Bordeaux, Jules Romains, Laurent Tailhade, Henri Barbusse, mystery of God’s love and man’s suffering, compassionate humanism, tragic hero.
From his youth up, Wilfred Owen was fond of France, its language and people. He was 15 when his father took him to Brittany, about which he wrote in a postcard to his mother: “everything is delightful. It is a pleasure to speak to the people here they are so affable. I am easily understood, but can make nothing of what they say” (to Susan Owen, 14 June 1908). Two years later, he mentioned “his scheme of getting a thorough knowledge of French in France” (18 June 1911). That project was fulfilled in September 1913 when he went to Bordeaux to teach English at the Berlitz School of Languages. From then on his ties with France will never be broken: he decided to join up while he was in France, fought in France and died there. Though written in Great Britain, his war poems are likewise rooted in and nurtured by France. Our purpose is to trace here the war poet’s progress from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Ors.
Dès sa jeunesse, Wilfred Owen aimait la France, sa langue et ses habitants. Il a 15 ans lorsque son père l’emmène en Bretagne, dont il écrit dans une carte postale à sa mère : « tout est délicieux. C’est un plaisir de parler aux gens ici, ils sont si affables. Je suis facilement compris, mais je ne peux rien faire de ce qu’ils disent » (à Susan Owen, 14 juin 1908). Deux ans plus tard, il évoque « son projet d’acquérir une connaissance approfondie du français en France » (18 juin 1911). Ce projet se concrétise en septembre 1913 lorsqu’il se rend à Bordeaux pour enseigner l’anglais à l’école de langues Berlitz. Désormais, ses liens avec la France ne seront plus rompus : il décide de s’engager alors qu’il est en France, combat en France et y meurt. Bien qu’écrits en Grande-Bretagne, ses poèmes de guerre sont également enracinés et nourris par la France. Notre propos est de retracer ici le cheminement du poète de guerre de Bagnères-de-Bigorre à Ors.
At first sight, Wilfred Owen’s stay in the Bordeaux area seems to be of little interest for the study of his war poems. In fact, the tender sensitivity, imaginative faculty and gift for musicality characteristic of his mature poetry are dormant, waiting to grow and flourish. Indeed, the aftershock of his experience in the trenches will prove to be not a complete break, but a new departure. Although he was unaware of it, his stay in Bordeaux was a prelude to his war poetry.
When he arrived in France, Wilfred Owen was twenty, still immature, a Mother’s son tethered to her apron-strings and a fledgling poet in search of mastery and wisdom. In spite of his recent, frustrating experience as a parish assistant in Dunsden, Oxfordshire, his spiritual life, nurtured by his mother, remained deep-seated and intense. He might have rebelled against a vacuous clergy, but had not recanted his faith in God. Talking of the poet Shelley, he wrote to his mother: “Because the religion he had met with was hollow, it does not follow that no religion is solid… It exists none the less… Only I haven’t met it –yet” (to Susan Owen, 29 January 1913). This “yet” will find its realization later in France with the experience of war. In Bordeaux Wilfred Owen was already in search of a loving God and a religion of loving kindness. He was and will remain deeply religious, even after turning away from the Church. The mystery of God’s love and man’s suffering will remain at the core of his war poetry. In prewar France he was already in search of a God of pity.
Early in life, Wilfred Owen had experienced many disappointments, particularly his failure to afford a university education after being accepted at the University of London. Whereas most of the future war poets were being educated in public schools and Oxford or Cambridge, he was struggling by trial and error to acquire a literary culture. That first stay in France proved to be a literary crucible.
