Wilfred Owen: Journey to the trenches

How did a son of the shires become the tragic chronicler of the horrors of the Great War? The poet Paul Farley traces the early life of Wilfred Owen

Newly arrived in France in January 1917, Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen wrote home to his mother, explaining how the real thing - mud - was making itself manifest, inundating his sleeping bag and his pyjamas: welcome to the Western Front.

But the most striking thing about this correspondence is his annoyance and irritation at being billeted with "the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with". His sonnet, and probably his most famous poem, "Anthem for Doomed Youth", is still nine months ahead of him, but already he is comparing the men, albeit rather less compassionately, with livestock:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons...

As soon as I began to go in search of Owen on the ground (for BBC Radio 3's Owen season, broadcast all next week), I realised how little I understood this complicated but fascinating man and his poetry. I thought I knew him. I'd imagined - naively - an officer, appalled by what he was seeing, scribbling instinctive verse in trenches between barrages and raids.

But I soon came to realise just how different the real thing actually was: a bit like Ancre mud, it was cold and messy but impossible to ignore. His poem "Miners" begins, like a good story, by the fire:

There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.

It listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fauns.
Soon, though, the coals whispering and shifting in the grate lead the poet elsewhere:

But the coals were murmuring of
their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.

And I saw white-bones in the
cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
Many the muscled bodies charred,
And few remember...

The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their
dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.

This poem was written in Scarborough in January 1918, only weeks after Owen had been discharged from Craiglockhart Hospital with orders to rejoin his unit. Days before, a pit explosion at Halmerend had killed more than a hundred men and boys. Owen quickly responded by writing a poem on the colliery disaster (it was headline news), describing later how "I get mixed up with the War at the end".

It was one of only five poems he saw published in his lifetime: he also described how he'd sent it to The Nation the same evening as writing it, saying (in a letter to his mother), that "for half an hour's work I think Two Guineas is good pay".

However, as a newly commissioned officer in June 1916, he'd described the men in his platoon as "hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly. (But I would trust them to advance under fire and to hold their trench.)" And, just over year before, Owen had been writing poems like his sonnet "Purple": "Purest, it is the diamond dawn of spring;/ And yet the veil of Venus, whose rose skin,/ Mauve-marbled, purples Eros' mouth for sacred sin."

What had changed? Most obviously, Owen had been to the front line, in the early spring of 1917, and had seen first-hand what modern industrial warfare did to the natural landscape, the human body and the mind. He'd seen the ground "cobbled with skulls". He'd also met a few people who had utterly recalibrated him.

But the greatest difference, and the power of Owen's gift, lay in his new ability to draw on the sum total of his experience to date in ways that were fresh and exciting to him, and so, continually, to us.

His writing after that first, terrible exposure in France can't help being "mixed up with the War". We know him as a war poet, but the urgency with which he found himself rapidly responding to events was underpinned by a short lifetime full of literary ambitions and contradictions, and full too of a succession of English places and preoccupations.

My journey began, of all places, in Birkenhead, across the river from where I grew up. The Owens moved there from Shrewsbury in 1900, Tom Owen having been appointed stationmaster at the Woodside terminus. All sulky red brick and wheelie-bins today, the place was bustling and industrious at the turn of the century. New York's Central Park was modelled on Birkenhead's, and the first cinema outside London was established here.

Walking around its run-down backstreets, I found the three houses the family had lived in; the site of Birkenhead Institute, where Owen was a star pupil; and Christ Church, an all-important focal point in those early years. The young Wilfred grew up in an Evangelical atmosphere: frequent services took place at home, as well as in church, and I discovered how Wilfred liked dressing up, donning the priestly robes. His mother had hopes of him making a career of it.

Despite this, a major epiphany seems to have occurred out in the countryside to the south-east of Birkenhead, above the Cheshire hamlet of Broxton, in about 1904, and it had nothing to do with the church. Climbing the wooded sandstone ridge up from Broxton today, it's not hard to see why. From the crest, you gain a panoramic view stretching from the Wrekin and Shrewsbury, round past the line of Clwyd Hills (including Moel Famau, which every Merseyside schoolchild, including Wilfred, seems to have climbed) to Chester, the Wirral peninsula, Birkenhead and the towers of Liverpool.

