One hundred years ago today, three years into the Great War, a diffident young Second Lieutenant stepped off the overnight sleeper at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station and emerged on to Princes St. He had only sixteen months left to live of his short life, but what he achieved in that time would bring him fame, and create a powerful and important legacy.
He was going to Craiglockhart War Hospital because he was suffering from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was then described. He was lucky because, for most of the Great War, such a condition was recognised in officers but not in other ranks, who were in danger of being shot at dawn for desertion if they exhibited signs of what was called “funk” in the “Poor Bloody Infantry”.
Though Wilfred Owen had only been a serving soldier for around a year, he had been involved in heavy fighting and some personally disabling incidents. He had spent a day and night trapped in a shell hole next to the body of a dead comrade, and he had experienced the trauma of his batman, whom he had posted sentry at the top of the dug out stairs, blown up by a shell, blinded, blown down the steps, and reduced to a quivering wreck.
As he headed for Craiglockhart War Hospital, he was closing in on two relationships which would have long lasting ramifications, and would be a catalyst for him achieving his dream of being a published and respected poet. One was Dr Rivers, the innovative psychiatrist at the hospital, and the other, of course, was Owen’s much admired poetic hero, Siegfried Sassoon, who was at Craiglockhart largely as a means of silencing him after his “Declaration of a Soldier” embarrassed the Establishment in its forthright denunciation of the extended war. Owen would gain poetic confidence and resolve from Sassoon in his time in the war hospital. He would be inspired to write as never before.
He would also change my life.
Wilfred Owen changed my life? That’s a bit of a large claim, is it not?
Well, maybe so – but it would be impossible for me to ignore his impact.
On a Thursday afternoon in 1968, my English teacher, Ernie Spencer, read Owen’s poem “The Send Off” to our English class. I was sixteen, loved reading, and was competent at English. In keeping with the times, our school was not an institution which encouraged self confidence, so the idea of having “flair” in any subject was rare. For all my liking for English, it never occurred to me that I might have ability, or, God forbid, some talent in the subject.
And then, Ernie started going through the poem. Line by line he deconstructed it: rhyme, rhythm, imagery, choice of vocabulary. Then, all of a sudden, I understood. It was a totally definable and unforgettable Eureka moment. From that moment on, I “got” poetry. Owen’s work spoke to me with a clarity which reduced lads like Keats, Shelley, and Byron to indistinct mumbling.
For the first time, poetry, and, by extension, novels and short stories, entered the part of my brain and heart which, until then, had been mostly reserved for rock music. This stuff meant something to me! There was a connection. I understood what he was saying it and how he was saying it. I could see the skill and talent, appreciate the craft.
It was an exciting moment – and I still recognise that it must be quite unusual to be able to identify such a crucial event so precisely. There’s huge credit to Ernie’s teaching as well, of course. I still wonder what might have happened had I had a different English teacher, or he’d chosen another poet or a different poem. Chances are I would have found my way to literature along some other, possibly less dramatic, path, but I’ll never know. Certainly, when I taught that same lesson to pupils through the years, I could see the impact it had on their attitude towards poetry – possibly due to my enthusiasm, but mostly due to Owen’s carefully crafted words.
That moment in class led to me deciding to study for an English degree and ultimately a career as an English teacher. By extension, the poetry of Sassoon, other War Poets, and eventually a wider range of poetry came to be important to me, and eventually I took to writing myself.
At the start, I was unaware of Owen’s background. I soon learned of the connection to my birthplace of Edinburgh, and, much later, of his time spent in Southport, where I was living when I had my Eureka moment.
Over the years I have paid emotional visits to his grave in Ors cemetery in northern France, and the spot on the canal nearby where he lost his life leading his men, a week before the Armistice. I’ve walked the promenade at Scarborough past the hotel where he spent most of his last year, and wrote so much of his best poetry
Whether passing the New Club in Princes St, Summerside Place in Leith where he stayed with friends, the site of the old Tynecastle school annexe, where he taught briefly, or on the long hill up to Craiglockhart, I think about him often, his effect on my life, and that strange connection and its consequences.
Today I spent an hour at Craiglockhart remembering the shy young poet who arrived there a century ago. The campus was quiet – that lull between exams and graduation ceremonies – and it has changed in many ways since Owen and Sassoon noted the chilling, echoing moans of fellow officers suffering the “night terrors”, in rooms off the long corridors. Given all he had been through, it’s hard to recall that when Owen arrived at Craiglockhart he was of an age with many of those students who will be graduating here in the next few weeks. He was hugely attracted by academe and would have no doubt enjoyed the buzz of learning here on the Napier University campus.
However, in some ways it is easy to recapture the atmosphere of that old Hydropathic institution, with the neatly trimmed lawns and tree lined views over Edinburgh, the crunch of feet on gravel. The War Poets Memorial Room is in the former entrance to the building, the corridor still retaining the checked back and white marble upon which Owen would have stepped on this arrival, none too impressed by what he found.
It occurs to me that the distress and disorder of the officers here, a place Sassoon referred to as “Dottyville”, must have rankled against the peacefulness of its location – but perhaps no more than the madness of war on the farmlands of Belgium and northern France. Maybe conflict was the condition of the times.
It’s still easy to imagine Owen walking these grounds, book in hand, deep in thought, searching for a phrase with which to impress Sassoon when he returned from the golf course. In some way it is a comforting thought, and makes him feel a lot nearer than 1917.
I hold him in great affection, as do countless others, and will always be grateful for the inspiration unconsciously provided by the poet whom Sassoon first described as that “funny little Welshman.”
A century later, Owen’s memory still walks in Edinburgh.