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Osbert Sitwell: Wilfred Owen, poetry and war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

Wilfred Owen: Selections on war

Osbert Sitwell: Totally out of place in a war-mad world

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Osbert Sitwell
From Noble Essences
Wilfred Owen

I did not know Wilfred Owen for long, hardly for more than a year, I suppose, notably with Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Ross, and the fact that we were deeply in sympathy in our views concerning the war and its conduct – a link of nonconformity that in those years bound together the disbelievers with almost the same force with which faith had knitted together the early Christians – soon matured our relationship…

The quality of greatness that differentiates him from other war poets is in the truth both of his poetry and of his response to war. If he can be properly called a War Poet – since, greater than that, he was a Poet – he may be the only writer who answers truly to that description; the first, as he may be the last, for the very phrase War Poet indicates a strange twentieth-century phenomenon, the attempt to combine two incompatibles. There had been no war poets in the Peninsular, Crimean or Boer wars. But war had suddenly become transformed by the effort of scientist and mechanician into something so infernal, so inhuman, that it was recognized that only their natural enemy, the poet, could pierce through the armor of horror with which they were encased, to the pity at the human core; only the poet could steadily contemplate the struggle at the level of tragedy…The invention of the atomic bomb again changed these values: for war has once more altered its character, and an Atomic-Bomb Poet is one not to be thought of…No, Owen was a poet – a War Poet only because the brief span of his maturity coincided with a war of hitherto unparalleled sweep, viciousness and stupidity…

Each war produces its own particular harvest of horrors for the soldier…

He had on him a collection of photographs of mutilated and wounded men which he had made in order to bring home to the unimaginative the horrors that others faced for them. (I remember those photographs. Robert Ross, too, used to carry some of them on him, and, when an acquaintance voiced views that seemed to him stupid, overenthusiastic for war and bellicose, would take them out of his pocket, saying, “Then these will interest you!”)

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At the first meeting, he was inclined to be shy of me, although, as I have said, he was at ease with his own contemporaries, conscious of their esteem: but I had already had a different, and perhaps a larger, experience of the world. His shyness in my presence, however, soon wore off, for we possessed in common a delight in the company of our friends, a love of books, and a hatred of modern war and of those who did not feel its burden. Moreover, we shared the unspeakable experiences of the infantry officer of the time and an enormous pity for those engaged in this vile warfare. We both knew the look he had described: “…the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in any battle…It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s. It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them…”

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