Thursday, 9 November 2017

Little Owen

Wilfred Owen doesn’t get a lot of space in this blog, but in view of this year’s successful series of events in Edinburgh, plus the fact that the 99th anniversary of his death recently occurred, I think it is probably time to give him some attention.

Owen’s life was a short one, and the first twenty-odd years of it were not particularly eventful, though he probably saw more of life in that time than Sassoon did in his first two decades. They did not move in the same circles or have a lot in common in terms of their family background and experiences. When they eventually met, in 1917, Owen was much quicker to recognise a kindred spirit than Sassoon was; this was partly due to surface snobbery in Sassoon’s case. He could appreciate the noble qualities of the working classes, both in his rural home and at the Western Front, but he found it hard, at first, to relate to a grammar school boy with no obvious poetic antecedents. He was more comfortable in the company of someone like Robert Graves, who had been to Oxford and whose family were academics.

To Sassoon’s credit, he swiftly realised that Owen was nurturing an enormous talent, one greater than his own, and set out to mentor him, accepting it as his due that “little Owen” would defer to him in the sphere of poetry. Owen’s devotion to Sassoon was, I believe, as much a personal one as it was a literary discipleship, for he knew Sassoon was coming to Craiglockhart and was watching him, waiting for his opportunity to make himself known, uncertain of what kind of reception he would get. He approached him as he would a superior, though they were of the same military rank. In his letters to his mother, he talks enthusiastically about Sassoon and his work but does not talk about the reasons the latter was at Craiglockhart. It is not immediately apparent whether he admired Sassoon for making a stand; perhaps this was too far from his own experience for him to feel qualified to express an opinion on the matter, or perhaps the emotionally fragile Sassoon discouraged any discussion of the topic.

I don’t have any original observations on Owen, but I often wonder whether his friendship with Sassoon would have survived peacetime. Sassoon was good at making friends, but not so good at keeping them. He fell out regularly with the Sitwells, permanently with Robert Graves, and even, occasionally, with T E Lawrence. This does not seem to have been unusual among the post-war poets, as Anthony Padgett has capably showed in his work on Humbert Wolfe. Owen appears to have been less prone to taking offence, possibly because of an ingrained inferiority complex, at least when dealing with those he regarded as his social superiors. How would he have changed, if he had lived? He would not have made a good fit with the circle of literary high-flyers that contained Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Nichols and others; yet class and social barriers were breaking down, and he would one day have got to know men like Thomas Hardy, successful writers with somewhat different antecedents.

There are various accounts of how Sassoon viewed his relationship with Owen after the latter's death. Writing of their first meeting, he admitted to having soon realised that his "little friend" was not merely the "promising minor poet" for which he had originally mistaken him. By 1952, he was complaining to a correspondent that "no one under forty writes to me except with inquiries concerning Owen". Allegedly, when Stephen Spender asked him about Owen, Sassoon responded that "he was embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent." The comment could have been made in annoyance or could equally well have been an attempt at humour.

As for Owen, his response to Sassoon's personality began as hero-worship, but after they were separated he indicated in a letter that he did not intend to be Sassoon's "satellite" for much longer: "I shall swing out soon, a dark star..."  He has remained, for subsequent generations, a star - perhaps not dark, but certainly mysterious.
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