The Dark Places of the Earth
Stephen Carver explores the dark world of Imperial Victorian Gothic ...
There’s a new film out adapting R. C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End (1928), to chime with the 1918/2018 centenary. I went to see it thinking it would be turning out the usual clichés; and it did. But it reminded me that the central truths of the experience of men in the hellish situation of fighting in the trenches of the Western Front (and of other fronts) remain the same in spite of all the cultural accretions of the last hundred years. Sherriff’s original play was remarkable in 1928, because it deals with love between men – not too much, and not too explicitly expressed – and acceptable because it is expressed within a sort of madness. But never mind; there it is; and there it was. And it is some sort of consolation that the inhuman circumstances in which men found themselves fighting at least released some tenderness between them.
Journey’s End inevitably called up Wilfred Owen. The film charts four days in which a company of men is at the front line in the latter stages of the war, this company of men being the unfortunate lot who will be there when the German Spring Offensive begins. Their task is inherently and from the outset hopeless; they are there only to delay the German advance briefly by interposing their bodies. The historical date of the launch of the actual 1918 Spring Offensive was March 21st; but the action of Sherriff’s play, and of the film adaptation, begins in the lead up to it, on March 18th – Wilfred Owen’s birthday.
Now on March 18th 1918, Owen was ‘sheltering safe at home’ (Siegfried Sassoon’s words in his ‘Repression of War Experience’), in training camp at Northern Command Depot, Ripon, Yorkshire. Whilst he had officerly duties and was there primarily to get fit for action, Owen’s letters during this period reveal a remarkable amount of personal freedom. Every weekend he goes on long walks, discovering the beauties of the nearby countryside, and its ancient treasures such as Fountains Abbey (he sends two picture postcards of the Abbey to his mother). The letters he writes in this period are particularly poignant to me, as he talks about the familiar places of my childhood and youth. Fountains is for locals their very own Yorkshire haven of natural beauty and resort; I used to walk there with my parents, and now I walk there with my sister, my niece and her family. When Owen strode forth into that rugged distillation of Yorkshire countryside the day before his birthday, not knowing quite what lay before him, he would have come upon the masses of primroses that still colonise its grassy banks. In the same way, when he walked along Borage Lane in Ripon where he rented a room, he would discover ‘all the Lesser Celandines opened out together’ (letter to brother Colin, 30 March 1918) – as they still do. In what feels like a period of release, Owen goes to the theatre, plays tennis, swims in the local river, walks to Aldborough to see the Roman remains (remains so familiar to us as children that we never thought to actually visit them). And he writes poetry.
Owen rented the room in Borage Lane precisely for the purpose of poetry. It allowed him to escape from the massive camp (which his biographer Dominic Hibberd describes as ‘a city in itself’), and from the hut that he had to share with thirteen other officers. In sleep, he shared their breathing space; but by day, he could escape to the sky-lighted attic in Borage Lane and give himself the imaginative space to write. Owen’s letters during this period from March to June 1918 are heady; in one, he asks his mother to ‘forgive the exuberance of this letter’ (May 29 1918). It is as though the recovery from the period of mental instability which led to his stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital (June-October 1917) has now found its apotheosis in physical good health, happy youthful spirits as expressed in all his walking, swimming and delight in nature, and the brilliant charge of creativity from his pen. You can feel his excitement as he writes – as ever, to his mother – ‘I’ve been “busy” this evening with my terrific poem (at present) called “The Deranged”’ (25 May 1918). This is the poem that became in final draft ‘Mental Cases’. It is indeed a terrific poem – and a terrifying one. In it Owen depicts the night horrors that both he and others at Craiglockhart routinely suffered. Siegfried Sassoon described a similar experience thus, in a letter to Bertrand Russell, April 1917: ‘And when the lights are out ... then the horrors come creeping ... : the floor is littered with parcels of dead flesh and bones, ... a livid grinning face with bristly moustache peers at me over the edge of my bed, the hands clutching at my sheets.’
