Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This looks so simple. The monosyllables carry the meter without fuss; ‘shell’ here means both munitions and protection. What happened to Owen between 1911 and 1917 – what turned the young Keatsian knock-off into the dazzling poet we still study today – is the story told in a new edition of his letters.
In her preface to Selected Letters of Wilfred Owen Jane Potter writes that ‘Owen’s letters constitute his autobiography’, and she notes his surprising sense of humour and ability to evoke place and characters. This is only partly correct, and the background to these letters is far odder than first appears. They were initially published in 1967 in an edition co-edited by Owen’s brother Harold, who confessed in his preface that he had taken the decision years earlier to censor the letters by painting over them in thick lines of India ink, and now he couldn’t work out what he had crossed out. ‘The intention was to remove trivial passages of domestic news,’ he claimed, but this wasn’t convincing even at the time. Of the 673 letters in this collected volume, 554 are to Owen’s mother.