Wilfred Owen was a versatile reader both in French and English. Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Vigny, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, Alfred Noyes, Ernest Renan, Paul Verlaine and Laurent Tailhade, are mentioned in his letters. It seems his knowledge of French was quite good, as his translations of poems by Henry Spiess or Laurent Tailhade, and his poem in French “Nous ne nous fions pas à la multitude d’une armée” testify. Later on his choice of “Le Christianisme” or “À Terre” as titles to war poems show his lasting interest in French. In the Bordeaux area he was also struggling to acquire some skills in poetry writing by imitation, for he had no contact with literary circles. His art was still immature and bogged down in what he called “my poesy, my poethood” (“Tom Tit”). His diction was ornate and made up of clichés such as: “a rosy, beauteous hill”, “the whine of violent violins … with majesty and dolour”, “its skin…odoured like the pale, night-scented flowers” (“Impromptu”). But the musicality of his verse was already subtle and his war poetry will prove to be the most melodious of all; moreover his experimentation with pararhyme, later on used in many war poems, was started in Bordeaux as early as September 1913. On the back of a draft of a fragment, “The Imbecile” (Bordeaux 1913), he dabbled with consonantal rhymes. Did he come across La Vie Unanime (1908) by Jules Romains? Did the French poet’s “assonance” open the way to Wilfred Owen’s pararhyme?
A lonely, self-made poet, cut off from the literary life in England he was to discover later on at the Poetry Bookshop in London, Wilfred Owen was enthusiastic when he met a flesh and blood writer, Laurent Tailhade, a cult figure, at Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Actually, the two poets had little in common — apart from their homosexuality —: Tailhade was an eccentric, a libertarian, a swashbuckler, whereas Wilfred Owen was a shy, conventional, thinking young man. Tailhade’s extravagant manner in Poèmes Aristophanesques was unlikely to appeal to Wilfred Owen; but the languid mood of Poèmes Elégiaques was in tune with Owen’s sentimentality and lyricism. It seems that Laurent Tailhade, unlike Siegfried Sassoon two years later, did not become a cult figure for Wilfred Owen, but at that period of his life that encounter was felt as a breakthrough into the exclusive circle of poets.
While he was in France, Wilfred Owen’s progress in poetry writing may not have been remarkable, but he developed his knowledge of human beings. While his contemporaries at universities were acquiring a bookish culture, he was a student at the university of life. He met people from all walks of life, rich and poor, happy or miserable, rough or sophisticated. Of all the war poets, he will be the only one with an early experience of suffering; that acquaintance with the human soul confronted with adversity or tragedy will prove one of his distinctive features.
When the war broke out, Wilfred Owen was in Bagnères-de-Bigorre and he had to decide whether to join up or stay out. He did not share in the gung-ho enthusiasm of early volunteers in England. However, in “A New Heaven”(1916) he exalted the fame of the dead, and in “The Ballad of Peace and War” (1914) he glorified self-sacrifice:
Oh it is meet and it is sweet To live in peace with others, But sweeter still and far more meet To die in war for brothers.
Later on in the war poems, this readiness to die will be bitterly debunked in “Dulce et Decorum Est”. But “Greater Love” and “At a Calvary near the Ancre” will invite the soldier to “lay down his life” for others, and turn that conventional dream into actuality. Although he was unaware of it, that patriotic cliché foreshadows his commitment to self-sacrifice, that will lie at the core of his war poems.
In Bagnères-de-Bigorre Wilfred Owen got an inkling of the “actualities of the war” (to Harold Owen, 23 September 1914), and, when he visited a makeshift hospital in a Lycée in Bordeaux where wounded French and German soldiers were “being treated without the slightest distinction” (to Harold Owen, 23 September 1914), he witnessed an example of brotherhood, a feeling which will be at the core of the war poems.
His decision to enlist was taken in Bordeaux, after long hesitation and mature reflection. To him, enlisting meant dying on the battlefield. Self-denial was already present in his letters from Bordeaux, as if it were an intimation of self-sacrifice, later on the central theme of his war poetry. He was faced with this dilemma: should he live on for the sake of poetry or die for his country? On the one hand, as he was convinced he was called to be a poet and prophet, he was inclined to keep away from the war: “My life is worth more than my death to Englishmen” (to Susan Owen, 2 December 1914); on the other hand, he thought that our Western civilization was threatened and it was his duty to shed his blood for its defence. Should he serve his country as a poet or as a soldier? He will end up being both a soldier and a poet.
