November 4, 1918: Wilfred Owen Completes His Epic
A Story of Three Poets
Rupert Brooke found life too perfect. He was acclaimed as a poet, adored for his looks, born into a time of prosperity and peace, an Englishman “under an English heaven.” Even bisexuality can be a bore when you are object of everyone’s lust. Lord Byron would have sympathized. But on his 27th birthday, Brooke received a present that alleviated his malaise: a World War. It would have been unpatriotic to write a thank you to Kaiser Wilhelm, but Brooke did thank another War Lord.
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Brooke was not being sardonic. He welcomed the glorious adventure. Perhaps his idea of war was a David painting: noble poses in epaulets. The only intentional irony was the poem’s title: “Peace.” Naval Lieutenant Rupert Brooke would be dead within a year, succumbing to an infection from a mosquito bite.
Siegfried Sassoon may have had an innate appreciation of absurdity. He was born in England, but his father was an Iraqi Jew and he was named for a German opera. The Sassoons were rich; they had been court financiers and merchant kings when the Rothschilds were still pawnbrokers. So Siegfried had the privileges of an English gentleman–without being fully-accepted as one. He had no interest in the Sassoon business enterprises; he wanted to be a poet and the family allowance kept him from starving. The War gave the 28- year-old his first real job; a second-lieutenant’s commission was the least that the army could offer a Cambridge man.
Lieutenant Sassoon would distinguish himself for heroism; his almost reckless feats earned him a Military Cross and the nickname of Mad Jack. Yet, ever the outsider, in 1917 Sassoon breached the officer club decorum by writing public protests against the horrors and futility of the war. He might have been court-martialed but the Army did not want to give him any further publicity; it simply announced that Sassoon had a nervous breakdown and confined him to a military hospital in a conveniently isolated part of Scotland. To earn his release and return to active duty, Sassoon agreed to refrain from further political protests. The army, however, did not have the foresight to censor his poetry.
Does it matter?-losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter?-losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
Whether it was luck, irony or both, Siegfried Sassoon survived the Great War and died an octogenarian in 1967.
Wilfred Owen was not rich or celebrated. He did not even go to Cambridge or Oxford. The University of Reading? Now really! In fact, he would not have been an officer but for the fact that so many of the proper types were already dead by 1916. But the War made him an officer and a poet. “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.”
What passing-bells for these 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; no 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.
“Anthem for Doomed Youth”
On November 4, 1918 Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, recipient of the Military Cross, was killed in action. He was 25. World War I ended a week later.