While many historians have documented the events of the First World War, it is the words of the war’s poets that continue to captivate the world’s imagination.
A century after the outbreak of conflict, the creative (and sometimes idealistic) compositions of the likes of John McCrae and Rupert Brooke continue to resonate with the public. We are all undoubtedly familiar with McCrae’s “In Flanders fields”, or Brooke’s “The Soldier” – both of which, to some degree, powerfully shape the way in which the 1914-18 war is remembered and understood.
Many of the most memorable and inspirational war poems may not have existed were it not for the relationship between two gay poets, who met in an Edinburgh Hospital in 1917. Two of the most celebrated war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, developed a strong bond that was to transform their respective lives and their work.
Sassoon had become more critical of the conduct of the war following the death of David Thomas, a close friend, at Fricourt. Owen came to idolise Sassoon, who in turn encouraged Owen to be more experimental in his poetry. Owen’s greatest works, such as “Dulce et decorum est” and “Anthem for Damned Youth” owe much to Sassoon’s influence and the direction the relationship between the pair brought to Owen’s literary style. Gone was the elaborate and laborious imitation of the classical poets, replaced with a new-found change in tone and use of imagery. “Dulce et decorum est” in particular expresses vividly the horrors and futility of modern warfare in such a powerful and emphatic way that it is difficult to see this as anything but a departure from his previous style.
There is no certainty that a sexual relationship took place between Owen and Sassoon, there is little doubt of the love between the two. Letters between the pair survive, and are unequivocal. Owen tells Sassoon in November 1917 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…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!”
Owen’s life was brought to a tragic end by a German machine-gun on 4th November 1918 – only a week before hostilities ceased. He has since been recognised as the greatest of the war poets and his works, recited at many Remembrance events, continue to inspire people today. Sassoon, writing after the war, referred to Owen’s death as “an unhealed wound, the ache of [which] has been with me ever since. I wanted him back—not his poems.”
The legacy of the chance meeting between two gay poets in an Edinburgh hospital undoubtedly produced some of the most influential and intellectually honest war poetry ever written, but perhaps it should also be recognised that this itself was the product of a deep love and understanding between two men whose intense friendship transcended the value of their extraordinary work.