• How Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Forged a Literary and Romantic Bond

    Michael Korda on the Creative and Sentimental Camaraderie Between Two Soldier Poets

    Wilfred Owen first mentioned the presence of a new star on his horizon on August 15, 1917. He had been busy acting, editing the hospital magazine, arguing with his mother by letter about whether Christianity and the war were compatible (he thought not, and he had hard words to say about the Archbishop of Canterbury, who did). So he may not have noticed at first the presence of Siegfried Sassoon.

    Wilfred had been reading, apparently by chance, some of Sassoon’s poems and was deeply moved by them, so it must have appeared to him providential that its author so unexpectedly appeared. Wilfred observed to his mother that he would rather meet Sassoon than Tennyson, but the opportunity didn’t come until a week later, when he screwed up his courage to call on Sassoon.

    At their first meeting, Sassoon treated Wilfred with a certain lordly condescension. Wilfred persisted, however, and their next meeting was warmer. They talked about poetry, and Sassoon asked Wilfred to help him decipher a handwritten fan letter from H.G. Wells, written in pale pink ink.

    Wilfred was smitten, so much so that he sat down at once afterward to write a poem in Sassoon’s style:

    The Dead-­Beat (True—­in the incidental)

    He dropped, more sullenly, then wearily,

    Became a lump of stench, a clot of meat,
    And none of us could kick him to his feet.
    He blinked at my revolver, blearily…

    We sent him down at last, he seemed so bad,

    Although a strongish chap and quite unhurt.
    Next day I heard the Doc’s fat laugh: ‘That dirt

    You sent me down last night’s just died. So glad!’

    This is nasty stuff, and one could have guessed it was based on personal experience even without Wilfred’s note that it was. Threatening a soldier with a pistol who was reluctant to move forward was common enough in both armies, indeed it is one of the reasons officers carry a pistol in the first place. But the tone of the poem—­and the sting of the last line—­sounds more like Sassoon than Wilfred. There is no note of pity or sympathy, only a sharp, pervading cruelty.

    Owen’s life experiences were undramatic as inspirations for poetry, and yet gradually Sassoon became convinced that he was in the presence of genius.

    Sassoon was genially critical of the younger poet’s work, dismissing many of the earlier sonnets as too lyrical, but he admired some of his more recent work. Wilfred described the meeting to both his mother and, unusually, in a separate letter to his father, urging Tom to read Sassoon’s “The Death-­Bed” as “a piece of perfect art,” and telling him “there is nothing better this century can offer you.”

    He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped
    Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls…
    Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
    Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
    Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.
    He’s young, he hated war; how should he die
    When cruel old campaigners win safe through?
    But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went,
    And there was silence in the summer night…
    Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.

    Within a week, he was writing to his mother, “Siegfried called me in to him, and having condemned some of my poems, amended others, and rejoiced over a few, he read me his last works, which are superb beyond anything in his Book. Last night he wrote a piece which is the most exquisitely painful war poem of any language or time. I don’t tell him so, or that I am not worthy to light his pipe.”

    Wilfred was in the full throes of hero worship, while Sassoon, although he may have been better at concealing his emotions, was beginning to feel a powerful attraction for his handsome young admirer, critiquing and rewriting Wilfred’s poems, who had sent home to his mother and sister for every scrap he had written.

    Sassoon was all too often imperious. He kept Wilfred waiting for hours for lunch at his golf club while he finished his game (“a severe fleshly trial,” Wilfred described it, since he had skipped breakfast). Then he made up for it by taking Wilfred for tea with the astronomer royal. (Sassoon seems to have known everybody.) He offered to get Wilfred a staff job in England, but although Wilfred, like Sassoon himself, dreaded going back to the trenches, he did not want special treatment.

    He positively gushed about his new friend to his mother, inevitably arousing her suspicion or perhaps her jealousy. “Sassoon I like equally in all the ways you mention,” he replied to her. “The man is tall and noble-­looking….The Friend is intensely sympathetic….He keeps all effusiveness strictly within his pages. In this he is eminently English. It is so restful after the French absurdities.” (This is presumably a reference to Laurent Tailhade, the previous poet with whom Wilfred had been smitten.)

