You Have Fixed My Life
The Gay Love Letters of Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the
Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All
rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit
Wilfred Owen (18931918) was not successful in his attempts to be either an academic or a cleric (he finally rejected the established church when he recognized his homosexuality). In 1913 he became a poorly paid English tutor in France, and in 1915 he returned to England to enlist in the Artists' Rifles, and was then commissioned into the Manchester Regiment. At the Somme he suffered shell-shock and was sent to the War Hospital in Edinburgh in summer 1917. There he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, and his friendship with Owen marked the turning-point of Owen's poetical development. When Sassoon said goodbye to Owen at the Conservative Club in Edinburgh in November 1917 he gave him a sealed envelope containing £10 and the London address of Oscar Wilde's lover Robert Ross, through whom he met Osbert Sitwell, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells and many other writers. He hero-worshipped Sassoon, and the result was some very moving war poetry: "My subject is war, and the pity of war." He returned to the front, but was wounded and invalided home in July 1918. After a spell in hospital he was back with his battalion at Amiens in September, and he was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in October. His experiences in the war were not always unbearably painful, as he noted in a letter to his cousin Leslie Gunston on October 15, October 1918: "There are two French girls in my billet, daughters of the Mayor, who (I suppose because of my French) single me for their joyful gratitude for La Déliverance. Naturally I talk to them a good deal; so much so that the jealousy of other officers resulted in a Subalterns' Court Martial being held on me! The dramatic irony was too killing, considering certain other things, not possible to tell in a letter." There at the line west of the Sambre-Oise Canal, near Ors, Owen was killed during a dawn attack across the canal on November 4, 1918, together with one other officer and twenty-two other ranks. The war ended one week later. His eloquent Poems, permeated by an erotic identification with his comrades, were published posthumously in 1920, edited by Sassoon and Edith Sitwell. Years later Sassoon wrote that "W's death was an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back not his poems." Most of the letters Owen wrote from the front were to his mother, but he also wrote to Sassoon between November 1917 and October 1918; unfortunately Sassoon destroyed many of the letters. His mother burned "a sack full" of his papers, apparently at his own request, and his brother Harold for many years prevented research into Wilfred's private life.
WILFRED OWEN TO LESLIE GUNSTON
22 August 1917
My dear Leslie,
At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon. Went in to him last night (my second call). The first visit was one morning last week. The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance – almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisl'd (how's that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom. . . . the last thing he said was "Sweat your guts out writing poetry!" . . . He himself is 30! Looks under 25!
WILFRED OWEN TO SIEGFRIED SASSOON
Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury
5 November 1917
My dear Sassoon,
When I had opened your envelope in a quiet corner of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I "put by" (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame. [Sassoon cannot explain this word.]
I have also waited for this photograph.
Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.
Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What's that mathematically?
In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can't hurt me in the least.
If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!
To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full. . . .
What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craig & Lockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivre to live). Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we felt calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.
Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.
To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am
Your proud friend, Owen
27 November 1917
I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.
The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo, which in the vulgar, means Lift Boy. I manage Accommodation, Food, and Service. I boss cooks, housemaids, charwomen, chamber-maids, mess orderlies and drummers.
There were 80 officers when I came, or 800 grouses daily. . . .
A Depot, A.P.O. S.17, B.E.F. France
Sunday, 1 September 1918
Dearest of all Friends,
Here is an address which will serve for a few days.
The sun is warm, the sky is clear, the waves are dancing fast & bright . . . But these are not Lines written in Dejection [opening lines of Shelley's `Stanzas, written in dejection, near Naples']. Serenity Shelley never dreamed of crowns me. Will it last when I shall have gone in Caverns & Abysmals such as he never reserved for his worst daemons?
Yesterday I went down to Folkestone Beach and into the sea, thinking to go through those stanzas & emotions of Shelley's to the full. But I was too happy, or the Sun was too supreme. Moreover there issued from the sea distraction, in the shape, Shape I say, but lay no stress on that, of a Harrow boy, of superb intellect & refinement; intellect because he hates war more than Germans; refinement because of the way he spoke of my Going, and of the Sun, and of the Sea there; and the way he spoke of Everything. In fact, the way he spoke
And now I am among the herds again, a Herdsman; and a Shepherd of sheep that do not know my voice.
Tell me how you are.
With great & painful firmness I have not said you goodbye from England. If you had said in the heart or brain you might have stabbed me, but you said only in the leg [Sassoon annotates this letter: "I had told him I would stab him in the leg if he tried to return to the Front."]; so I was afraid.
Perhaps if I "write" anything in dug-outs or talk in sleep a squad of riflemen will save you the trouble of buying a dagger.
Goodbye W. E. O.
[2nd Manchester Regt.]
10 October 1918
Very dear Siegfried,
Your letter reached me at the exact moment it was most needed when we had come far enough out of the line to feel the misery of billets; and I had been seized with writer's cramp after making out my casualty reports. (I'm O.C. D Coy).
The Batt. had a sheer time last week. I can find no better epithet: because I cannot say I suffered anything; having let my brain grow dull: That is to say my nerves are in perfect order.
It is a strange truth: that your [book of poems] Counter-Attack frightened me much more than the real one: though the boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour.
Catalogue? Photograph? Can you photograph the crimson-hot iron as it cools from the smelting? That is what Jones's blood looked like, and felt like. My senses are charred.
I shall feel again as soon as I dare, but now I must not. I don't take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters.
But one day I will write Deceased over many books. . . .
Ever your W. E. O.
SOURCE: © Oxford University Press 1967; reprinted from Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters edited by Harold Owen and John Bell (1967) by permission of Oxford University Press.