In Bordeaux he felt more and more guilty: in a letter to his brother Colin (August 1914) he wrote: “I feel shamefully ‘out of it’ up here, passing my time reading the Newspapers in an armchair in a shady garden”. And a few months later, he added: “I suffer a good deal of shame” (to Susan Owen, 2 December 1914). His enlistment will come as the answer to a call, the call to be a saviour: “I thought of the thousand redeemers by whose blood my life is being redeemed” (to Susan Owen, 8 December 1914). This hint at Christ in December 1914 anticipated the war poems “Greater Love” and “At a Calvary near the Ancre”. So “the best way –the only Way”– was to meet
[…] the need Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed. (“1914”)
The three years spent in France were a time of expectancy. At the end of his stay, Wilfred Owen was still far from being a mature poet, but, unconsciously, seeds of his war poetry had been sown. Not only had he enlisted, but traits of his war poetry were dormant in his early, tentative verse. His art still lacked inspiration and substance; it was like a sapling, on which the experience of war will be grafted.
During his fourteen months’ training in England with The Artists Rifles Wilfred Owen had the opportunity to meet contemporary writers. However, those encounters did not transform his art. But as his letters from the Front will testify, the fire and brimstone of the war will shatter his mind, soul, and nerves. They will also wreck his “poesy and poethood”.
On January 1st, 1917, he was dispatched to the Somme front line. At first, on his way to Halloy, near Beaumont Hamel, he felt enthusiastic and wrote to his mother: “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France, and I am in perfect spirits. A tinge of excitement is about me, but excitement is always necessary to my happiness” (to Susan Owen, 1 January 1917). But a week later, he had entered “the abode of madness” (to Susan Owen, 19 January 1917) and “universal perversion of Ugliness” (4 February 1917). His letters give a first-hand account of his nerve-breaking experience. Now, the fact they are letters, and not diary entries, brings in far more feeling. They convey a yearning for love and pity, not to be found in Le Feu by Henri Barbusse, nor in Siegfried Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, nor in Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War. When describing the horror of lying “marooned on a frozen desert […] in the snow under the deadly wind” (4 February 1917), Owen is craving for his mother’s affection. He continued, “The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary [hia sister] without a break all the time”. Wilfred Owen was not just a witness; his letters were a lament, which anticipated to his elegies. An undertow of misery runs through these accounts of trench warfare; he compared the Front line to “a Sector of Hades” (to Susan Owen, 4 April 1917) to “the eternal place of gnashing of teeth” (19/01/17), “ Gehenna”, “Inferno “ (9/01/17), “Babylon the Fallen”, “The fires of Sodom and Gomorrah”, and wrote: “I have suffered seventh hell” (16/01/ 17).
His torment also urged Wilfred Owen to reconsider his attitude to war and God. Like most soldiers in the trenches he started questioning the purpose of a slaughter “without a definite object for carrying on” (to Susan Owen, 4 April 1917). His soldiery spirit was sapped and he became “a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience” (16 May 1917). More important still was his new approach to God. We remember he broke away from the Church when he left Dunsden. In the trenches he turned to Christ: to a kind loving Christ. In May 1917 he wrote to his mother: “Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life — for a friend”. And he added: “One of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! … be killed; but do not kill” (16 May 1917). This new approach to religion will be at the core of the war poems.
No doubt, the impact of the war on Wilfred Owen was tremendous: Not only were his nerves shattered; his poetic self was so to speak shell-shocked. He was compelled to reconsider his duty and his faith; the war experience purged his mind of daydreaming, self-pity, and the hollow cult of Beauty and Love. The war, not France, caused that sea change. But it is on its soil that a new poetic shoot was grafted on a sterile stock.
At Craiglockhart, Wilfred Owen, shell-shocked, overwhelmed by dreadful memories, was torn between exultation and depression. He recalled both his “extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward” through the barrage at Fayet (to Colin Owen, 14 May 1917) and his “having endured unnameable tortures in France” (to Mrs Bulman, 1 July 1917).
