The third man: In Memoriam, Wilfred Owen: 100 years after the birth of Wilfred owen, John Whitworth calls up the war poets

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The Independent Culture
Wilfred Owen was born on 18 March 1893 and killed on the western front on 4 November 1918, exactly a week before the Armistice. Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, his friends and fellow poets, both survived more by good luck than good management.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Who is the third who walks always beside you? T S Eliot: The Waste Land ----------------------------------------------------------------- Craiglockhart Hydro, just a few miles out From Edinburgh, where the well-to-do Are urged to take the water-cure, commands Magnificent and panoramic views Of the Forth valley and the distant Highlands, As celebrated by Sir Walter Scott. Nevertheless the venture doesn't pay: Too cold, too dark, too dear, too far away. Late 1917 and the supply Of heroes must be maintained. In 'The Morning Post' A Little Mother beautifully writes We women pass on human ammunition Of only sons whose blood will testify . . . Etcetera. The Hydro is reborn As The Craiglockhart War Hospital, And christened by its inmates, 'Dottyville'. Insomniacs slam the doors that will not lock. They sleep, wake screaming, smoke the night away. Bluff doctors analyse their dreams by day, Diagnose neurasthenia, shell-shock And various phobias. A subaltern Of The Royal Welch, Siegfried Sassoon Is polishing his golf-clubs very slowly. He is a poet known to Bloomsbury. To Lady Ottoline Morrell and Bertie Russell, And has said in print he's FINISHED WITH THE WAR. If Captain Graves, his fellow officer Had not made straight the road to 'Dottyville' (As: gallant brother-in-arms . . . mental collapse . . . Patriot with Military Cross Hallucinating . . . all the bloody dead In Piccadilly . . . A good chap off his head . . . Blah blah, Court Martial, firing squad could be Quite on the cards, (to certain mad old men In Blighty, soldiers should be in the line, Wounded, recovering, or blown to buggery), But courtesy, of Captain Graves, the Hero Is at Craiglockhart, polishing a mashie. He sports the oak that shuts but will not lock And hears a soft, ingratiating knock. He stood, short, dark-haired, hesitant and shy, And spoke with a slight stammer. Would I mind? Could I inscribe for him and for his friends Some books? He had a charming, modest way. I took to him, and talked a full half hour On my interpretation of the War. He listened eagerly. He was a poet Though still unpublished. His name was Wilfred Owen. He is cheerful, though a bit emotional. Sheaves Of this quiet, slow-spoken friend's rich, Keatsian verse Are hammered out by Siegfried, grimmer, terser. Owen is introduced to Captain Graves Who is a big, rather plain fellow. Plain Graves is mightily impressed, says so. A damn fine poem of yours, really damn fine] You could obtain Parnassus in no time. No time. Captain Graves marries in haste, repents At leisure. Siegfried on a dawn patrol Is wounded by one of his own corporals, Which bloody balls-up brings him safe from France. Two friends grow grey in service of the Muse, But the third one, the quiet, slow-spoken one, Returns to France for ever, writes Dear Mother It is a great life. Here there is no danger. One man is a gleam of white teeth and a wheeze of jokes. Did he die too? Perhaps not - mortality Was highest among junior officers. Harold Owen was in the Navy, and the day Of Armistice (which was the following week), He saw his brother in the cabin chair. A sense of absolute loss and emptiness . . . His eyes . . . his dark smile. Wilfred was not there. Not there. And yet for he is there always, Glorious in khaki, iconed on the edge Of life, like a fly in amber, like a Christ Who will expiate those long Edwardian days Of punts and poetry and privilege. Dying, the Last Romantic, in a waste: Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles, Carnage incomparable, and human squander. Tennis And Sex and Death, poems by John Whitworth, is published by Peterloo at pounds 4.95 -----------------------------------------------------------------