Here was the landscape of Owen's childhood, laid out before him. His brother Harold claimed it was Broxton that made Wilfred a poet, and even though you soon learn to take much of Harold's hagiography with a pinch of salt, a * * fragment of a poem written later seems to say as much:

And so repassed into my life's arrears.
Even the weeks at Broxton, by the Hill
Where first I felt my boyhood fill
With uncontainable fancies...

It seems, from this moment, as if poetry and religion might be something the young Owen would have to choose between. For a while, he managed to work at both. Otherwise, it seems a calm, Edwardian time of plant identification, of collecting rocks and fossils. He led classes: I began to realise how much of a teacher and a leader Owen was used to being, even from an early age. He took a job as a Parish Assistant in Dunsden, a Thames Valley textbook village complete with a well and a green, in 1911. There, I met Dominic Hibberd, Owen's biographer, and we visited the Vicarage and wandered down to the village green, and later sat on comically tiny plastic chairs in the school hall for an interview.

It seemed that by the time he arrived at Dunsden, Owen was already sold on Romantic verse, especially Shelley and Keats. Good examples of the young Owen's early infatuation with both can be found in poems like "Written in a Wood, September 1910", which begins like this:

Full ninety autumns hath this ancient beech
Helped with its myriad leafy tongues
to swell
The dirges of the deep-toned western
gale,
And ninety times hath all its power
of speech
Been stricken dumb, ...

Throughout the offices of his post at Dunsden - Parish duties followed by soul-destroying suppers with the Reverend - Owen was writing poems, sonnets full of love and beauty and death, rich in Romantic tropes and allusions, but he was always learning how to make a poem. He quoted Keats to his mother, encouraging her to read the poems, and made literary pilgrimages - echoing mine - to Keats's house, even tracking down a granddaughter of Coleridge in Torquay.

A bicycle ride into nearby Reading brought him into contact with something a bit newer: Harold Monro's Before Dawn, and the Georgians. Owen eventually rejected the one true path, leaving Dunsden, and eventually England, to teach English in Bordeaux for a while.

During the hot summer of 1914, as the European powers were locking into a chain reaction leading to war, Owen was tutoring at a villa and hanging out in Bagnères-de-Bigorre with the French poet Laurent Tailhade, a disciple of Mallarmé and friend of Verlaine. There was a Decadent Owen, an aesthete who wore purple; he could sound - I hate to say it - insufferably pretentious. He finally entered the Artists Rifles towards the close of 1915, beginning a year of training and army routine that led to his awful baptism of fire at Serre and Beaumont Hamel.

Discovering all this was bound to change my perception of the young officer. These weren't poems simply springing up from nowhere, shocked into existence by howitzers and machine-gun fire. I also began to understand, in a very practical sense, how difficult writing actually was on the ground. Letters home were one thing - and the Western Front's postal system, which could get mail from England to the front in a day, was an organisational wonder - but writing verse?

I soon realised that Owen drafted almost all his poems either in casualty clearing stations or, mostly, while back in Blighty, at places like Ripon (standing in his tiny attic room under the skylight, where "The Send-Off ", "Mental Cases" and "Futility" were written, was one of the most unexpectedly moving points on my journey) or Scarborough. He needed time to reflect and re-gather himself.

And to recover. It's hard to admit, but one strange by-product of war can be the stimulation of creativity. Extreme conditions can provoke striking artistic regeneration. People get thrown together. As those artists and poets who'd fled to neutral Switzerland coalesced into something called Dada, the shell-shocked Owen quietly took the overnight train north from King's Cross for Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, just outside Edinburgh, in June 1917.

The hospital is now a campus of Napier University. The sound of young people chatting over lattes makes it difficult to imagine the building's former life, and the nightmarish period between dusk and dawn when it echoed with shrieks and groans. I asked students if they knew about Owen. "No," said one of a group of girls, "but we're doing business studies."

