BOOKS / Sad anthems from a doomed youth: Wilfred Owen was born 100 years ago this week. Sebastian Faulks reassesses the life and work of England's great war poet

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ON 26 JUNE 1917, Wilfred Owen, a 24-year-old Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, arrived at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. He ate an enormous breakfast in the North British Hotel, walked along Princes Street and took a taxi through the suburbs to a place called Craiglockhart. It was a late-Victorian hydropathic spa, built in pinkish stone with bogus Italian flourishes, converted into a hospital for officers suffering from shell-shock.

The entrance hall was floored with black and white marble flags in a diamond pattern. Windowless rooms opened from the long gloomy corridors. Owen was housed towards the top of the building, facing north. As he slept, his revolver was removed by a nurse from his bedside table.

In the daytime, the place was active and the men were calm. 'But by night,' a later inmate wrote, 'each man was back in his doomed sector of a horror-stricken Front Line, where the panic and stampede of some ghastly experience was re-enacted among the livid faces of the dead. No doctor could save him then, when he became the lonely victim of his dream disasters and delusions.'

Owen had been sent to Craiglockhart after prolonged fighting on the Somme in the bitterly cold winter of 1916-17. His battalion had operated from shellholes for 12 days. One night Owen was taking cover against a railway embankment when he was blown into the air by a German shell. He lay for several days in a hole by the cutting, with the dismembered body of a brother officer all about him. Two weeks later, his colonel noticed that Owen was confused: his hands were shaking and his memory was unreliable. The MO diagnosed 'neurasthenia', as shell-shock was then called.

A small, passive man, with soft brown eyes and a gentle, receptive manner, given to stammering when he was nervous, Owen was driven by an overmastering literary ambition. Denied a full education by his modest background (his father worked for the railways), he set out to educate himself and to learn the craft of poetry. Yet when he arrived at Craiglockhart he was - with a couple of notable exceptions - writing very poor stuff. Adoration of Keats and the influence of the Decadents had filled his verse with archaisms and the sugared fruits of 'poesy'. As late as May 1917 he could still begin a poem: 'In Shrewsbury Town e'en Hercules wox tired.'

Then, in August, there arrived at Craiglockhart the formidable figure of Siegfried Sassoon, the author of the description of the hospital quoted above. Tall, aristocratic, a formidable sportsman, 'Mad Jack' had commanded a company in France and won the MC. But he later had pacifist doubts, and under Bertrand Russell's guidance (some say manipulation) he issued a statement damning the conduct of the War. In the ensuing uproar, Sassoon's friends, principally Robert Graves, arranged for him to be diagnosed as shell-shocked rather than face court-martial.

More important than anything in Owen's hero-worshipping eyes was the fact that Sassoon was a Published Poet. He eventually summoned the nerve to visit Sassoon in his room, taking with him several copies of Sassoon's The Old Huntsman for the favour of his autograph. Sassoon was, as so frequently, cleaning his golf clubs when the timid knock came. He was gratified to sign some books but barely noticed the man who had brought them. 'It was only when he was departing,' Sassoon wrote in Siegfried's Journey in 1945, 'that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself . . . He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptively provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry.'

But Owen was on fire. Through Sassoon, he was persuaded to see how his personal experiences could be made the subject of real poetry. Within weeks he had abandoned his sub-romantic labours and delivered whole his 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. It has been said that Sassoon 'gave' Owen his subject - war, and the pity of it - though this is an overstatement. What happened is that, by knowing Sassoon and talking to him about poetry and war, Owen was able to unlock the explosive power of his compassion for other men. It was always men: he appears to have disliked women. But it remains a matter of conjecture whether he and Sassoon discussed their common, though not mutual, homosexual desires. Jon Stallworthy, Owen's biographer, thinks not; others think the letters, dizzy with joy and relief, which Owen wrote Sassoon on his departure from Craiglockhart suggest that they did.

CRAIGLOCKHART today is the second campus of Napier University. The views from the front of the house have been largely obscured by urban and suburban building. The vast dining room is filled with pony-tailed students smoking over canteen snacks. The black and white flags are in the hall, but the parquet of the corridors is covered by hard-wearing carpet. Up beneath the roof, in a room that might have been Owen's, a computer stutters out printed details of the college budgets. Sassoon's room, or something like it, overlooks the side of Wester Craiglockhart Hill, a towering, gorse-covered mound, at whose foot is the first tee of the local golf course. In the polite hum of college admin, it is hard to picture the languid figure busy with his clubs, hearing the timid knock; though if you close your ears to the clack of typewriters, you can still just imagine the nightly 'underworld of dreams haunted by submerged memories of warfare and its intolerable shocks'.

The two would meet almost every day, Owen sometimes hanging round the golf club while Sassoon completed his 36 holes, sometimes waiting till the evening after he himself had spent a day teaching at a local school, picnicking with friends or going into Edinburgh in the blue armband worn by all patients on their excursions. Owen was treated by Captain Arthur Brock, a shrewd, ascetic man who made him come to terms with what had traumatised him, then set him to work at various activities in the hospital and the town. In view of the primitive state of psychiatry in 1917 and the generally brutish attitude of many medical officers, both he and Sassoon were astonishingly fortunate in their doctors.

