On this day March 18: Wilfred Owen


March 18 wilfred owen

Recognised as probably the greatest poet of World War One, Wilfred Owen, born March 18, 1893, died in the war he wrote about, a week before the Armistice that ended the conflict. One hundred-plus years after his death, attempts to straighten up the gay poet continue.

Wilfred Owen enlisted in 1915. In 2017, he was repatriated to a Scottish war hospital suffering from shell shock. Knocked unconscious in a bomb blast at the front, he lay for days among the dead bodies of fellow soldiers. During his recuperation, he met the bisexual poet Siegfried Sassoon.

After writing poetry since the age of 10, Owen fully realised his voice following his experience of war and with Sassoon for a mentor. Through Sassoon, he also met other gay and bisexual literary figures.

Wilfred Owen returned to the front in July 1918 and in October led an attack that saw him awarded the Military Cross. He was killed in action the following month. His mother received news of his death as church bells rang out in celebration of the Armistice.

Homosexuality

Despite literary friends attesting to the poet’s homosexuality, gay sex remained illegal for decades after Wilfred Owen’s death. And the establishment resented any association of gays with the military, preferring to promote a heterosexual ideal as emblematic of the nation’s warrior class.

But in the 1950s, Professor Joseph Cohen, founder of the Wilfred Owen War Poetry Collection at the University of Texas, began to fight what he called “the long-standing conspiracy of silence surrounding Owen’s sexual proclivities.”

Dr Cohen said the conspiracy began with Owen’s mother and Siegfried Sassoon. Later, Wilfred Owen’s brother edited the poet’s letters and diaries to remove any ‘discreditable passages’. Sassoon also burnt Owen’s letters to him.

Later, the publisher of poet and historical writer Robert Graves’ autobiography Goodbye to All That removed references to Owen’s homosexuality.

In 1987, Jonathan Cutbill, a founder of London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop, took up the cause. He contributed an article to The New Statesman titled The Truth Untold claiming that biographies of Wilfred Owen either denied or evaded his homosexuality. Jonathan Cutbill pointed to the poem Shadwell Stair about a renowned gay cruising area in the London Docks area. (First and last verses below.)

Pass the smelling salts

Horrified establishment figures flailed about in search of their smelling salts. They roundly mocked Jonathan Cutbill and accused him of imagining things. Conservatives raged about the  ‘defamation’ of England’s greatest war poet — because homosexuality is, of course, such a terrible thing. Former soldier, Tory politician, editor of the Daily Telegraph, friend of Margaret Thatcher and general all-round dullard, Baron Deedes was outraged.

“Of course, he had an affinity with Siegfried Sassoon and others of the ilk. Yes, stretching the imagination some of his lines in these enlightened 1980s can be interpreted as Oscar Wilde with a gas mask on.

“Yet to transpose the thinking of these times on the shadow at such an elusive personality as Wilfred Owen is to indulge in fantasy. And fantasy it is, distasteful to boot.”

Because for some straights, evidence that their heroes lived and breathed is sufficient to prove heterosexuality. But they will accept nothing short of a pornographic video as evidence of queerness. Even then, they’ll question if a look-a-like or CGI was involved.

And the straightening up of Wilfred Owen continues. A Scottish historian is penning a book suggesting Owen’s alleged romantic feelings for a Scottish girl suggests the poet was either straight or bi.

During their four-month Scottish convalescence, Sassoon and Owen occasionally visited a nearby village to play golf.  Albertina Dauthieu’s father, previously a chef at the London Savoy, now ran the village pub.

“The story goes that Albertina was taken with Owen, and the feeling was mutual.”

Right! But what about Albertina’s concurrent engagement to a Scottish captain?

Just an inconvenient detail?

Please.

Shadwell Stair

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.

I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.

Here’s the first verse of one of Wilfred’s most famous war poems. Read more of his work here.

FUTILITY

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Read More:

Rudolf Nureyev, March 17 <— On this day —> March 19, Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley

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