Somme 100: Walking in the footsteps of Wilfred Owen

Sally Minogue visits the places where Wilfred Owen spent the last few days of his life.

I have always been chary of literary pilgrimages; they are fraught with the burden of expectation, and it is hard for us to behave naturally before a place long thought about and imagined, full of associations with a much loved writer. Will one feel too much? – or worse, too little?

Then there’s the problem of making a too-simple connection between the life and the writing. The Brontës are so closely associated with their bleak Haworth origins that we can reach for an easy fit with the bleak elements of their work, when in fact the extraordinary thing about those women was that their creative imaginations flew free of their place and social space.

At the same time, we naturally attach significance to such locations, because we want to re-imagine the once living human being who wrote the words to which we attach such powerful meaning – what Keats called ‘This living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping’. That hand transmits to handwriting – perhaps the most intimate connection we can have with a dead writer. This is why autograph manuscripts, paper held in our own hands, the impress of the ink seen and felt, give us a thrill that online representations can’t, however brilliantly they mimic the turning of a page.

Andrew Palmer and I are in the final stages of a book on poetry, memorialisation and the First World War; when we embarked recently on a visit to the place where Wilfred Owen spent his last few days, these complications and contradictions were brought into sharp focus. As an iconic First World War poet, Owen is inextricably linked to a specific historical moment and indeed to a detailed geography.

Yet if his poetry is to be recognised as great poetry, shouldn’t it in some way escape its historical moorings? One problem with the current centenary is the extent to which it may refix the First World War poets in their originating history, with the poems read solely as documentation and witness. La Maison Forestière, an art installation by Simon Patterson, based on the forester’s house in whose cellar Owen spent his last night, triumphantly overcomes the particularities of place and time. Meaningful because Owen spent his last night there, it then turns us away from that meaning towards the poetry, placing Owen’s lines so centrally and powerfully that they seem more important than his individual death.

We stand in a dark, blank space which is then filled with his words, emerging on the inner glass walls as though they were being written at that moment, then fading almost before we can grasp them. They are spoken too, in English and in French, resounding in the memory. The effect is of a great swelling of poetry in a constricted space, an expansion of the imagination. The original roof of the house has been lifted to give a sense of a book laid down, pages splayed, in the midst of reading; the stronger symbolic sense is of the roof being lifted by the huge charge of the poetry. 

But then we go along the path which Owen and his men would have taken to their intended point of crossing of the Sambre-Oise canal – a crossing which even the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Marshall, newly promoted and much-decorated, thought ‘virtually impossible’.

For us it is, of course, a lovely summer’s day. Not so for Owen and his troops, on an early November day in Northern France. What is now a wood was then a razed space; the German occupiers had used the timber for the infrastructure of war. In this last week of the war, the Germans were in retreat, being pushed by the Allies towards the Belgian border; but they left behind them strong pockets of resistance, as here. The Germans were entrenched in a well-fortified farmhouse on the opposite bank, on rising ground, and they had machine-gun emplacements close to the canal. Owen and his men, with the help of the Royal Engineers, had to put in place a temporary bridge on which to cross before they could engage with the enemy. They were sitting ducks. 

There are two cemeteries associated with this action. The more affecting one is Ors British Cemetery, close to the canal itself – small, with slate walls, the graves punctuated by lavender. Owen is buried in the other one, which forms a separate enclave of the Ors Communal Cemetery not far from the village. Grassed, as the rest of the cemetery is not, and with its own monumental cross and sword of honour, it feels odd and out of place. I wished Owen had been in the rural one, close to where he fell, where Heaney’s words about another dead soldier-poet, Francis Ledwidge, come to mind – ‘literary, sweet-talking, countrified’.

What strikes though in Owen’s small patch of grassed ground are the other men. They are not poets, but all died in the same action, including nineteen-year old Second Lieutenant James Kirk who mounted a machine-gun on a raft, paddled it over the canal, and manned it single-handedly at close range. Kirk won a posthumous V.C., along with three others in this one action. Set a few yards away from the others, looking lonely, is the grave of the commanding officer who had foreseen the almost inevitable failure of the action. It seems wrong to pick out Owen for special attention.

The reason we do is the poetry. All lives matter; but Owen’s last night in the cellar of the forester’s house was not any last night, it was that of a man who had in the previous eighteen months forged a poetic voice which would become one of the most significant of the war, and of the twentieth century. That voice was silenced, and so part of the loss we feel contemplating his gravestone is that of the body of work that might have been.

At the same time, in La Maison Forestière itself and now at home as I reread the poetry, I feel the power and weight of the gift he left behind. It is not a compensation for the life lost, especially not to the man himself, but it is one kind of continued life. And unlike his hero Keats, who died believing that his name was ‘writ in water’, Owen already had a sense of his own worth as a poet. It was a calling he consciously recognised and he worked towards success as a poet deliberately.

