THE SILVER SWAN – THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILFRED OWEN, A GRAND EPIC NOVEL
A biographical novel is written, perhaps, to tease out the meaning of a life.
It seeks to describe the life of an artist – in this case the life of a Poet – but it may be impossible to portray such a life in all its true fullness; just as Shelley wrote of the somewhat esotericism surrounding poets …
‘Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’
Shelley – A Defence of Poetry
So … following now the ‘device’ of a Latin Title, as Wilfred Owen did for one of his Poems …
Apologia quoad Wilfred Owen historia libro scribens
[Apoligia for writing a Wilfred Owen biographical novel]
This is an epic and monumental novel being over 3,000 pages available on Amazon Kindle to purchase .
It has no ‘agenda’ – its original, and always-unresolvable ‘quest’, was to ‘enquire’ into the creative process and its originations … in this case the poetic processes pursued by Wilfred Owen.
It traces the life of this man from (before) birth to (after) death.
The biographical Novel itself, AS A WHOLE, is divided into 3 PARTS; thus into 3 separate BOOKS.
Each of these 3 BOOKS is then divided into 4 separate SECTIONS.
In this way, the Novel, AS A WHOLE, is divided into 3 BOOKS and then, out of those 3 BOOKS, into 12 separate SECTIONS.
These books being:-
- BOOK I “PRESENTIMENTS”
- BOOK II “INFERNAL SURVIVALS”
- BOOK III “CHANCE’S STRANGE ARITHMETIC or THE GODS’ INDIFFERENCE”
It is, strictly, a biographical novel.
Accordingly, one has had to be severe and restrictive on oneself as author of such a work – so that no events and circumstances described in the book should be included unless they actually happened as a fact, or probably happened, or could, within the bounds of reasonable possibility, have happened – any other approach would be ridiculously fanciful.
The ‘justification’ for writing a biographical novel about Wilfred Owen, is due to the lamentable fact that it is not really possible to write a complete and satisfactory biography of his life fully and ‘in the round’.
This is because his family – particularly his brother Harold – went to great lengths to destroy and censor, and, alas permanently destroy, a huge quantity of his papers which were in their own possession, and also in the possession of others, at his death – Harold Owen actually writing to Sassoon … ‘thank you for the burning’.
All this was done to suppress any indication of Owen’s homosexuality – in modern parlance, he was, very apparently, ‘gay’.
The highly observant and perspicacious Robert Graves, who was a close friend of both Sassoon and Owen, said that, in Owen, he saw ‘an idealistic homosexual with a religious background’. As a result of that observation, Graves, after Owen’s death, was ostracized by the Owen family, and others, as a result.
Owen’s own surviving letters, in many instances, were censored, with blacking out, ‘cutting-out’ of passages with scissors and pages destroyed.
Even so, there are about 600 of these surviving and published in this censored state, some few ‘restorations’.
Lamentably, virtually none of the letters to him survives – there must have been an enormous number in that letter-writing age – these must have been purposely destroyed by his family, even those from his own family – also virtually all that were written by him to notables.
For example, he must have written to Robbie Ross (a well known homosexual and the literary executor of that other well known homosexual, Oscar Wilde) and Owen must have received letters from him – none of these, alas, has survived.
As to other possible ‘losses’ – there is evidence that Owen had a portfolio of his poems typed for publication to send to Heinemann; it was a plot; the ‘plot’ being that Heinemann would send this submitted collection to Ross for his, doubtless favourable, assessment. The ‘mystery’ regarding this portfolio has arisen because, as late as 20th May 1918, he wrote to his Mother that, ‘I am to have my work typed at once …’.
One assumes that these poems, as typed, would have been the final versions of the poems in question – as it is, we have only the manuscripts; as a result, one must have serious doubts as to the finality of versions of very many of the poems.
Being close friends with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, (with whom, no doubt, this ‘plot’ was ‘hatched’), and with relevant others, he would have had easy access to facilities to enable the typing of such a portfolio.
There is no actual evidence anywhere to be seen that such a portfolio was actually typed up; but a disturbing, and serious, question-mark as to its existence – or not – remains; particularly because of anomalies in the manuscript evidence as to the actual final completion of several poems, most particularly ‘Strange Meeting’.
The manuscripts, which remain to us, show, or imply, that many poems, as in their manuscript state, were probably unfinished as they appear in that, somewhat chaotic, manuscript state.
My intuition is that this portfolio was indeed typed up – I suspect that it may yet be found … for example, maybe in any Heinemann or Ross archive.
However, I have not included the preparation of this portfolio in the novel; for me, the ramifications for doing so are far too complex and ‘unknown’ for inclusion in a biographical novel.
Ross died on October 5th 1918, (Owen was already back at the Front, never to return), and Owen died on November 4th 1918.
So, unless Sassoon or others still then living, had some knowledge or ‘control’ over the events concerning, or possession of, such a typed portfolio, the ‘paper-trail’ chaos brought about by those two almost simultaneous deaths would, most likely, have prevented the finding of any such typed-up portfolio.
