maybe the commanding officer said, “For God’s sake pull yourself together man!” or something when he was slightly shaky, and one does associate a tremor with fear.
Owen was in fact suffering from what we now would call post-traumatic stress disorder. He goes back home with this very uneasy fear that he has actually failed in some way, and he has these awful dreams of his blinded sentry. He’s failed the sentry. He’s only been at the front a matter of months. He was fighting all the time and did extremely well, but he was concerned that he had not proved himself the complete warrior, so when he went back in 1918, at least part of his mind was anxious to validate himself, because he cared to be a soldier. Some people have spoken of Wilfred Owens as if he were a conscientious objector, which he was not. He says somewhere, “What am I but a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience?” He killed people.
In one of his letters he writes to his mother of an episode in which he and a 16-year-old lance corporate captured a German pillbox that was spraying them with bullets. For this he was awarded the Military Cross, and he said to his mother, “One I shot with my revolver, the rest I took with a smile.”
He was an active soldier, and at the same time a very religious man. He believed in the teachings of Christ; he believed in Christ much more than he believed in the Church with a capital “C”. He was terribly torn. He knew that killing was wrong but found himself in a situation where killing was necessary. He had to lead these men because they had to be led, and only by leading them could he speak of their suffering and write the poems that he felt it was his task to write. When he got the Military Cross, he was relieved and pleased by this, and he could now hold his head up. He was a very shy, vulnerable young man, so courage didn’t come easily to him.
Julian Grenfell was a thug, a very brave, courageous, Achilles-Ajax-like thug. He was always a bully, always beating people up, and when he gets to the battlefront he behaves like a thug. Owen was not at all like that. He was a rather delicate person, but he did very well. He was killed a week before the armistice. His reputation then precedes him by virtue of the fact that he was a decorated hero, that he performed very bravely, which does take us back to the chivalric, heroic code.
He also wrote wonderful, truthful poems, and the poets who followed him—Auden and Spender, etc. —took him as sort of a saint and martyr. The fact that he died so shortly, and you might think so needlessly, before the end of the war made him seem symbolic or representative of all the young men who were killed in the war.
People think of Owen as a symbolic figure. He stands for all the people who were killed. He was courageous, he was vulnerable, he told the truth, he protested honorably and truthfully against the conduct of the war, but he didn’t skive out of it. He was prepared to play his part in it, and he led his men very, very bravely.
The account of his death was that they were trying to throw a pontoon bridge over a canal. The Germans’ machine guns were about 30 yards away, and these chaps were just carrying their pontoons, putting them in the river. Owen went backwards and forwards between them saying, “You’re doing very well, my boy, just move that a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right. You’re doing very well. You’re doing very well.” Then he was hit and killed.
He was a great encourager and sustainer of his soldiers. His poems then became a tremendous encouragement and source of sustenance to the generations of poets who have followed him—from Auden right through to Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
War and Wastage
In “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Tennyson is doing what I said poets should be very cautious about doing—but if you’re as good a poet as Tennyson you can get away with it. He was writing from a newspaper report.
The Times newspaper carried a piece by a famous war correspondent who was on the Heights at Balaklava that reported this extraordinary scene. It should also be said that on the Heights were not only the journalists but a great many ladies. A lot of people went out to observe the war as a sort of spectacle, and lots of ladies in their crinolines were watching on the Heights as the messages were transmitted from one horseman riding to Cardigan and Raglan. Suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, the light brigade lines up, and they charge these Russian gunners. There was a whole battery of Russian gunners who just shelled them with heavy artillery. It was a terrible mistake.
Whoever was leading the charge knew it was a mistake. He got an order. What do officers do? They obey orders. Okay, charge! So they charge the gunners, and terrible damage was done. Tennyson read Russell’s report. The report spoke of the incredible heroism of these soldiers charging the guns, I think I’m right in saying the officer in charge didn’t carry a sword, because that would be rather vulgar. He just led them. The men carried the swords. They did the sabering. He just rode. He was in front of them, leading them through the gunners. They sabered the gunners, then they turned ‘round and those who could came back. The courage was just extraordinary, but the blunder was also extraordinary, and Tennyson’s poem captures the futility, the blunder, the wastage.
I should have used that word “wastage” before, because it’s one of the subjects that Owen, and Sassoon, and all the war poets write about, almost more than any other. All these lives that maybe needn’t have been lost have been lost through wastage. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is about wastage. It didn’t have to happen. They didn’t have to do this. There would have been other ways of leaving the gunners alone, or of taking them from the side, or something.
Tennyson’s poem very beautifully and sensitively conveys the exhilaration which the watchers and, I daresay some of the participants, felt in this, taking part in this extraordinary madcap heroic exploit, even as they are fully aware of the foolishness, the blunder, the mistake. I mean it was a terrible mistake; the order should not have been given.
Walt Whitman is one of the first writers to write not about what is happening on the battlefield so much as about the wastage, the consequences. He sees the wounded in the hospital, and he sees the cost of what is happening back there, so he’s one of the first poets to give a full, rich, and moving expression of the cost of warfare. He had nothing to do with heroic charges.
