100 years ago last week at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen introduced himself to Siegfried Sassoon and one of the great literary friendships was born. Wilfred was recovering from shellshock, deeply traumatised by his time on the Western Front in 1917. Siegfried, grieving and angry at the deaths of his friends and men in his unit, had protested against the continued conduct of the First World War. After intervention from Robert Graves, he was sent to Craiglockhart rather than face a court martial. As the aspiring poet Wilfred was well aware, Siegfried was already a moderately famous poet. In the few weeks together they had in Scotland, Siegfried encouraged and mentored Wilfred.
Wilfred was killed on 4 November 1918, exactly a year after he left Craiglockhart and a week before the Armistice, however in the time between meeting Siegfried and his death he produced some of the most famous war poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth and Strange Meeting. Their shared influence can still be felt today – their works are still taught in school, and Siegfried’s quote “I died in hell; they called it Passchendaele” has been widely quoted in the ongoing commemorations of the Third Battle of Ypres.
We know so much about their friendship as they both wrote about it – Wilfred in excited letters to his mother and Siegfried a couple of decades later in his volume of autobiography Siegfried’s Journey. This documentation has provided excellent source material for modern authors looking to portray the two poets. They are the subject of a two-hander play Not About Heroes which covers Craiglockhart in Act One and their different paths in Act Two. Intimate and moving, this is a powerful play (but having directed it a few years ago I am quite biased).
Perhaps the most well-known depiction of their friendship is in Pat Barker‘s award winning Regeneration Trilogy. However, in Barker’s interpretation of Siegfried’s time at Craiglockhart, his friendship with Wilfred is overshadowed by his connection with his doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. There’s a lot going on in the trilogy – the cultural construct of masculinity cracking under pressure, mental health, sex, pacifism – and Siegfried and Wilfred are only one strand to this. Rivers is perhaps the main character and the marvelous fictional creation that is Billy Prior dominates the last two books.
I’ve mentioned before how Billy is possibly my favourite literary character. He’s the working class kid who becomes an officer; he’s bisexual; he’s somewhere on the continuum of sanity and insanity; he’s a split personality. He’s so many things that in some ways he shouldn’t work but – to me at least – he does. Billy and Rivers tie the trilogy together.
And so a chance meeting 100 years ago is still being interpreted and played out today; the voices of those caught up in conflict still resonating.
Do you have a favourite war poem?