“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?/
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”
Yesterday marked the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s arrival in Edinburgh. The great English war poet had been sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by his war service.
His time in Edinburgh was short but fruitful. He wrote a lot of poetry here, and befriended various people who greatly influenced him, notably Siegfried Sassoon. What is less well known is that he also taught here at Tynecastle High School in Gorgie.
After leaving Edinburgh, he spent some time in England, and was sent back to the front in 1918. He was invalided out again, for a short period, this time for a gun shot wound. After that he returned to the front line, and died a week before the war ended. He was only twenty five.
Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893, a town technically in Shropshire, but with a then partly Welsh-speaking native population. Even the house he was born in – Plas Wilmot – had a name which was half-Welsh and half-English. Owen himself was not a Welsh speaker, but some people have argued Welsh metre influenced his poetry.
Wilfred’s father worked for a railway company, so he moved regularly around the north west of England. Other places in which they lived included Birkenhead in the Wirral, and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. In Shrewsbury, he became a pupil-teacher. He tried to enter the University of London, but his family could not afford the fees. Compared to Siegfried Sassoon, he came from a relatively humble background.
“Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.”
Pat Barker’s Regeneration (1993) is a fictional account of Owen’s time in Edinburgh. In an interview eleven years later in Contemporary Literature she states that:
“I felt like I had got myself into a box where I was strongly typecast as a Northern [English], regional, working-class, feminist – label, label, label – novelist.”
This is something many Scottish authors can probably sympathise with (not to mention all the other groups on the list). Barker’s book certainly broke her out of that mould and it became the first part of a trilogy.
Regeneration deals mostly with Owen’s time in Craiglockhart Hospital, as well as his friendships with other figures such as Siegfried Sassoon. Tynecastle is out of the mix.
The film version came out in 1997, and to be honest, even though I have seen the film twice, it has not made a deep impression on me. Owen is played by the actor Stuart Bunce. The film ends with Owen’s body being retrieved from the battlefield, and Captain Rivers (Jonathan Pryce) reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young in tears.
Tynecastle High School
“Children are not meant to be studied, but enjoyed. Only by studying to be pleased do we understand them.”
While Edinburgh’s private schools are very good at celebrating famous ex-pupils and staff, our state schools tend not to. Thankfully, this has started to change.
Tynecastle High or “Tynie” might not be the first place you’d associate with famous poets, but the school has a few other surprises. For example, the series House of Cards is a massive hit in the States, but it would probably never have been made if the British series hadn’t succeeded. The British series starred Ian Richardson – another Tynie ex-pupil. (If you want to read about Craigmount’s cultural connections click this link)
The school put up a plaque to Owen in 2014. This is actually in the new building. The school he would have taught in is across the road next to the football stadium. It was actually built in 1912, so it would have only been several years old when Owen taught there.
“But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Owen has been a huge influence on poets after him. Even song writers – Richard Jobson of Dunfermline punk band the Skids was a great fan, and even used the title of one of Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est for one of their songs.
When one hears about WWI poets, I think it is best to bear two things in mind:
- That there were many other poets at that time. Owen is one of the best, but we should try and remember some of the others as well.
- Many of those who quote the poetry of Owen and other war poets, or promote it, are sometimes doing it for their own ends. Owen would not have agreed with some of them at all.
Wilfred Owen’s poetry will probably be taught to schoolchildren for a good while to come. It was at school that I first encountered his poetry, and I think most people do. I have mixed feeling about poetry being taught in schools:- for some people it might be the only time in their life they experience much poetry, but for some it can also be an off-putting experience, and they will never want to look at poetry again. I was lucky. I mostly had good English teachers who made me love poetry, much like I expect Mr Owen did with his pupils. But not everyone does.
If you’re revisiting Owen, I recommend reading him out loud or listening to some of his poetry on Youtube.
- The picture of Wilfred Owen is out of copyright, and so now free to use.
- Tynecastle High School. Original uploader was Warburton1368 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.