It’s funny how things can puzzle you for years, until suddenly, someone else’s point of view provides the missing jigsaw piece. Talking about the forthcoming Wilfred Owen film, The Burying Party, with director Richard Weston, recently gave me a new perspective on one of Owen’s more obscure poems, Six o’clock on Princes Street, which I’ve never previously understood.
It was written a century ago, between June and October 1917 at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, where Owen was treated for neurasthenia, or what we’d now call post-traumatic stress. Here it is in full:
In twos and threes they have not far to roam
Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;
Those seek no further than their quiet home,
Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.
Neither should I go fooling over clouds
Following gleams, unsafe, untrue,
And tiring after beauty through star-crowds
Dared I go side by side with you.
Or be you in the gutter where you stand
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand
And all their sorrows in your face.
Although Owen was convalescing when he wrote this poem, it was also a period of intense social activity. The Medical Officer responsible for his treatment at Craiglockhart, Dr Arthur Brock, believed in treating the whole patient rather than their individual symptoms, and encouraged patients to ‘reconnect’ with society and the environment. During his four months at Craiglockhart, Owen was fully occupied; he delivered botany lectures to his fellow patients, edited the hospital magazine and performed in a play.
But at the same time he wrote this poem whose opening lines show us a man standing alone. He’s observing the scene, the crowds jostling past him, but not really part of it. As we move into the second stanza, we gain a deeper insight into his state of mind. His thoughts are elsewhere, lost in the world of his imagination – he’s “tiring after beauty through star-crowds”. But then he turns, in that characteristic Owen way, to address his reader directly – whoever the poem is intended for – saying he’d happily give all that up, if only he could be with them.
That beautiful, wistful line – “Dared I go side by side with you” - has always made my heart ache. It’s that universal longing to make a connection with someone unattainable, captured in flawless iambic meter with the single-syllable words beating out the emphasis. Suddenly it’s not the daydreams that matter any more. It’s you.
But who’s he talking to? Some commentaries suggest that he’s addressing the throng on Princes Street, reaching out, wanting to be part of the crowd. My problem with that interpretation is that in the first stanza he’s talking about rather than to the crowd – he uses ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘those’. That emphatic ‘you’ at the end of the second stanza comes out of nowhere, and – for me, personally – it contrasts too sharply with the previous stanza to accept that he’s now addressing the crowd directly.
So, is it a specific, singular ‘you’? Of course, we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that while Owen wrote this poem, he was plucking up the courage to knock on the bedroom door of fellow Craiglockhart patient, Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon. This was the man who would have a profound influence on his life and poetry, to whom Wilfred would refer later that year as “Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor”. It’s difficult to believe that Owen, writing longingly about someone unattainable in the summer of 1917, didn’t have the tall, talented ‘Mad Jack’ Sassoon at least partly in mind.
The final stanza doesn’t back up that theory though. The focus suddenly shifts again, and is now addressing, presumably, a young newspaper seller, standing sadly in the gutter, hawking the bad news from the front line. Here, Owen seems to be saying that he wants to stand alongside, to totally identify himself, with the sorrowful figure – the “pale rain-flawed phantom” who presumably represents the common man.
It’s not one of Owen’s best; it has some evocative lines but it’s disjointed and the meaning isn’t clear. You can imagine that Sassoon might have frowned and tactfully put it to one side, moving on with relief to Anthem for Doomed Youth. It’s one that’s always puzzled me. But shortly after Richard Weston and I met up to talk about The Burying Party, I found myself going back to Six o’clock on Princes Street, with one of those “oh, right” moments of clarity.
The comment Richard made, which stuck in my mind, was that for Owen, “being a poet was synonymous with being a soldier”. And if we accept that duality, then the ambiguity of Six o’clock on Princes Street immediately resolves itself. It’s not a choice between whether Owen is either dreaming of being an acclaimed poet like Sassoon, or wanting to connect with ordinary people in the crowd. It’s both.
The Burying Party presents the final year of Owen’s life as a time when he grows into himself, both as a poet and a soldier. It was a year during which he wrote his finest poems and finally proved himself in combat, and the film’s premise is that neither of those things could have happened without the other.
