The Muse In The Dark Arena

I recently finished reading Regeneration by Pat Barker. It is set in a war hospital in 1917, where a psychiatrist is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Including the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. Robert Graves also features.

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This passage is from when the two poets first meet, Owen speaking:

‘”It’s not just that, though, is it? Sometimes when you’re alone, in the trenches, I mean, at night you get the sense of something ancient. As if the trenches had always been there. You know one trench we held, it had skulls in the side. You looked back along and . . . Like mushrooms. And do you know, it was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army than to think they’d been alive two years ago. It’s as if all other wars had somehow . . . distilled themselves into this war, and that makes it something you . . . almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice saying, Run along, little man. Be thankful if you survive.”

For a moment the nape of sassoon’s neck crawled as it had the first time Campbell had talked about German spies; but this was not madness. “I had a similar experience. Well, I don’t know whether it is similar. I was going up with the rations one night and I saw the limbers against the skyline, and the flares going up. What you see every night. Only I seemed to be seeing it from the future. A hundred years from now they’ll still be ploughing up skulls. And I seemed to be in that time and looking back. I think I saw our ghosts.”

Silence. They’d gone further than either of them had intended, and for a moment they didn’t know how to get back.’

 

I can imagine the dialogue being like this, with Sassoon sensing something equally as great within the star-struck Owen.

 

From that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers:

He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,” stormed Stockwell.

Sassoon became a focal point for dissent when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, culminating in him being admitted to the psychiatric hospital. Sassoon survived the war.

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Wilfrid Owen had a number of traumatic experiences, including when he fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amongst the remains of one of his fellow officers. Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met Sassoon.

Owen was killed exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. There is an added sense of waste to his death when you realise how close he came to making it.

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Both men, (like many other of the War Poets), are remembered for the body of work  created in response to their dark muse in that scattered arena of death.