Walking down the hill from Craiglockhart to Slateford today, it seemed to me that I have often walked in the footsteps of war poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just before dawn 95 years ago today.
Of course, when he was at Craiglockhart War Hospital – the site of his fortunate and influential meeting with fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon – this busy suburban road would have been no more than a country lane. I like to imagine him walking through the leafy shadows, suitcase in hand, up and down to Slateford station. Maybe he even used this route, perhaps on a bicycle, to go to the old Tynecastle School, where, for a while, he taught English. He had operated as a tutor both in England and France, and I wonder if he dared imagine a teaching career after the War to facilitate his desperate desire to become a published poet.
Apart from the link with the place of my birth, and my career as a teacher of English, Owen also spent time in Southport in Lancashire, where I spent a decade as a child; he was gunnery officer on two occasions at the local firing ranges.
In addition, his schooling was at the Institute in Birkenhead on the Wirral, a school I knew well from many sporting fixtures against them when I was a teenager.
As I’ve written before, the discovery of Owen’s poetry, sublimely taught by an English teacher called Ernie Spencer, was the genesis of my love of poetry and English in general and, without doubt, led me to my teaching career.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, on this beautiful, autumnal blue skied, thrill of an afternoon, I chose to walk along the towpath of the Union Canal. It wasn’t a consciously made choice, but, of course, Owen fell in action while leading his men on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal near Ors in northern France, and it was difficult not to reflect on that fact as a setting sun set fire to the deep blue water.
I’ve followed in Owen’s footsteps on the battlefields too, winding up in Ors, walking the muddy towpath, gazing in to the murk of the drainage ditch beside it, wondering at the ability and bravery to attempt a crossing with machine gun fire coming from the opposite bank only thirty yards away.
There was a lot of determination displayed that morning; a VC was won and there were many individual acts of courage – though Owen’s own self deprecating brand of bravery involved going around his men, patting each on the back, muttering: “Well done, my man, you’re doing very well!” while helping shift duck boards into position on the slippy canal bank. When his service pistol from that morning was uncovered in his mother’s garden shed, years later, it was still loaded, it hadn’t been fired.
Many of us who feel their lives touched by Owen visit Ors. It is a tiny village, with a church and Mairie, and a café which is sometimes open and sometimes not. The houses are neat and well kept and on the bridge over the canal, by a lock station, is a plaque commemorating the young Poet who died along the canal bank.
The stretch of canal where Owen died is not remarkable; it curves gently in a slow bend, behind is a drainage ditch and low fields stretching back to the village; across the other side of the water, flat dairy fields and a couple of farm cottages, much the same as the scene which would have loomed intermittently out of the mist and above the spatter of machine gun fire in that early dawn in November 1918.
Further across the fields behind the town is the Forester’s Cottage where Owen spent his last night, having written a letter to his mother in its dank cellar on October 31st, in which he opined ‘of this you can be sure, I could not be surrounded by a better group of friends than I am here’. After years of neglect, the house has now become a modern and interactive museum to Owen – the cellar left as it was, the house still ironically surrounded by the barbed wire and security of a local military base. It’s a tangible reminder of the villagers’ consciousness of the young man who died nearby; they never fail to acknowledge the visitors when they pass them in the square or in the lanes; his memory is known locally.
I always wonder about Owen’s death; 25 years is such a short life, yet his comrade, Sassoon, who lived on till 1966, often seemed to envy Owen’s early death in a melancholy way. We can’t know how Owen would have developed as a man or as a poet.
Before the war he had been a great admirer of Keats and in awe of those poets and writers he met through Sassoon, like Robbie Ross, friend of Oscar Wilde. The feeling is that he was in love with the idea of being A Poet. Of course, the reality of war, and Sassoon’s own unexpected advice: “Sweat your guts out writing poetry” changed Owen’s perceptions and approaches to the poetic arts completely. From being a backward looking Romantic, he wrote poetry, inspired by ‘the Pity’, which was extremely ‘modern’. The poetry world he aspired to before the War was one of many casualties of the conflict, it was outmoded, partly by the poetry produced by Owen and his fellow poets in the trenches.
For all his ‘modern’ approach to his writing, I do wonder how Owen would have adapted to peace time, what subjects he would have found for his writing, whether he would have felt, as Sassoon appeared to, suffocated by his reputation as a ‘War Poet’.
One could never be positive about his tragically premature death, but there is a feeling, which Owen himself, as a Keatsian, would have appreciated, that to die young embellishes the reputation of a writer taken at the height of his first blooming of talent.
Having walked in Owen’s final footsteps on the canal bank, it was inevitable that I would visit his final resting place.
And it’s now that I start to realize the real appeal of Wilfred Owen.
He is buried not in one of the tragic but grand ‘white cities’ of death which litter the battlefields with row upon row of those ‘known unto God’. He lies in the village cemetery at Ors, in a small enclave of war graves, at the back of all the angels and crucifixes belonging to farmers and shopkeepers and carpenters.
The cemetery is in a lane which ends at the railway station. Not fifty yards from Owen’s grave is the classically French stationmaster’s house, a pleasing reminder of Owen’s father’s occupation. Like the canal where he fell, it’s an echo of his childhood. As a boy in Oswestry, he grew up in a town proscribed by two canals – the Llangollen and the Montgomery. Towpaths, like stations, were familiar to Owen.
At the end, we find him in restrained surroundings – no Menin Gate or Thiepval Monument; he is even overshadowed by the VC of Lt Col James Marshall, also killed at dawn on the canal, buried in the same row of neat whitestone graves.
I believe that, as his writing was changed by his experience of life, so were Owen’s expectations as a poet. Humanity overcame the need for artistic acclaim, communication outshone style, he was a poet who had found a message rather than a lifestyle.
I can imagine his shy smile, as the hundreds come to this small communal cemetery, seeking him out because of the pity in his poetry, enthralled by his talent, made thoughtful by the pictures he painted with his words. A young death, and a fame which lasted – particularly through the enthusiasm of pupils discovering the power of poetry through his lines. I think he would have liked that; I think he may have seen it as a poetic heroism to match his military bravery. I don’t think he would have wanted a fuss.
I suggest we all react to the humanity of this hero whom Sassoon remembered on their first meeting as ‘an interesting little chap”.
Going back up the hill to Craiglockhart today, the sky is a deep, cloud flecked, flaming sunset red.
Now Owen could have made something of that!