Sassoon and Owen: A meeting that changed the course of literature

Sassoon and Owen: A meeting that changed the course of literature

Thursday, 18 September 2014

What relationship did Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have? Young Reporter Laura Bateman explores their meeting which is the basis for Pat Barker's Regeneration.  

Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

The friendship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen was, on the surface, not unlike those between many Edwardian upper-class men. The two discussed sports, literature, social morality and- perhaps slightly less conventionally- poetry. It was the First World War that brought about this friendship, and it was the First World War that rendered it so crucial to our understanding of the conflict a century on: Owen’s poetry, which would not have existed without Sassoon’s mentorship, is some of the most celebrated in the English language, but not only is his verse a remarkable literary achievement, it also, with brutal clarity, exposes the inconceivable horror of trench warfare where a list of facts and figures may fail.

Siegfried Sassoon was born on September 8th 1886 in Matfield, Kent, to a Jewish father and Catholic mother. His parents separated when Sassoon was four, and his father died of tuberculosis when he was eight. He was educated at Marlborough College before reading History at Clare College, Cambridge between 1905 and 1907. A keen sportsman, he often played cricket alongside Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was commissioned into the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in May 1915, at the age of twenty-eight.

Wilfred Owen was born on March 18th 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire. He was educated at Shrewsbury Technical School and passed the entrance exam for the University of London, but could not afford the fees to attend. Owen was working as a tutor at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France when war broke out; he did not rush to enlist, and even considered the French army, but eventually enlisted in October 1915 at the age of twenty-two, before receiving his commission into the Manchester Regiment in June 1916.

During active service, both men endured traumatic experiences, but whilst Owen became neurasthenic, Sassoon became disillusioned with the conduct of the war. In July 1917, his infamous Finished with War: A Soldier’s Declaration was published in The Times, outlining his anger at the War Office for the “callous complacence” with which they treated the British soldiers. In an attempt to discredit Sassoon’s views, he was falsely diagnosed as neurasthenic and sent to Craiglockhart War Hopsital in Edinburgh, where Owen was receiving treatment.

In Sassoon’s diaries, there is a wonderfully vivid description of Owen (who hero-worshipped Sassoon for the truthfulness of his work) knocking timidly on the door of Sassoon’s room with a stack of his latest poetry collection, The Old Huntsman, to be signed. Sassoon obliges, and what will prove a fateful friendship begins. Owen is unpublished and unknown at this point; he doesn’t write about the war, feeling it to be “too ugly” for the beauty of verse. But his doctor, Arthur Brock, and Sassoon encourage him to try as a form of therapy, and so the earliest drafts of some of Owen’s most acclaimed work- Dulce et Decorum est, Strange Meeting and his masterpiece Anthem for Doomed Youth- are born.

An original scan of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth

The content of Owen’s verse was undoubtedly affected by his friendship with Sassoon, who placed great emphasis on “writing from experience” to create the utmost level of realism. To Sassoon, and subsequently to Owen, poetry was not simply literature or art; it was a means of expressing oneself, of making a point, be it about the beauty of a summer afternoon or the incompetence of the British generals. Poetry came as naturally to them, was as crucial to their way of life as breathing. In the manner of Wordsworth and Coleridge with their ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Sassoon defied the conventions of traditional poetry to write verse that was merciless in its criticism of the Establishment; his brutally damning They of 1917 could not be further from Rupert Brooke’s patriotic The Soldier of 1914.

Such bitterness had a remarkable effect on Owen and his work. Indeed, the first drafts of many of his poems were what Robert Graves, close friend of Sassoon and author of Goodbye to All That, described as “Sassoon-ish”, and there is a copy of the first draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth in the Imperial War Museum that displays Sassoon’s suggested amendments. Yet Owen later began to combine the gritty realism of his hero’s work with his own Romanticism to expose the “pity of war”, and he managed to evoke the terrible sadness of industrial-scale slaughter in the way that Sassoon’s angry, hate-filled verse could not do. He remained unpublished in his lifetime, aside from a few anonymous inserts into the Craiglockhart magazine, The Hydra. It is probable that he was unaware of his tremendous literary skill.

Owen met Sassoon while receiving treatment at Craiglockhart Hospital

Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart for light regimental duties in November 1917. Sassoon, reconciled with the idea of active service, returned to France but was almost immediately wounded by friendly fire, and remained in convalescence in England until the end of the war. His permanent removal from the Western Front left Owen with a dilemma: Sassoon had demonstrated to him the need for a poet to be in France to “tell the truth about the war”, and so someone needed to pick up the baton now that he was invalided. To Sassoon’s horror, Owen returned to France in July. He was killed on November 4th 1918, exactly one week, almost to the hour, of the Armistice; his mother received the news of his death as the church bells rang out to signal the end of the war. Sassoon, plagued by survivors’ guilt, made it his mission to publish Owen’s work posthumously, and his first collection, simply entitled Poems, was met with instant success in 1920, though it was not until the 1960s that his work began to enjoy a wide readership.

The relationship between Sassoon and Owen was a complex one, and its exact nature is made all the more difficult to ascertain in the absence of many of Owen’s letters and papers, which he had instructed his mother to burn in the event of his death. The information that does survive, however, displays the strength of the bond that linked Owen and Sassoon: not simply that of officer and officer, or even poet and poet, but a bond of a very pure and fierce kind of love. Both men were homosexual, and Graves was convinced that they were in love with each other; when one considers the isolating effects of war, it is hardly surprising that such kindred spirits were drawn to each other. Owen told Sassoon in a letter that he regarded him as “Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV”, and had remarked in a letter to his mother that he was “not worthy to light [Sassoon’s] pipe”; Sassoon, for his part, wrote in his diary after the war that “W's death was an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since”. Most tellingly of all, in a letter written after leaving Craiglockhart, Owen told Sassoon that:


“You have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you like a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze”.


One hundred years on, the irony of this comment is clear. It is Sassoon who is the dark star in the orbit where Owen blazes, regarded by historians, literary critics and the general public alike as the greatest poet of the Great War and one of the greatest of the twentieth century. Yet Sassoon’s contribution must not be forgotten; it was the result of his encouragement and guidance that Owen began to write about the war in the first place. That first meeting at Craiglockhart sparked a chain of events that changed the course of English literature; they knew each other for less than two years, yet had Owen not plucked up the courage to knock on his hero’s door, had Sassoon brushed him off as a gushing fan, it is probable that some of the most haunting poetry in the English language would have gone unwritten.


Pat Barker’s trilogy of novels, Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, the latter of which won the Man Booker Prize in 1995, documents the relationship between Owen and Sassoon from their first meeting at Craiglockhart to Owen’s death at the end of the war. The first novel was made into a BAFTA-nominated film in 1997, starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Stuart Bunce as Owen. 

Stephen MacDonald’s 1982 play Not About Heroes also documents, through a series of flashbacks narrated by Sassoon, the relationship between the two poets. It was first performed at the Royal National Theatre in 1986 to mark the centenary of Sassoon’s birth, and will play at Trafalgar Studios in London between November 10th and December 6th of this year following a site-specific UK tour.

Regeneration opens at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it runs from 29 August to 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.

Regeneration premiered on 2 September 2014 (previews from 29 August) at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where it continues until 20 September 2014. It then tours to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington and Blackpool where it concludes on 29 November.