Wilfred Owen was physically in Scotland, but mentally in France, as his “disastrous dreams” (to Susan Owen, 2 September 1917) testified. He was longing for tranquillity, but it was in vain that in “From my Diary, July 1914”, drafted in November 1917, he sought refuge in some nostalgic evocation of the pastoral scenery he had known at Bagnères-de-Bigorre. From then on, France and the war are one; and their trauma keeps haunting his memory. His war poetry will arise from aftershocks, from emotions recollected in agony – not remembered, but recollected, that is to say processed into verse by the poet’s mind, sensibility, imagination and craftsmanship.
At Craiglockhart Wilfred Owen did not completely give up his previous “poesy and poethood”, and strangely enough carried on writing poems in the same arty-crafty manner. But, if he wanted to voice his war experience, a new manner had to be tried. Fortunately, he met Siegfried Sassoon who was breaking new ground with the publication of The Old Huntsman and other Poems. Indeed, the trench poets were compelled to break away from conventional war poetry exemplified by Henry V, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, The Dynasts or Rupert Brooke’s sonnets. Siegfried Sassoon’s factual and satirical verse showed that soldier poets were capable of telling the truth and voicing their feelings. However, Wilfred Owen retained his personality: whereas Siegfried Sassoon’s painful memories sprang into rebellion and satire, with Wilfred Owen, they gave birth to sorrow and lamentation, which does not mean that he could not equal his master. “Inspection”, “The Dead-Beat”, “At a Calvary near the Ancre”, “Dulce et Decorum est”could have been written by Siegfried Sassoon. But it is in elegies that Wilfred Owen excels, and even his satirical poems retain a plaintive mood. His agony inspires him not so much anger as compassion. He remains the poet of grief.
Thanks to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen read Under Fire by Henri Barbusse. He owned a copy in French. Though written in prose and in the shape of a journal, Le Feu (1916) exemplifies the characteristics both poets were seeking to achieve in their poetry, that is to say a realistic, “anti-souvenir” (to Susan Owen, 25 February 1917) testimony, combined with a heart-rending lament and the exposure of heroic fallacies. Le Feu was a template in prose for what they aimed to achieve in verse, – with a difference. Le Feu is the angry outburst of a fiery pacifist, whereas Wilfred Owen’s poetry is the lament of “a seared conscience” (to Susan Owen, 16 May 1917) and scorched nerves. Henri Barbusse is looking forward to the utopian advent of some sort of humanitarian peace between nations, whereas Wilfred Owen is concerned with a doomed mankind under the sway of Evil and Death.
His elegies are a universal requiem, not for heroes, but “tragic heroes”, as they can be found in ancient Greek tragedies. Wilfred Owen was not acquainted with Greek literature; and yet his poems “raise pity and fear, or terror, and purge the mind of those and such-like passions”, to paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics with the words of John Milton in « Samson Agonistes » where human agony is accompanied by an existential agony. Most war poets are concerned only with their experience in the trenches. Wilfred Owen, probably because of his religious upbringing, probes into the tragic mystery of the human condition, and more precisely, the mystery of human suffering. If war is the subject of his poetry, Evil is its theme. He sees Evil not as an instigator to sin, but as the mysterious Power intent on tormenting mankind; Wilfred Owen’s tragic war hero is not unlike Job in his misery. Hence a spate of agonizing questions: why, Wilfred Owen asks in “Futility”, were mankind and earth created? What happens after death? “Shall life renew these bodies?” he asks in “The End”. At the core of this existential agony is the absence of a kind God: “The love of God seems dying” (“Exposure”), “God seems not to care” (“Greater Love”). God seems to be a ruthless murderer, in the image of Abraham in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, or a sadistic torturer in “Soldier’s Dream”.
