Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Fixing the comet Owen

At last weekend's joint meeting of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and Wilfred Owen Association, Azucena Keatley gave us some interesting insights into the psychology of both Owen and Sassoon, with particular reference to Owen's relationship with his parents. Sassoon, it seems, may well have been a rival to Tom Owen in terms of a father figure.
From Sassoon's point of view, the relationship was certainly of a paternal nature. He had no father of his own, nor did he foresee any likelihood of ever having a son - much as he longed for one. The First World War gave him the opportunity to offer comfort and guidance to younger, less experienced men who must greatly have appreciated his presence when they were in physical and emotional need. Siegfried seemed to know what was required, possibly because it was what had been lacking in his own early life.
So it is hardly surprising, as Dr Keatley pointed out, that the relationship between Sassoon and Owen, although coloured by what appear to be Owen's romantic attachment to his older friend (at least, as expressed in his letters to Sassoon), should have developed from one of mentor and pupil into one that more strongly resembled that of father and son. They were protective of one another, but in different ways. Owen was dismayed to hear of Sassoon's wound in 1918 because he feared the loss of someone he turned to for emotional support; Sassoon feared Owen's return to the Western Front because he could not bear the thought of Owen's creative promise being lost to posterity.
Was that all it was? It has not gone unnoticed, particularly by Owen aficionados, that Sassoon's attitude to Owen, like that of Robert Graves, was extremely condescending. Referring to him as "little Owen" and "my little friend" (as he later did with other friends, such as Edmund Blunden), he talks of him as a poet of some promise but by no means a genius. Yet Owen says that "you have fixed my life". By this, I believe, he means that Sassoon's guidance had given the "mad comet" a purpose and a goal that enabled him to orbit in a disciplined way. And when he says, "I shall swing out soon, a dark star", he is intimating that, though he may remain in Sassoon's shadow, he will make a mark as his own man, with his own poetic style. He needed only a little polishing. Having received it, he is content to go his own way, recognising that their intimacy, fostered by wartime experiences, would not last forever. In this, he was more perceptive than Sassoon.
Sam Gray, who also spoke at the meeting, gave a summary of the correspondence (as far as it is known) that passed between Owen and Sassoon after their departure from Craiglockhart in 1917, noting the paucity of letters from Sassoon in contrast to Owen's frequent missives. Time and again an eager Owen berates his friend for not replying, hoping that the letters have gone missing rather than not having been written in the first place. The reality seems to be that Sassoon had other things on his mind. There were so many others to be written to: Robbie Ross, Ottoline Morrell, Robert Graves and Robert Nichols, to name but a few.
Owen was one of Sassoon's most faithful correspondents, but there was no gratitude for this from the recipient. It was to Nichols that Siegfried wrote: "Write again, write again. I'm not dead yet. I've got weeks and weeks to live," and to Nichols that he sent the manuscript of "I Stood with the Dead". Nichols was already a well-known poet, perceived to have a bright future ahead of him; Owen was unknown and Sassoon would not have dreamed of asking his advice. He failed to foresee that Owen's work (thanks partly to his own efforts in getting the collected poems published in 1920) would go on to inspire generations, while Nichols's output would almost sink without trace.
At times, I have no doubt, it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind". Sassoon had other fish to fry, and other places to go. After recovering from the head wound that put him out of the war for good, he was lunching with Ross and Arnold Bennett at the Reform Club, having tea with Lady Ottoline and dinner with Edward Marsh, even exchanging views with Winston Churchill. In early November 1918, he was having that famous first encounter with T E Lawrence and going down to Max Gate to visit Thomas and Florence Hardy for the first time, not to mention congratulating himself on the third impression of his collection Counter-Attack.
Owen, of course, did not have a great deal of time for writing after he returned to France in August. The sad truth was that Sassoon did not miss his letters partly because he knew what the Western Front was like, but also because he valued them less than the letters from some of the people he had known longer. He admitted later that he was fearful, and did not want to hear the inevitable news of his young friend's death. Owen shared his last days of life through his correspondence with his mother, which survives. He did not have much time to regret the absence of his mentor and was never obliged to recognise that their relationship may have meant far less to Sassoon than it did to him.