The brief life of Wilfred Owen, the nation’s favourite war poet, is a story familiar to school children whose teachers have killed the proverbial birds of poetry and history with a single, well-aimed tutorial. The gruesome imagery of the battlefield which he fiercely set to paper, encouraged by his mentor and friend Siegfried Sassoon, is unforgettable:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Dulce et Decorem Est, 1918
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
These words continue to make their mark almost a century after the start of the First World War. Alongside his poetry, Owen left another legacy in the form of letters to his mother, Susan, some of which are now available on the Oxford University’s Poets of the F
irst World War Archive. These letters reveal that, initially, he saw the soldiers under his command as “expressionless lumps”, describing to his mother his discovery of his old friends from Fleetwood in France in 1917 thus:
I have found not a few of the old Fleetwood Musketry party here. They seemed glad to see me, as far as the set doggedness of their features would admit.
The letters to his mother helped shed light on his experiences on the front line:
[Mud] has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas. For I sleep on a stone floor and the servant squashed mud on all my belongings; I suppose by way of baptism. We are 3 officers in this ‘Room’, the rest of the house is occupied by servants and the band; the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with. Even now their vile language is shaking the flimsy door between the rooms.
Gradually, however, Owen would come to write about those same soldiers with a great deal of poignancy and affection. Four months later he would write that:
The leadership of officers was excellent, and the conduct of the men beyond praise.
In the poem Apologia Pro Poemate Meo (1917), he described the juxtaposition of black humour and despair which he saw in the men around him:
I, too, saw God through mud, The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
Rather than allow the experience of war to harden his spirit, Owen’s humanity seemed to intensify. Where once he had deemed the working class soldiers as animal-like, he later used his artistic ability to record their exertions, their lives and deaths, with dignity. It is this humanitarian, anti-war sentiment which lies behind Dean Johnson’s musical Bullets and Daffodils, the first to be based on the life of the soldier-poet. Having set Owen’s narrative verse to music, the piece combines song, dance and drama and Blackpool is the first stop on its Autumn tour, following a sell-out premiere in London.
Bullets and Daffodils will be performed at 7pm on 29th September at the newly refurbished ‘Gallery’, a space for performance and exhibitions on the first floor of The Cedar Tavern at Cedar Square. It will be preceded by a free open-mic session (5-7pm), part of the 100 Thousand Poets for Change event in which “Poets around the world, gather in a demonstration/celebration of poetry to promote serious social, environmental, and political change.”
Poets wishing to perform at the open-mic event should contact Jon Bamborough at [email protected]. Tickets for Bullets and Daffodils can be purchased via the Toxic Events site: http://toxicevents.fatsoma.com. Further information is available on Facebook.
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