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by Anne Aufhauser A well-educated, wealthy young man when he enlisted in the military at the eve of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon had the background of a budding modernist.After dropping out of Cambridge, Sassoon dabbled in poetry until joining the military in 1914, where he met and exchanged ideas with Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, both of whom would become fixtures in the modernist cannon.In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war: This book is not about heroes. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world.
Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.
As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them.
These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision.
The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant.
With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.
In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales.But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side.He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart.One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that.Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views.This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry.Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.An examination of Sassoon’s war poetry complicates an understanding of it as purely modern.Soon after meeting Sassoon at Craiglockhart, a military hospital for shell shocked English soldiers, Wilfred Owen giddily wrote his mother, “I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.” While Owen himself credits Sassoon’s friendship with influencing a dramatic shift in Owen’s—and eventually the public’s—modernist expression of World War I, there is more to Owen’s 1917 statement than a pithy phrase about shared poetic sentiment.