People in History: WWI Poets

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_%281915%29 People in History: WWI Poets

Siegfried Sassoon

Poet’s Corner is the name given to the section of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey where some of England’s most famous writers are interred or memorialised. In 1985, a slate was added, commemorating sixteen poets of the Great War. They were Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.

What is immediately noticeable from looking at their biographies is how similar they were. All but three attended public or independent schools, followed by Oxbridge or prestigious discipline-specific universities. Most attained the rank of Lieutenant or higher: only two were privates. (Those two facts are linked: most public schools held Officers’ Training Corps as a standard class, preparing the sons of the wealthy and titled to command other men. After war was declared, men with OTC experience were drafted as officers, even without prior military experience.) Most moved in literary circles or were published prior to the outbreak of war. They all knew most of the other fifteen men with whom they’re now remembered.

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Wilfred Owen

Thus we can see that the world of the best remembered poets from this period was very small. Aldington, Binyon, and Read belonged to the same poet’s group (the Imaginists); Blunden hung around with Sassoon and Graves, and edited and oversaw the publishing of Owen and Gurney’s poems; Gibson and Brooke were friends from before the war, as were Gurney and Thomas; Nichols, Rosenberg, Brooke, and Sassoon all belonged to the Georgian poets; Grenfell bullied Sassoon at Oxford.

Indeed, if we were to whittle the sixteen down to one common denominator, Sassoon would be it.

Born in 1886, educated at Marlborough College and Cambridge, Captain of the Royal Fusiliers, and one of the poets who survived the war, Sassoon was a fascinating figure. Before the war, he played cricket with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; during it he crossed paths with Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves — who was to save him from court martial when, egged on by no less than Bertrand Russell, he published an anti-war protest statement in The Times and the House of Lords — and then while in hospital being treated for shell shock he just happened to bump into Wilfred Owen, and forged another great friendship.

256px-Julian_Grenfell_%28For_Remembrance%29_cropped People in History: WWI Poets

Julian Grenfell

Postwar, Sassoon’s life was no less dramatic. As Editor for the Daily Herald he employed friends such as EM Forster and Arnold Bennett, was the lover at various points of the actors Ivor Novello and Glen Byam Shaw; a German Prince, Philipp of Hesse; writer Beverley Nichols; and English aristocrat The Hon. Stephen Tennant, among others, and spent his spare time with friends such as Marcel Proust and Robbie Ross (Oscar Wilde’s former lover). Indeed, it came as quite a shock to his friends when, in 1933, he suddenly and unexpectedly married. (By 1945, the couple were separated.)

Sassoon’s queerness is significant to the Great War poetry canon because it informs so much of it, through his relationships with the other poets. Sassoon himself noted the “heavy sexual element” of Graves’ poetry addressing their friendship (not that Graves wasn’t without form: at school he formed a romantic attachment to a younger student so intense the headmaster had to intervene to prevent a scandal). When Wilfred Owen decided he wanted to return to the Front in the autumn of 1918, Sassoon threatened to “stab him in the leg” to prevent him leaving. Owen made good his escape to France, only to be killed in action a week before the Armistice.

Even the straighter poets seemed to lead queer lives. Aldington’s first wife bore an illegitimate child while he was at the Front; he reconciled with her, only for her to leave him for another woman. Brooke spent his prewar days with the Bloomsbury Group, skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf and being admired by WB Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England”. Upon his death, Gibson wrote with touching brevity:

He’s gone.
I do not understand.
I only know
That as he turned to go
And waved his hand
In his young eyes a sudden glory shone:
And I was dazzled by a sunset glow,
And he was gone.

— Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, The Going

The generation to which these poets belonged was the last of its kind for many reasons. The old class system from which the majority of them came was already beginning to crumble, the wider world was changing, becoming a larger and more dangerous place, and romantic friendships themselves, tainted by association ever since Wilde’s passionate defence of them in the witness box, were soon to become a thing of the past. If, to use Grenfell’s analogy, war “is like a big picnic”, this period becomes that last glorious summer’s day after which one must move forward, but always looks back fondly.

Juxtaposed with this is, of course, the bloody nature of war — and of trench warfare in particular. Young, male bodies in their prime have been the stuff of celebration for poets through the centuries, but these poets brought a sickening realism to the sentimentality of mourning. They showed us those vibrant bodies being torn apart, sensuality giving the macabre an added twist.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

That old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

— Wilfred Owen, Dulce Et Decorum Est

The Latin there, “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country”, provides about as clear an anti-war sentiment as it’s possible to find. The poets of the Great War, almost to a man, saw no honour in what they were doing (Grenfell, as a professional soldier, always swore he was having a fine old time — right up, one presumes, to the moment a piece of shrapnel embedded itself in his brain). While maybe not as daring as Sassoon, who sent his objections all the way to the House of Commons, they made them known nonetheless. And what made their message all the more powerful was the stark contrast they drew between the loving, romantic attentions the young men they wrote of deserved, and the fate they were ultimately dealt.

Queerness, whether literal or literary, underpins so many of the Great War poems so fundamentally it is impossible to consider one without the other; and I would argue the poems are better for it.

A man of mine

lies on the wire.

It is death to fetch his soulless corpse.

A man of mine

lies on the wire;

And he will rot

And first his lips

The worms will eat.

It is not thus I would have him kiss’d,

But with the warm passionate lips

Of his comrade here.

— Herbert Read, My Company


Born on this day: Tyler Curry (32, American), LGBT activist; Sarah Bettens (43, Belgian), singer; Ani DiFranco (45, American), musician; and George C. Wolfe (61, American), playwright.

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