Then in his hopelessness, Wilfred Owen turns away from“Field-Marshal God” (“Inspection”) to “the gentle Christ” (“At a Calvary near the Ancre”). Now “the gentle Christ” is not the Christ worshipped by “pulpit professionals” (to Susan Owen, 16 May 1917), who preach self-sacrifice for the country, but ignore His commandments: “Love your enemies”, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend” (to Susan Owen, 16 May 1917). It is a commonplace for war poets to identify the soldier on the battlefield with Christ on Golgotha, and Wilfred Owen wrote: “Christ is literally in no-man’s land. There men often hear His voice” (to Susan Owen, 16 May 1917). But Wilfred Owen’s Christ is not divine, nor is He a Saviour, nor does He raise the Dead (“The End”), nor does he rise from the dead. He is a secular Christ, the icon of brotherhood, compassion and love. Wilfred Owen has now met the God of pity he was longing for in Bordeaux. In his existential agony, Wilfred Owen became a prophet of compassionate Humanism.
Those sixteen months in Scotland and England before returning to the front line proved to be an annus mirabilis. Let us remember that earlier on, in the Bordeaux area, Wilfred Owen was in search both of poetic mastery and spiritual certainty. Now, he had acquired both; his genius was full-blown and “a terrible beauty is born”, to use words of W. B. Yates, a poet of a generation earlier but much of whose poetry is contemporaneous with Owen’s.
Throughout the war poems, France remains a hidden, underlying presence, a subsoil surfacing in the choice of two titles in French – “Le Christianisme” and “À Terre” – and in two place names: Cérisy and the Ancre. But for Wilfred Owen that country was the land of “the pity of war”. For that reason, France called him back in « The Calls » (1918) for example:
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill To speak of their distress, no, nor the will! A voice I know. And this time I must go.
In 1915, Wilfred Owen had longed to be a saviour of Western culture and a redeemer of mankind; in 1918 his second enlistment was dictated by humane values only. Driven by his new faith in “greater love”, Wilfred Owen felt he was called to bring a light, “a little candle” (to Susan Owen, 30 July 1917) to his fellow sufferers in the dark. And it is as a champion of Love that he chose to return to the Front. “I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can” (to Susan Owen, 4 October 1918). “I go among cattle to be a cattle driver” (31 August 1918) and “a Shepherd” (to Siegfried Sassoon, 1 September 1918). He did not pretend to be a saviour, not even a rescuer, but a helper. His new presence in the trenches was a natural follow-through to his elegies. His war poetry not only recalled the past, but it also looked ahead to his second and last stint in France. His self-sacrifice was foretold in “Greater Love” or in “At a Calvary near the Ancre”. His presence in the trenches with his fellow sufferers was the fulfilment of his poetry, and his death in France put the seal of authenticity on both his life and verse.
Wilfred Owen had realized that exposing the pity and absurdity of the war while staying safely away in England could be a fraud. Therefore, he chose to follow the promptings of his heart, and to share in the misery of men marching to their death in France. Wilfred Owen’s death can be described as the martyrdom of a conscientious objector. There is holiness in that self-sacrifice, and those dead are elevated to sainthood. That is why “Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not” (“Greater Love”).
From Bordeaux to Ors, Wilfred Owen’s progress is tied to France, its land and literature. Not only did he live, fight and die in France, but the seeds of his elegies were unwittingly sown in Bordeaux; then they grew, bruised and buffeted, on the Somme battlefield; their blossoming in England was nurtured with painful memories from France; but, sadly, it was wrecked on the “killing fields” of France. France did not make Wilfred Owen’s poetic genius, but without France, he would not be the greatest of English war poets. Wilfred Owen is a son of England, and France his second motherland.
Hibberd, Dominic, Owen, the Poet, London; Macmillan, 1986.
―Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, 1917-1918, London; Constable, 1992.
―Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, London; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
Stallworthy, Jon, Wilfred Owen, London; Oxford University Press, 1974.
―Great Poets of World War 1: Poetry from the Great War, New York; Carroll & Graf, 2002.
Cuthberson, Guy, Wilfred Owen, New Haven and London; Yale University Press, 2014.
Roland Bouyssou, emeritus professor, is the author of Les Poètes-combattants anglais de la Grande guerre (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse Le Mirail, 1974). He has translated many of the war poets into French, publishing an anthology of their poems in translation in 2008 (Anthologie des poètes de la Grande Guerre, Éditions Universitaires du Sud).