What if Owen had never met Siegfried Sassoon? Sassoon, sent to Craiglockhart in an attempt to get him to shut up and quit his anti-war protesting, might never have had anything to do with somebody so "perceptibly provincial", but there was nowhere for him to hide when the younger poet came nervously knocking at his door, armed with copies of his latest book to sign.

Owen was besotted: of this there is no doubt. Whatever Sassoon might have felt privately, a connection was made: he told Owen to "sweat your guts out for poetry!" and provided an urgent reason to be writing the stuff. Sassoon's work satirised the war: he wanted a complacent Blighty - used to newsreels and exhibition trenches in Kensington - to wise up. The effect on Owen's poetry is palpable still, a jolt of angry energy, undermining the Horatian "Dulce et Decorum Est" (it is sweet and right to die for your country):

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,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And still very evident in "Smile, Smile, Smile", one of the last poems he wrote, this time subverting the Tommy's popular song, "So pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag/ And smile, smile, smile":

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed
wounded scanned
Yesterday's Mail; the casualties
(typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our
Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not
yet planned...

Sassoon also put Owen on to Robbie Ross, former companion of Oscar Wilde, slipping him an envelope containing a tenner and an address in Mayfair. Owen loved being among artists and poets. But I discovered that equally important to the recovering officer was the counsel of Dr Arthur Brock. Brock was an ergotherapist, unique at the time in his field. Shell-shocked patients were suffering a detachment from their landscapes, histories, surroundings - Owen had been blown into the air by a shell and fallen down a well - and Brock tried to reconnect the mind, body and total environment: to make the patient whole again.

He set Owen what we'd now call a creative writing exercise: to write a poem on the theme of Antaeus, who had been lifted off the ground by Hercules and killed because of his break with Mother Earth. As he was falling head over heels for Sassoon, Owen was learning how to reintegrate all the bits of himself. With Brock's help, he pulled himself together.

For the rest of his short life - throughout stationings at Scarborough and then the vast northern army depot at Ripon - all of Owen's experience to date became creatively available to him. New work poured out. Old poems were redrafted. "The Send-Off" (originally titled "The Draft" ) is a good example of the kind of thing Owen was suddenly, surprisingly, able to do. The poem begins:

Down the close darkening lanes they
sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the trains with faces grimly
gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white
with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a
casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland
camp.

Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and
a lamp
Winked to the guard...

Owen was writing in his attic at Ripon, near the army depot where he would have seen trains leaving full of troops bound for the front. As an image of a cold, mechanistic route to death, it echoes down the century in ways its maker could never have imagined. By the poem's end:

Shall they return to beating of great
bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and
yells,

May creep back silent, to village
wells,
Up half-known roads.

This now reminds me of the well on the village green at Dunsden - it's as if the soldiers leave from North Yorkshire, then arrive back in the Thames Valley five years earlier - although the actual sources don't matter so much as Owen's newfound ability to draw deeply on them for the poem's sake. Which, in the end, has to have a complete life of its own. His early death meant there was no return to pre-war themes, no dalliance with Modernism, no decline or change of direction. His poems fused to their theme for ever.

We visited his grave, in the village of Ors not far from where he was killed on 4 November 1918 trying to cross the Sambre-Oise canal (the telegram arrived in Shrewsbury as the Armistice bells rang). After spending a long time with his poems, and looking at the places where he'd spent his life, I was dreading it.

He lies at the back of the graveyard, between another two soldiers who died that day. It was a balmy evening, with the sounds of kids playing somewhere close by and scooters buzzing by, but I surprised myself by not feeling sad. Despite the awful waste of it, I was glad he'd managed to pull it all together and make something so powerful. The producer took a photograph of me at the graveside, tidying up the cards and flowers. Looking at that picture now, I'm even happier to discover that I'm wearing a purple shirt.

Radio 3's Wilfred Owen Week, 12-18 November. Paul Farley presents 'Strange Meetings: Wilfred Owen's Half-Known Roads' on Sunday at 8pm

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