As the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, argument about it is mounting in clamour, and biographies of two of the “war poets” now add to the debate. Guy Cuthbertson’s book is an amiable and admiring account of Wilfred Owen’s slow and often painful discovery of himself, as he made his way from railwayman’s son to Army officer and — after his death in battle — to famous poet. Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s book is an amalgamation of her two earlier, deeply researched books on Siegfried Sassoon’s long literary life and homosexuality, with close attention to the wartime years, and some new material. They open again the question of how well these two poets coped with war when it became a major theme of their poetry.
Both men enlisted early, Sassoon at the age of 27, even before war was declared, and Owen a year later at 22. Both were already aspiring poets, with confused feelings about the war, but both had a desire to see action. Their shock and anger at what they saw produced the poems for which they are remembered.
Owen is still revered for the frank and graphic descriptions he wrote of the terrible deaths and wounds of soldiers. “Dulce et decorum est”, his best known poem, describes a gassed man that haunts his dreams:
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. . . . the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin
In “Mental Cases” he describes “men whose minds the Dead have ravished”:
. . . their eyeballs shrink tormentedBack into their brains, because on their senseSunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black
Such poems are as horrific now as Owen intended them to be when he wrote them.
Sassoon wrote some very similar poems, but in his most forceful work it is anger that overwhelms even the shock — anger especially at the officers whose plans led to so many soldiers’ deaths, as in “The General”:
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to JackAs they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. ***But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Here too the terse and bitter words still sting.
Yet it has to be said that a hundred years later, the poems are still in a sense poems of the moment — poems that, when you read them, flare up with feeling in an instant, just as the feelings that inspired them must have flared up in the hearts of the writers. They leave you stunned, but they carry no further load of feeling. They achieve their purpose and are over.
There are other ways of writing about war. As it happens, one can compare these poems of the front line with a superb prose work that Sassoon wrote ten years after the war, his Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. This is a fictionalised account of his joyous adventures in the hunting field and in point-to-point racing in the period just before the war, so vigorously and enthusiastically described that it sweeps one on whether one is a rider or not. Yet it too is a kind of war novel — or even, one is tempted to say, war poem — since the oncoming war hangs silently and mysteriously over every page, promising doom to all this uncontestable happiness. Sassoon added with some hesitation a final section about the war, but I think his doubts were right. The war is real enough there already.
There is another poet of these years who is also rightly called a war poet, though for him too the war is mostly an unspoken presence. This is Edward Thomas. Thomas was 36 when the war broke out. He had until then made an unsatisfying life for himself writing about nature and reviewing poetry. It seems as if a combination of his new friend, the American poet Robert Frost, and the war itself thrust him into writing poetry — Frost by his encouragement, the war by opening up a kind of destination for him. In fact, he wrote his first poem on December 3, 1914. He enlisted soon after, and wrote all 142 of his remarkable poems while in training in Britain.
None of those poems is explicitly about the war, yet the war can be felt in nearly all of them. “Lights Out” is about his thoughts before sleeping:
There is not any bookOr face of dearest lookThat I would not turn from nowTo go into the unknownI must enter and leave alone,I know not how.
These delicate lines draw out a strange and moving combination, found in nearly all his poems, of memory, love, loneliness, fear, and longing for something unknown and perhaps final — the last of these being the strongest, and perhaps implying death on the front.
Another beautiful poem, “Early one morning”, brings out the same haunting complex of feelings in a different way.
Early one morning in May I set out,And nobody I knew was about . . . The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I’m bound away for ever, Away somewhere, away for ever.
One cannot but feel that these are war poems, finer, yielding more for mind and feeling, and also more enduring, than the poems of Owen and Sassoon. But Thomas showed the same courage as those men. He went out to France in January 1917; he wrote no more poems; and he was killed by shell-blast at Arras just over two months later.
Both Sassoon and Owen, in spite of their bitter feelings about the war, remained loyal British soldiers. Sassoon had written a letter to his commanding officer containing a public protest he wanted to make, saying in effect that the war should and could be brought to an end, and declaring that he would not carry out any more military duties. He knew that he risked being court-martialled and shot. He escaped that fate, and went back immediately to the war. He had anguished over making the statement, since he felt he owed a duty to the soldiers under his command as well as to those who had died. By June 1918 he was back with them in France again. He survived the war by half a century.Owen also went back after a period of convalescence in Scotland. Soon after, the Military Cross was bestowed on him for bravery. He was shot and killed just a week before the war ended.
Owen and Sassoon should be remembered, I think, not primarily as poets, but for another kind of greatness — as courageous soldiers who were also bold and brilliant enough to make us aware what warfare is really like.