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, the short film about the final year of Wilfred Owen’s life, at their website. The film is independently funded, so if you’d like to show your support, you can donate to the crowdfunding campaign here.