THE DETAIL of Owen's emotional landscape remains a little unclear. On the basis of his letters and his brother Harold's memoir Journey from Obscurity, one can see an awkward, ambitious, selfish, sensitive, and wholly mother-dominated boy. From 1911 to 1913 he worked as a lay assistant to a vicar near Reading, but found his doubts about his Christianity and his burgeoning physical desires made the position intolerable. On the edge of breakdown he returned home where, according to Harold, he lay 'in bed so motionless and quiet, with his bedclothes wrapped so tightly over his head and face, leaving only his eyes to glow out darkly towards us, burning with a strange unnatural fire of gentleness and docility that we could not understand at all'. He was not a particularly likeable young man and he baffled his family.

His mother acted as guardian and selective keeper of his memory; Harold destroyed some papers and altered others that made reference to his homosexual feelings. The extent of the emendation to the letters was 'negligible', according to Owen's biographer Jon Stallworthy; the number of papers destroyed, however, was 'considerable' according to Dominic Hibberd, author of a recent study of Owen's last year. There remains ample evidence, unsuppressed or innocently missed by his brother, of Owen's homosexual desires in his poems and letters. Dominic Hibberd suggests that in May 1918 C K Scott Moncrieff, a predatory homosexual writer, went 'too far' with Owen in London. When Owen returned to the front he found Scott Moncrieff's letters pursuing him to the most dangerous and tenuously held outposts of the fighting: as much of a tribute to the extraordinary postal service on the Western Front as to Scott Moncrieff's ardour. Stallworthy believes Owen may have died a virgin; Hibberd thinks Scott Moncrieff was preceded by other lovers in France before the war.

Sassoon introduced Owen to a number of literary men in London, including Robert Ross, said to have been 'Oscar's first boy'. Hibberd had the story of the Scott Moncrieff weekend indirectly from Robert Graves, who in turn heard it from Ross. Did they, or didn't they, and does it really matter? Not much, though there is something poignant in the thought of the 'awful daring of a moment's surrender' before Owen returned to the Front and to his death, while Scott Moncrieff went on to translate A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

It also matters in so far as his desires helped shape his poetry. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell examines what he calls the 'homoerotic' element in Owen's work. By 'homoerotic' he means a 'sublimated (ie 'chaste') form of temporary homosexuality'. It may seem ingenuous to praise Owen for being such a sensuous writer and for having chosen the actualities of dismemberment and war horrors for his subject, then to describe the results as homoerotic. Most readers will conclude that, in such poems as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', the actual degree of eroticism makes little difference to the sublime movement of the verse.

ON 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and a dozen other poems (including 'Spring Offensive', 'Strange Meeting' and 'Futility'), Owen's reputation has rested reasonably untroubled since the 1920s. The vogue for Isaac Rosenberg comes and goes, but it is to some extent a futile debate, like Chaplin versus Keaton. The poetry of Ivor Gurney is rightly being revalued. Gurney's poems are more moving than Owen's on a personal level; they give a better idea of the hell of the French war to an English country youth. But they are technically imperfect and lack the grandeur of the best of Owen's. Sassoon's memorial is not in his verse but in his superlative prose memoirs; Charles Hamilton Sorley was an extraordinary poet, but had hardly begun by the time he was killed in 1915.

Among contemporary poets, Tom Paulin says that he finds Owen's tone 'that bit too plangent', and has not studied him for some years. For him, as for others, Owen was used in schoolrooms as a way of making boys read poetry while apparently studying the war. Craig Raine believes 'his place is assured, though even his best poems have messy stretches in them. I don't wish to deny his achievement, but I think it's fair to see the flaws as well.'

The flaws are certainly there. For all Owen's post-Sassoon conversion, there is something roseate about his diction even in his last poems. He was metrically slack at times, much to the exasperation of Robert Graves. However, his use of pararhyme was technically a breakthrough. It is still disputed whether he took it from French or Welsh sources, or whether he half-unconsciously stumbled on it; but it helps distinguish his particular voice and was much imitated by the poets of the Thirties.

What kind of poetry Owen would have written had he lived is obviously impossible to say. Day-Lewis thought he might have become a love poet in the mould of Catullus, and Jon Stallworthy agrees. His sensuous awareness of the body has probably not been bettered since Keats. However, Catullus had more humour, and there is the small problem of how Owen would have published homosexual poetry in the 1920s. Stallworthy posits a possible, painful 'coming out', though what Owen's mother would have said is hardly imaginable. Hibberd thinks the publication of The Waste Land in 1922 would have challenged him to be a modern poet, and that he would have succeeded. Robert Graves thought Owen would have become a Labour MP, and it is worth noting that he would have been only 52 at the time of Attlee's government in 1945. Bernard Bergonzi believes there would have been a 'total cessation' of poetry after the War. It is, as Craig Raine says, 'very hard to separate the achievement and the trauma'.

The 75 years since his death have seen his reputation rapidly grow, then stabilise. If you believe the English poetic tradition to be essentially Romantic, you can see him in the main line of it, with Eliot as an aberration. Or you can trace different affinities through Whitman, Hopkins and Housman, an alternative homosexual tradition going on to Auden and beyond. Owen was not a typical or a representative war poet. Self-taught, a loner with sexual feelings of which he was ashamed, he was both sustained and troubled by the Calvinist beliefs he inherited from his mother. He wrote bitter, angry poems when most men at the front were more docile. The War 'gave' him a subject that the Georgians had lacked; his underestimated intellectual strength enabled him to transform his emotional conflicts and his haphazardly acquired, somewhat florid literary expertise into real poetry.

Owen, like Sassoon, returned to the Front, where he too won the MC. He was killed by gunfire crossing the Sambre canal on 4 November 1918. His family got the telegram at noon on 11 November, Armistice Day, an hour after church bells began pealing.