Prior to enlisting in October 1915, Owen had been working as a private tutor in Bordeaux, devoting his free time to writing poetry. The roughness of army life came as a shock to him; in an early letter from France he complains not entirely facetiously to his doting mother that the mud has entered “that holy of holies, my pyjamas” and refers to the troops on various occasions as “expressionless lumps” and “as dull and dogged as November”. But his friendship with Sassoon and his time at Craiglockhart was to change all that, giving him the confidence and inspiration to fulfil his potential.
Owen’s final letters from the front line in 1918 resonate with a sense of purpose and toughness that his earlier letters lacked. The young man who grumbled about mud on his pyjamas is gone, replaced by someone who assures his anxious mother that his nerves are “in perfect order” and sarcastically jokes to Sassoon that he’s taken cover from five machine guns behind a poppy stalk. He’s where he needs to be; as a poet and as soldier, writing to Susan Owen a month before his death: “I came out to help these boys, directly by leading them as well as an officer can, indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.”
In his last letter, written to his mother at the end of October 1918, four days before he was killed at the Sambre-Oise canal, Owen truly is ‘side by side’ with his fellow soldiers, as he writes:
“Kellett, a delightful servant of A Coy. … radiates joy and contentment from pink cheeks and baby eyes. He laughs with a signaller to whose left ear is glued the Receiver, but whose eyes rolling with gaiety show that he is listening with his right ear to a merry corporal who appears … nothing but a gleam of white teeth and a wheeze of jokes. Splashing my hand, an old soldier with a walrus moustache peels & drops potatoes into the pot. By him, Keyes, my cook, chops wood; another feeds the smoke with damp wood. It is a great life… of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
The difference between these letters and the lonely outsider who wrote Six o’clock on Princes Street the previous summer gives a sense of how far he’d travelled in that year. In that short space of time he became one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, and you can only wonder what he might have achieved if he’d lived to write more.
Find out more about The Burying Party a short film about Wilfred Owen here. #wilfredowenfilm
This article first appeared at Kirsty Lambert's blog and is published by special permission.
One of our sponsors, Linda Miller is a script writer for The BBC and has kindly written this commentary on one of her favourite poems, Futility by Wilfred Owen and an audio reading too which can be found on our The Burying Party Facebook Page.
`FUTILITY’ BY WILFRED OWEN
`Futility’ is a lament for a dead or dying man, written by a poet at the height of his powers. It is deftly constructed in two stanzas. A subtle, unobtrusive rhyme scheme serves to frame and contain heartfelt, searing emotion. The dramatist in me can visualize it being performed on stage at the climax of a play. A loyal lieutenant and comrades make one last desperate attempt to save the life of their lord or king. A playwright of Shakespeare’s calibre would not have been ashamed of these lines.
Of course, Lieutenant Wilfred Owen of the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment was a real soldier, who looked death in the face and killed people in the line of duty. In spite of this, as this poem so clearly illustrates, he never lost his respect for the sanctity of life - those limbs `so dear-achieved’.
The poem begins with an urgent command `Move him into the sun-‘. Owen often addresses the reader directly. Here, though, I feel I am part of the action and everything is taking place in the heat of a moment. I am helping to move the soldier’s body into the sunlight. Lieutenant Owen is telling me not to give up hope, urging me to believe that the `kind old sun’ `that wakes the seeds’ and once `the clays of a cold star’ can heal this man. Perhaps he wants to believe this because he knows the soldier? Perhaps it is because, against all the odds, he is `still warm’? Perhaps Owen , quite simply, believes in miracles? The truth is, most of us do when we are in a crisis situation. In fact, this poem travels beyond the battlefield and touches our hearts on a very personal, emotional level. If you have sat by the bed of a loved one, knowing they can’t recover, but still urging them to open their eyes and get better, you will understand how Owen felt.
However, the soldier is dead. The `fatuous’ sun has failed to bring him back. What is the point? Everything is futile. The final, two-line cry of anger and frustration is grief talking and we know that, too. For me, `Futility’ is a desperately sad poem, but one which contains a kernel of hope for humanity. In the midst of the utmost devastation and squalor, bodies scattered like garbage, someone urged a dying man to live and wrote a beautiful poem about it. That, in itself, is a miracle.
1 August 2017