In the event, Edith Sitwell, (who was first given care of the manuscripts by Owen’s Mother after Owen’s death), and then, later, Sassoon, (who ‘insisted’ that Edith Sitwell be required to hand over the manuscripts to him for a ‘single volume’ publication.
Sassoon’s intent was for an attempted ‘collected’ single volume publication, (rather than the cherry-picking, and rather exploitive, intent of Edith Sitwell for disparate, and probably occasional, inclusion in her Poetry periodical, ‘Wheels’).
In the end, it was Sassoon who oversaw the actual publication of a reasonably comprehensive selection of Owen’s poems in 1919, in a ‘single Poet collected’ volume.
It was a good effort – bearing in mind the inefficiencies of the family and the generally chaotic situation, which must have existed in 1919 after the War and specifically as a result of Owen’s death only a few months before.
One imagines that the ‘atmosphere’ at the time was one of haste and urgency, tainted by sorrow, and also fraught with all the practical problems associated with proof-reading and the publication of a book, further exacerbated by the exigencies of immediate post-war logistics and other obstructive influences –
(although, it must be said that Sassoon would have been reasonably experienced in such projects, having regard to previous publication of his own poems in ‘single volumes’ exclusive to his own poetry) –
One imagines, too, that there would have been ‘interference’ by well-intentioned others, including the family – a situation, in all probability, of ‘too may cooks’ and too much haste.
Consequently, there would have been, (and, indeed, there were), mistakes and incompletenesses, whatever care and trouble was taken.
So these Poems, as published in 1919, were solely taken from only a select few of the then available and procured surviving manuscripts as were in the possession of Owen’s Mother at the time of his death.
So, moving on, one has to recognize that a mass of letters is ‘lost’ and probably, also lost, is an authoritative typed-up portfolio of his finished poems; this would have been prepared, in typed form, during early summer 1918; but, at all events, its timing can be narrowed down somewhat; that is to say, definitely, if it existed, it would have been typed up between, at the earliest, May 1918 and, at the latest, August1918 – at the end of which month Owen went back to the Front never to return
My own ‘project’, started 1992, in a kind of ‘fit of absence of mind’.
It began, and arose out of, my reconstruction of fragments which had not appeared before as acknowledged poems; presumably because they were overlooked, considered unimportant or so fragmentary as not being worthwhile producing in any ‘final’ form; or that they were indicative of homosexuality.
Others were, as published, actually, incomplete or ‘censored’.
The ‘Navy Boy’ poem was censored – I restored the redactions as italicized – howsoever ‘repetitive’ or contrary to the rules of poetic structure :-
Strong were his boyish muscles hiddenly,
As mighty currents where smooth waters smile,
His heart was steadfast as his broad, firm fist,
His heart was large as his close-girt loins;
‘Nitre we carried. By next week maybe
That should be winning France another mile’.
There are others – suppressed or ‘excised’ – such as ‘Perseus’ and ‘Antaeas’; some were misunderstood or overlooked, the concealments probably being because of the homosexual mores of the time.
It seems clear that Owen had many assignations, attempted or otherwise, with young men.
See the wholly suppressed ‘Lines to a Beauty seen at Limehouse – the half-god’ –
Or, below, the missed part, as to assignation; the restored ‘missed part’ is italicized:-
But I was looking at the permanent stars
Bugles sang, saddening the evening air
And bugles answered sorrowful to hear;
Birds called and, without his answer,
The voices of boys had vanished from the riverside,
For sleep had mothered them away from me
And left the twilight sad;
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men,
And had to be relinquished;
Under the clouds the last light languished,
Voices of old despondency resigned –
Receding voices that will not return –
And under the shadow of the morrow, slept.
But I was looking at the permanent stars.
‘But I was looking at the permanent stars’ is probably, and pointedly, derived from (the very publicly-known homosexual) Oscar Wilde:
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) – Cecil Graham – Act III
‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
The censorship, here and everywhere else, was carried out so as to suppress all possible indications of homosexuality.
All together, my work on the manuscripts, howsoever actually unintended, brought to life upwards of 80 formerly ‘unseen’ poems – ‘pearls’ rescued from the depths of Owen’s ‘salvage line’.
This led, seemingly inevitably, to the notion of writing of a biographical novel.
It took more than 20 years to complete, involving, as it did, visits to all the places concerned.
I made several visits to The Western Front, a visit to Edinburgh, several visits to the Midlands, to Ripon, to Scarborough, to Oswestry, to Shrewsbury, Bordeaux, to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Hautes Pyrénées and the house in which he stayed in Bagnères – for my belief is that one cannot write about a place unless one visits it oneself.
I found the necessity of these visits wholly justified … because nothing was as may have seemed in one’s imagination; for example – the mud of Flanders cannot be imagined properly without actual experience of it … even after slight rain, after 10 minutes walk, one’s shoes have such mud sticking to them that one has to stop to remove the mud as walking without doing so is terribly difficult.
Another example – the terrain and landscape – once visited and actually seen and experienced, one understands the ‘impossibility’ of advancing against an entrenched enemy who ‘got there first’- that is, an enemy ‘dug-in’ at the best-defensible positions.
Thus was how this novel gestated and was brought to birth.