“[Wilfred]’s death was an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back—not his poems.”
The man who writes these words is Siegfried Sassoon, and he is writing about Wilfred Owen. They loved one another. They met in the fall of 1917, and Owen died in the trenches in France in November 1918. Owen wrote to Sassoon in November 1917, “I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least….You have fixed my life—however short. You did not light me. I was always made a comet, but you have fixed me. I spun around you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.”
Three or four weeks ago, I wrote of Wilfred Owen and of his love for Siegfried Sassoon, the two of them being the two great war poets of the Great War. Here are three by Sassoon to go with the two from Owen a couple of weeks ago:
“In the Pink.”
So Davies wrote: “This leaves me in the pink.”
Then scrawled his name: “Your loving sweetheart, Willie.”
With crosses for a hug. He’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ran warm; he had pay to spend.
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.
He couldn’t sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
When he’s go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.
And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink: but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on: he don’t know why.
The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
“They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
“In a just cause: they lead the last attack
“On Anti-Christ; their comrade’s blood has bought
“New right to breed an honourable race.
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
“Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
“And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
“A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.
He pins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
This week the web is full of news of the latest movie about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, presenting recent analyses about the life of one of the inventors of the computer and who defeated the German Enigma Code during World War II, who was gay. In a century when LGBTQ were subject, for seventeen years, to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” queers almost lost our history. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen puts us, intimately, back in touch.
NOTE: The three poems are from War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, Dover Publications, 2004.