    At first Wilfred appeared to Sassoon merely as a promising minor poet, with a sheaf of lyrical poems that seemed now, in the fourth year of the war, to be out of tune with reality and mired in the past. Nor did Wilfred show evidence of the facile genius of Rupert Brooke, whose poems flowed like music, apparently written without effort, and yet had the solid power of being based on his own experiences.

    Wilfred had neither the tempestuous love affairs nor the voyage to the South Pacific as material to fall back on. His life experiences were undramatic as inspirations for poetry, and yet gradually Sassoon became convinced that he was in the presence of genius. The suspicion was confirmed when he read an early draft of “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” the most famous poem that would come out of the war, by far and away the most anthologized.

    Sassoon’s changes to the poem are relatively minor, but significant, and it is easy to see how much Wilfred owed his new friend. Originally called “Anthem for Dead Youth,” the poem’s early draft is powerful but lacks the concentrated punch of the final version.

    What passing-­bells for you who die in herds?

    Only the long monotonous [anger] of the guns!

    And only the stuttering rifles’ rattled words

    Can patter out your hasty orisons.

    No wreaths for you, nor balms, nor stately choirs;

    Nor any voice of mourning, save our shells,

    And bugles calling for you from your shires,

    Saddening the twilight. These are our farewells.

    What candles may we hold to speed you all?

    Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

    Shall shine the lights of your goodbyes.

    The pallor of girls’ brows must be your pall;

    Your flowers: the tenderness of comrades’ minds;

    And each slow dusk, a drawing down of blinds.

    The last line remains moving, but the focus of the draft is outward (“you who die in herds”). Although the form is there, the poem seems disjointed. Its familiar final form, with major changes Sassoon made underlined, is incomparably stronger.

    Anthem for Doomed Youth

    What passing bells for those who die as cattle?

    Only the monstrous anger of the guns

    Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

    Can patter out their hasty orisons.

    No mockeries for them, nor prayers, nor bells,

    Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs

    The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;

    And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

    What candles may be held to speed them all?

    Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

    Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

    The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,

    Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

    And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

    The last line is indeed the valedictory that epitomizes the sadness that followed the war, as the British mourned the loss of more than 750,000 men. Wilfred’s war poems lack the ferocious anger and sarcasm of Sassoon’s; he was perceptive enough to realize that and wrote of himself, “My subject is War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” It is appropriate then that his words are incised on the black slate slab memorializing the war poets of the First World War in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

    It should not be imagined that the relationship between the two men was all one way. Sassoon recognized in Wilfred a greater poet than himself, but his own poetry also improved as the two men worked together. Still, it was Sassoon who remained in Wilfred’s eyes “the great man,” an impression no doubt influenced by class.

    Wilfred managed to persuade Sassoon to let him publish one of his poems in The Hydra, alongside an unsigned one of his own. It was surely the growing friendship between the two men that gave Wilfred the confidence to go out in company in Edinburgh and even to sit for his portrait, both in a charcoal drawing and a watercolor. Although Sassoon warned Wilfred not to publish his poems too soon, he nevertheless went out of his way to bring the younger man’s name to the attention of his set, both those involved in poetry and the smaller world of gay friends, many of whom were influential in the arts.

    In mid-­October, Sassoon’s friend and fellow Royal Welch Fusiliers officer, Robert Graves, arrived for a brief visit. Graves bridged both worlds; he was a published poet and an active homosexual. (Although he would soon shock Sassoon by falling in love with a young woman, whom he would eventually marry, and go on to marry twice and father eight children.) Graves was one of those men who fill up a lot of space, both physically and psychically.

    More than that, he had reached the rank of captain, unusually for a young officer who was not a regular soldier, with three pips on his sleeve to Wilfred’s one. He was fiercely opinionated, even argumentative on almost every subject under the sun. He both impressed and frightened Wilfred, whose ambivalent reaction to Graves and his sense of class envy are evident in his letter to his mother about the meeting.