In ‘Mental Cases’ (92), Owen puts these visions into the minds of those who cannot recover from them, the ‘deranged’:
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them...
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Insofar as he and Sassoon did extricate themselves, nonetheless they had both known such hallucinations, where the extreme horrors of the trenches entered into the everyday world ‘sheltering safe at home’. The poetry Owen wrote at Ripon, from his 25th birthday on, is marked indelibly by these horrors. It is as though they could come out here, in the as-it-were safe world of poetry, up in the attic room, with celandines along the lane where children played out, and walking country and river to swim in close at hand. And his treatment and period of rest at Craiglockhart had perhaps worked, in that now those things he had experienced at the front could be imaginatively transformed into poetry.
Other poems he wrote or revised at this time include ‘A Terre’, which Owen refers to thus: ‘This afternoon I was retouching a “photographic representation” of an officer dying of wounds –’ (letter to his mother, April 1918). The dying man imagines himself already dead, in the ground, à terre, and speaking from that place.
To grain, then, go my fat, to buds my sap,
For all the usefulness there is in soap.
D’you think the Boche will ever stew man-soup? (87)
Here Owen deliberately dwells on the worst rumours of war – men’s flesh turned to soap or, worse, soup. But the voice of the almost-dead man doesn’t really care: what’s one or the other? He himself will be gone. ‘S. I. W.’ (Self-inflicted Wound) tells of the constant fear of death which makes a self-inflicted death preferable, because known. The subject of the poem shoots himself through the mouth, conveyed through the deadly line ‘We could do nothing but wipe his bleeding cough’. (85)
‘Futility’, one of the few poems that we know was written at Ripon and not revised elsewhere, draws back from these physical and existential extremes. Yet this is possibly one of Owen’s bleakest poems. It starts with all the promise of the Spring days that lighten his Ripon life:
Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once...
Think how it wakes the seeds –
But it ends with a bitter cry:
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all? (90)
This is the poetic equivalent of ‘What’s the point?’
One can take heart that Wilfred Owen’s last birthday – his 25th, no age at all, yet also the age of his beloved Keats when he died – was spent by him happily, calmly, sitting in Ripon Cathedral (whose founder was St. Wilfrid, a coincidence Owen would certainly have enjoyed). Important to remember that he didn’t know it was his last birthday; it is all too easy to overlay emotion on these moments. But it cannot but be a consolation to those who remember and respect Owen’s poetry, that in Ripon in these last few months before his return to the front – the man was happy, and the poet was working at full speed.
Wilfred Owen was remembered in Ripon Cathedral this Sunday, March 18th, with a reading of the poems he wrote in this period of quietude. www.wilfredowen.org.uk/events/view/wilfred-owen-choral-evensong. As ever, the irony is that he could have had no idea that he would be commemorated in this way. It is of course wonderful that the poems remain, and that their author is so dearly remembered. But in the end it was the human life that was lost – unwritten poems and all.
Quotations from Owen’s poems are from the Wordsworth edition, The Poems of Wilfred Owen, with introduction and notes by Owen Knowles (2002)
The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: The Hogarth Press), 1985
Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters, ed. Harold Owen and John Bell (London: Oxford University Press), 1967
Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1974
Dominic Hibberd: Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson), 2002
Jane Potter: Wilfred Owen: An Illustrated Life (Oxford: Bodleian Library), 2014. This is essentially a picture book, but full of images not easily available elsewhere.
Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems (London: Faber and Faber), 1983
Siegfried Sassoon: Diaries 1915-1918, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Faber and Faber), 1983
www.wilfredowen.org.uk/ : the website of the Wilfred Owen Association.
Image used above: The Owen memorial in Ripon Cathedral: https://www.harrogate-news.co.uk/2018/03/06/ripon-cathedral-mark-centenary-war-poet-wilfred-owens-birthday/