Whitman writes about the cavalry and he writes about the ordinary foot soldiers, like his brother. He writes with tremendous compassion, and compassion was not a note often heard in poems about war before Whitman. Homer feels compassion for the widow and the child on the walls of Troy, but not much. He writes about the great grief the one soldier will have for the death of his comrade, but Whitman gives this grief a very modern cast, twist, and tinge.
Whitman stands at the gate of modern poetry, both in the method of his writing, the long open, swirling lines, and in his material. His influence has been obviously huge, technically, because American poetry, with its emphasis on the spoken word, derives much more from Whitman than British poetry. Hardy, for example, writes in very tight formal stanzas, which Whitman didn’t do.
I think that’s the moment where British poetry and American poetry really divide, with Whitman, Pound, and all those who have followed going in one direction, and Hardy, Larkin, and Berchman going in the other direction, the quintessential English tradition.
Interestingly, however, Hardy and Whitman have in their sympathy and in their compassion a good deal in common. Hardy cared to go down to see the soldiers embarking and felt intense compassion for the wives and children, and he expresses compassion for Drummer Hodge buried in the South African kopje. Those two do have quite a bit common, writing about different wars in a somewhat similar spirit, but using very different techniques. Can Poetry Be Anti-War?
Yes, I think the phrase “anti-war” is used a great deal, and it’s a useful phrase, but it’s not always as useful as it is thought to be in that I would suppose any right-thinking sensible person must be anti-war. If one could choose one would rather not have wars, but some wars some people think are more necessary than others.
Many people thought that the Second World War was more necessary than the First in that if the British had not challenged Hitler they would have been overrun by Hitler. Conscientious objectors could have lived with that, I think, but most people could not live with that. I think many people in the Second World War felt that it was a painful, brutal, ugly necessity, but that didn’t in any way diminish their hatred of the way in which it was conducted and its effects.
The effects are felt far beyond the battlefield; it’s not just the soldiers who get hurt. We saw with Hardy, the wives waving to their soldiers as the boats pull out. Increasingly in the Second World War—with total war—you get the impact on civilians, and this is a major change, I think.
And it becomes even more major with the switch from the First World War with its dominant image of the trench. You move to the Second World War, which if it has a comparable image is the fire from heaven, the bomb. And bombs of course are indiscriminate. They injure civilians probably more than they injure soldiers.
There is a very interesting and fine memoir by a British pilot named Richard Hillary, you all know, called The Last Enemy, which is I think particularly powerful in that it starts with him as a young student at Oxford. He sees in the 1930’s that war is going to come and if war is going to come he wants to be flying an airplane, and you can see the interesting transition from the elite aristocrat who would in earlier wars have ridden a horse thinking, “There aren’t any horses to ride now, but I’ll have an airplane thank you very much, or I’ll have a tank. I’m not going to be a foot soldier; I’m going to be on my own in the air jousting with other pilots in single combat in the skies.”
Hillary becomes a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, and a very successful one until he is shot down over the channel and he can’t open his cockpit and finally when he does open it the plane is on fire and he’s terribly burnt. He’s taken to a hospital where his face and his hands are rebuilt by a wonderful New Zealand plastic surgeon called Archie Mackindow. He was the first person to rebuild eyelids. He would take skin grafts and make eyelids.
He rebuilds Richard Hillary’s face and his hands. When he’s just about better Hillary’s in London and he’s in a pub, and he suddenly hears the sirens going, and he hears the terrible scream of an approaching bomb, and the bomb hits the pub and the pub is destroyed. He gets outside, but he’s okay, and someone says, “There’s a woman in there.”
With his rebuilt hands he starts tearing off—and other people too—tearing off the bricks and the mortar. His hands are coming to bits. And they dig this woman out, and when her head is exposed she looks up and she looks at him and she says, “I see they got you too.” It’s a wonderful transition from the gung-ho heroism of the fighter pilot who’s very pleased to be a fighter pilot, you know: “three Huns shot down today.” The shift in the air war from the chivalric code of the fighter pilot to the indiscriminate damage inflicted by the bomber on the woman.
Hillary grows up in this moment; he goes berserk. He runs screaming through London and finally has to be sort of calmed down. He then goes back into the Air Force, and I think it is generally thought that he crashed soon after, and they think that it probably was suicide. He just couldn’t take it. But that book takes the shift from the chivalric code of the fighter pilot to the very different code, and the very different effects, of the bomber.
And so much of the power I think in the writing of the Second World War comes from poems written about the war in the air. The finest poem of all must be T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.” Eliot walks through the bombscape of London and meets the ghost of Yeats in the bombscape.
You have Edith Sitwell’s poem about the blitz. Louis MacNeice writes about the blitz. All sorts of poets write about the blitz of London in the 1940’s, and then at the other end of the war of course you get the poems about the atomic bomb. But because the Second World War is fought in these three very different theaters—on the ground, in the air, and at sea—there isn’t the same intensity of focus that you get with all these poems about the trenches, so the poems aren’t so well known.
And one feels that if children have to be taken to Passchendaele * and back again they should also be introduced to the poems of the Second World War, because the last thing we need is a generation unaware of the effects of war because that’s the way you get caught up in the next war.