In March 1917, in a first draft of ‘Sonnet: With an Identity Disc’, he was already looking back with some irony at a youthful self who ‘had dreamed of my dead name / High in the Heart of London’ (he meant Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey). That sonnet, with its deliberate echoes of Keats’ ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’, is prompted by his new soldierly identity, which would in turn confirm his poetic one, in that his experience in the First World War gave him his subject as a poet. He looks back similarly on his youthful ambitions for his poetic name to be known, in a letter to his mother in May 1918, but now he avers that it is not the fame but the poetry that matters:

And I want no limelight, and celebrity is the last infirmity I desire.
Fame is the recognition of one’s peers. 
I have already more than their recognition: I have the silent and immortal friendship of Graves and Sassoon and those. Behold are they not already as many Keatses?

No poetry was written in what Owen called ‘The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House’; while he did sometimes jot lines and even whole poems down at the Front or enclose them in letters, as did several other combatant poets, he benefitted from fortuitous periods of withdrawal. These might be at training camps, or field hospital, or at Craiglockhart, the War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, where he met Siegfried Sassoon (and through Sassoon was introduced to a visiting Robert Graves). In such places of pause and reflection he could work on his poetry to the exclusion of other demands. One of the last of these periods of writing was spent at Ripon, a small market town in Yorkshire which I have known since my childhood; my niece and her family live only a mile or two from there. I was going to visit my Yorkshire family immediately after returning from France.

Thus the Owen ‘trail’ was brought full circle when my niece Emma and I set out to find the cottage where Owen had rented a room, to which he could escape from the ‘awful Camp’ where he had been posted to continue his rehabilitation post-Craiglockhart. His barrack hut was shared by fourteen officers – ‘thirteen too many’ he wrote. So in 7, Borage Lane, as it was then, he found a room of his own – a space where his poetry could breathe. 

Even now it has a rural feel, a narrow lane running out at one end to the river; in 1918 there was only the small terrace of cottages and it would have felt even more countrified. Owen’s approach to it, in the Spring of March to June 1918, was along a stream and through the celandines which he mentions in a letter to his younger brother Colin, and which the current owner told us still spring up there. She kindly invited us in, and though she didn’t offer to show us the attic room where Owen wrote, she did point out the Victorian cast-iron fireplace in the downstairs room – which had been moved down from the attic room.

By that fireplace, withdrawn to as private a place as he could find, ‘with only a skylight’, Owen wrote or made revisions to some of his most important poems, and also, according to Jon Stallworthy, one of his biographers and the editor of his Collected Poems, drafted the famous Preface for his projected book of ‘elegies’, and the potential contents of that book. Stallworthy has ‘A Terre’, ‘Arms and the Boy’, ‘Futility’, ‘Mental Cases’, ‘S.I.W.’, ‘The Send-Off’ and ‘The Show’ either revised, drafted or fully written at Ripon.

Owen’s other biographer, Dominic Hibberd, suggests that his most important poem, ‘Strange Meeting’ was ‘almost certainly’ written there. Hibberd says, ‘In all the history of English poetry, there can have been few braver, more extraordinary undertakings than his at Ripom. His double duty was now clear: as an officer, he had to return to the front; as a poet, he had to write about it.’   

Whether it was the connection with my Yorkshire childhood and family, being there with my niece, in the country lane down which Owen had walked so carefree, the anecdotes of the current occupant who really cared and knew about him, or just seeing the skylight (not the original, apparently) with its signal of the isolated poet, intent on doing his work whatever else might happen – this place resonated with a man’s life in which his art was central. La Maison Forestière, similarly moving, had resonated with a man’s art, in which the current of his life was central. Owen said in a letter to his mother in October 1918, when he was just back in action in France, ‘I can find no word to qualify my experiences except with the word SHEER’.

I said that no poetry was written in the smoky cellar where Owen spent his last night, but he did write an important letter there, his last to his mother. Key sentences from the letter are cut into the white walls which curve from the back of La Maison Forestière and lead you down to the cellar, which has been left exactly as it was in 1918. It is a remarkably cheerful letter, a happy one even, ending:

It is a great life ...  
There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.
... Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

These unproblematically optimistic words speak of a man confident that he is doing the right thing and is in the right place (after earlier doubts about going back to the Front), hopeful perhaps that the war is close to its end. Most of all, this is a man secure in the knowledge that he was a poet, as he had announced in his New Year’s letter to his mother at the end of 1917, and which the poetic work he did in 1918 fully confirmed. With those likewise happy words I’ll end:

 I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.
 I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon. 

Further Reading

In my next blog I’ll look closely at some of Owen’s poetry, including both well-known and lesser-known poems, drawing on the Wordsworth edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen, 2002, ed. Owen Knowles, whose introduction is extremely thoughtful and doesn’t follow the standard routes taken in Owen criticism. 

The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy, London, The Hogarth Press, 1985 is the accessible version of Stallworthy’s scholarly two-volume edition, Complete Poems and Fragments, London, 1983.

There are two important biographies, which differ from each other in certain respects:

Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002

Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974

Both draw heavily, as I have done myself, on Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, ed. Harold Owen and John Bell, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1967.

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