Monday, 5 November 2018

Wilfred Owen, Dunsden Green - a personal memoir

Wilfred Owen died 100 years ago, but his poetry has made him immortal.  But what shaped Owen's personality, and his singular art ? Unlike Siegfried Sassoon, who recognized Owen's potential when Owen was a gauche nobody, Owen didn't come from an elite background.  Owen's parents were not well off, not poor but not secure. After many years moving from place to place they ended up in a two-up two-down Victorian terrace, now facing a downmarket shopping mall on a rough estate.  Nonetheless, for years the tenants hung hanging baskets outside, a display so colourful that the houses were a local landmark.  Owen's parents and sister are buried in All Saints Church in Dunsden Green, (pictured above) a few miles away, where Owen served as lay assistant to the Vicar from 1911 to February 1913.  That connection must have meant a lot to them.  Inside the Church, there's a memorial plaque on the wall in Wilfred's honour. 

Owen himself might not have been quite so genteel. Though the Vicarage where he stayed was luxurious (it's a local landmark, too), many of the people of the parish were desperately poor, living in overcrowded hovels, employed seasonally, often insecure. Disease speads quickly when people are overworked and underfed.   Owen used to visit  these tenements and must have been well aware of the contrasts between the Vicar's life and the lives of those in his parish.  Whenver he had the opportunity, he'd walk miles into town, visiting a bookshop for "modern" literature, different fare no doubt to what was in the vicar's library.  The route he walked is pretty much as it was then, despite the traffic. Until recently, you could still see painted signs on buildings advertising hay and coal.  The hovels are now renovated,  some of them weekend homes for the rich from London. The thatched pub at Binfield Heath, which Owen would have known, but was probably not allowed to visit, dates from 1300 and served travellers taking sheep and cattle to market. 

On 15th October 1912, one of the villagers, John Allen, set off to a new job in Maidenhead :  a  step up in the world, away from rural slums.   Full of hope and anticipation, the family loaded up a horse cart with their belongings and set off to their new life.   On the way to Playhatch, the road becomes extremely steep : even in a modern car, you notice the gears change.  A huge sofa - a status symbol - shifted and tipped the cart over, killing Mrs Allen and her daughter. The Allens are buried in the chucrhyard at All Saint's, too. Owen assisted at the funeral. This shook whatever faith Owen might have felt in the church, and in the social order.  It compounded an emotional crisis, which he resolved by getting as far away as possible, to France, where he had no connections.  And so,Owen's distinctive personality was moulded, long before the trenches and the Somme.  Below, the  poem he wrote about the Allens's tragedy,  Deep Under Turfy Grass. 
Deep under turfy grass and heavy clay 
They laid her bruisèd body, and the child 
Poor victims of a swift mischance were they, 
Adown Death’s trapdoor suddenly beguiled.
I, weeping not, as others, but heart-wild, 
Affirmed to Heaven that even Love’s fierce flame 
Must fail beneath the chill of this cold shame. 
So I rebelled, scorning and mocking such 
As had the ignorant callousness to wed 
On altar steps long frozen by the touch 
Of stretcher after stretcher of our dead. 
Love’s blindness is too terrible, I said; 
I will go counsel men, and show what bin
The harvest of their homes is gathered in.
But as I spoke, came many children nigh, 
Hurrying lightly o’er the village green; 
Methought too lightly, for they came to spy
Into their playmate’s bed terrene. 
They clustered round; some wondered what might mean 
Rich-odoured flowers so whelmed in fetid earth; 
While some Death’s riddle guessed ere that of Birth. 
And there stood one Child with them, whose pale brows 
Wore beauty like our mother Eve’s;whom seeing, 
I could not choose but undo all my vows,
And cry that it were well that human
And Birth and Death should be, just for the freeing 
Of one such face from Chaos’ murky womb, 
For Hell’s reprieve is worth not this one bloom.

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