This year is the centenary of the Armistice to end what Siegfried Sassoon called ‘the world’s worst wound’: the first world war. A bare week before the conflict concluded in a grey November, another poet, Sassoon’s friend and protégé Wilfred Owen, whose work now epitomises the waste and futility of that struggle, was cut down by a machine-gun as he tried to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in one of the war’s last battles.
Owen’s sombre verse, the ‘poetry of pity’ as he called it, came to represent the disillusion and despair that set in as casualties climbed into the millions and the blood of Britain’s youth drained hopelessly away in the Flanders mud. For anyone educated since his work became part of the national curriculum in the 1960s, it sums up our national groupthink about the Great War: frightened boys going over the top to near-certain death; poison-gas victims coughing their lives up from ‘froth corrupted lungs’; shivering, whey-faced soldiers waiting for a stray bullet to end their suffering.
Owen was seen as a stainless knight whose feelings for the agonies of the men he led in the trenches matched his own modest provincial background. Only in recent years has rigorous biographical inquiry revealed a more complex, more disturbing, less likeable — in a word, more human — figure.
We know now that Owen at first welcomed the war, which he thought would ‘effect a little useful weeding’ of Europe’s multiplying lower orders. He was a social snob, despite his own background as the son of a minor railway official. Perhaps most shocking of all to his peace-loving fans, in the last weeks of his life he won a Military Cross for taking a German machine-gun, and happily mowing down the fleeing Hun: an incident eerily prefigured in his masterpiece ‘Strange Meeting’ when he writes: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’
Most troubling of all, in our paedophilia–obsessed society, are the indications of Owen’s fondness for young boys. Aged 19, he enjoyed a romantic friendship with a lad of 13; as an English teacher at the Berlitz school in Bordeaux just before the war, he writes home of ‘altar boys, boys in the park, and boys in the YMCA’; and recovering from shell shock at Craiglockhart officers’ hospital in Edinburgh, he virtually adopted a seven-year-old, taking the boy on treats and outings to the zoo.
All of this may have been entirely innocent and, in any event, it has little relevance to the worth of his poetry. But it’s interesting that Owen’s admirers have made strenuous efforts down the years to suppress or deny this side of his complex and contradictory personality. His own tight-knit family of evangelical Christians would not countenance any suggestion that Owen had been gay, despite the homoerotic imagery suffusing many of his poems (25 of his published works, almost a third, reference ‘boys’ or ‘lads’). Until the 1970s, his censorious brother Harold Owen controlled the legacy, publishing a tendentious multi–volume family memoir, Journey from Obscurity, which swept any suggestion of Wilfred’s true sexual interests under the carpet, then nailed the carpet down. He also redacted the surviving letters with black ink before releasing them. Owen’s beloved but puritanical mother, Susan, had already destroyed whole sackfuls of letters, including correspondence with Sassoon. One wonders why.
In 1974, the poet Jon Stallworthy wrote the first independent biography of Owen, with Harold’s beady eye peering over his shoulder. He pulled his punches accordingly, ignoring any idea that Owen’s tender feelings for his troops might have been influenced by a lover’s rather than a poet’s passions. A bolder biographer, the critic and Owen authority Dominic Hibberd, who was gay, was the first to state unequivocally in Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (2002), that the poet was not just homosexual, but was an enthusiastically practising ‘out’ one into the bargain. After Hibberd’s careful scholarship, the issue might have seemed settled. Far from it. Owen’s third biographer, the academic Guy Cuthbertson, writing as recently as 2014, went into elaborate contortions to assert that Owen was either heterosexual or completely asexual.
Owen wrote a clutch of poems which, because they are not about war, are rarely anthologised, but which make his ‘Uranian’ feelings fairly plain. Take ‘Shadwell Stair’. This ambiguous piece speaks of the poet as a ‘ghost’ haunting an obscure set of steps down to the Thames in Rotherhithe. It ends with the line ‘I with another ghost am lain’. In a stanza he cancelled, Owen was slightly less circumspect than in the published poem:
And I have lips that are fresh o’night,
Like the gradual tide upon the sands,
To feel and follow a man’s delight.
Matt Houlbrook, author of Queer London (2005), points out that Shadwell Stair was a recognised cruising spot for homosexuals in the early 20th century. Moreover, ‘ghost’ was slang for a gay man, and cruising was known as ‘haunting’. Owen, writing in early 1918, was fondly recalling memories of his East End sexual forays in 1915 when he was in military training with the Artists’ Rifles. He was living and writing in a country and context where homosexual acts were illegal and severely punished. It was only two decades since the fall of Oscar Wilde, and in a celebrated trial in 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing, a maverick MP, was acquitted of libel amid public rejoicing after accusing no less than 47,000 members of the English establishment of being in league with German spies to undermine the war effort by corrupting the country with homosexuality.
One of his targets was Robbie Ross, Wilde’s literary executor and former boyfriend, who became Owen’s literary mentor. They had been introduced by Sassoon following the two poets’ meeting at Craiglockhart in 1917. Ross in turn introduced Owen to a gay literary circle that included Osbert Sitwell and C.K. Scott Moncrieff, the translator of Proust. Like Ross, Moncrieff was open about his sexuality, having been expelled from Winchester for writing a story in praise of fellatio. He and Owen may have had an affair — he certainly exerted influence, unsuccessfully trying to keep the poet in Britain following his fatal decision to return to the front in France in the summer of 1918.
None of this would matter much if such trouble had not been taken, most recently in Cuthbertson’s biography, to deny Owen’s true sexual identity and nature, as if admitting that our greatest war poet loved young men might somehow put us off his poetry.
Listen to Nigel Jones and the Spectator’s literary editor Sam Leith discussing Owen’s legacy on the Spectator Podcast.