    He [Graves] is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books….No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. [substitute Siegfried Sassoon] when they were together showed him my longish war-­piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find! ! No thanks, Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

    There is a slight tone of resentment in the letter. Wilfred may have been unhappy at having to share Sassoon with a poet whose work had already been published, or he may have felt that Graves was patronizing him. In fact, Wilfred was at the height of his powers. The poem that had impressed Graves is one of Wilfred’s sharpest, and he had just completed his “gas poem,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which many consider the final statement on the sacrifice of a whole generation in the mud and blood of Flanders.

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-­kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge,
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limped on, blood-­shod. All were lame, all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-­shells dropping softly behind.
    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—­an ecstasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound’ing like a man in fire or lime—­
    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dream, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-­corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—­
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est.
    Pro patria mori.

    This turned out to be an enormously productive period for Wilfred, given the daily presence of a friend and fellow poet who urged him on. He was simply happy to have a sounding board for his poems other than his mother, although in the end it was still she that he sought most to please. He wrote six poems in one burst, including one of his strongest, about death, which begins: “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,—­ / Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland.”

    Wilfred Owen would soon outshine all other English First World War poets, the spokesman for a martyred generation.

    To his mother, Owen described his new life at Craiglockhart, where he read his poems aloud “over a private tea” in Sassoon’s room. Sassoon had at last managed to get a room to himself, thanks to Rivers. Owens also passed on the news that Sassoon had changed his mind and now thought Owen should get his manuscripts typed up for submission to a publisher.

    It is hard not to see this as the happiest time of Owen’s life. He was relieved of responsibilities and was immensely productive. His work was being appreciated and taken seriously, if only by one person, and he was in love. His brother Harold scoured his letters so thoroughly after his death that it is impossible to tell whether Owen had a physical relationship with Sassoon, but in every other respect it was the closest he would ever come to a love affair. “Spent all day [with Sassoon] yesterday,” he wrote his mother ecstatically. “Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner.”

    It could not last. Wilfred was examined at the end of October and had no doubt that the medical board would find him fit for duty. His symptoms were under control, and his nightmares were less frequent, perhaps because he had channeled them into his poems. The need for young officers was greater than ever. In France, Haig’s autumn campaign was eating up lives at a furious rate, and the outlook for the Allies had never seemed darker.

    The Russian collapse was now beyond repair or doubt, and the Battle of Caporetto cost the Italians over 300,000 casualties plus almost as many captured, a rout masterfully portrayed by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. The arrival of the Americans in force was delayed—­it takes time to train and equip a whole army from scratch—­while everywhere Germany and Austro-­Hungary seemed stronger. Only in the Middle East was there a ray of hope as General Allenby’s army captured Jerusalem, the first sign of the Ottoman collapse. Everybody was needed at the front, no matter how frail or damaged.

    Wilfred and Sassoon spent their last evening together at the Scottish Conservative Club in Edinburgh, eating a good dinner, drinking “a noble bottle of Burgundy” and laughing uproariously over a volume of especially bad poetry. Sassoon had given Wilfred, as a parting gift, a thick envelope, which he opened in the club while waiting to take the midnight train. It contained a ten-­pound note and a letter of introduction to Robert Ross in London, the friend, editor, and devoted defender of Oscar Wilde and a literary luminary almost as well connected and admired as Edward Marsh. Ross was a friend of H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Osbert Sitwell, as well as a central figure in the homosexual literary and social world.

    Sassoon must have hesitated before including the ten-­pound note for fear it might be taken as an insult, but Wilfred responded with genuine gratitude.

    Know that since mid-­September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-­confessor + Amenophis IV in profile…. 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….And you have fixed my life—­however short. I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun around you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.

    This passage was prophetic, Wilfred Owen would soon outshine all other English First World War poets, the spokesman for a martyred generation. He ended his letter with a phrase he had used earlier to his mother to describe his relationship with Sassoon: “[We] knew we loved each other as no men love for long.”


    Excerpted from Muse of Fire: World War I as Seen Through the Lives of the Soldier Poets by Michael Korda. Copyright © 2024 by Success Research Corporation. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved

    Michael Korda
    Michael Korda
    Michael Korda participated in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. He is the author of major biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Robert E. Lee., as well as the best-selling memoir Charmed Lives.

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