Two recent books have noted the fact that poets Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen (both of the Artists’ Rifles) were in November 1915 posted together to the bery large Hare Hall camp at Gidea Park, near Romford in Essex. At the time, neither was a published poet (though Thomas was relatively well known for his prose and criticism). Would they have met and bonded? I don’t think Owen advertised his interest in poetry in 1915, and Thomas positively hid his, incorporating poems into letters home, but writing them as prose, so that spying eyes wouldn’t spot that he had strayed into verse.
Harry Ricketts’ Strange Meetings is an enjoyable collection of short accounts of meetings(and non-meetings) between various war poets. In one chapter he imagines Thomas encountering Owen one afternoon and drawing him into conversation – about Shrewsbury, perhaps, a place known to both of them. Then on another occasion they might have talked about Keats. Ricketts dramatises the meetings rather well. His Owen is eager to talk about poetry with someone who cares about the subject, and reveals his own ambition. The older Thomas, meanwhile, is more cagey, perhaps remembering the rejections of his work by Eddie Marsh and Harold Monro. Still, he is persuaded to recite ‛Rain’, a poem whose blank-verse roughness does not greatly appeal to Owen. Then, says Ricketts, ‛the conversation is over, leaving both frustrated by the encounter’.
Matthew Hollis in his absorbing account of Thomas’s last years, Now All Roads Lead to France offers a briefer but more positive might-have been. He imagines that:
Thomas would have liked Owen for his gentle, unassuming presence, his passionate belief in the power of verse, his sharp intelligence and his knowledge of Wales. Owen would have flourished under Thomas’s guidance, learned from his knowledge of literature and welcomed the kind of senior patronage that he would find in sieffried Sassoon [….] Owen would go on to write some of the most shocking, graphic and energised poetry of the war, but who knows how it might have developed under Thomas’s guiding eye.
Who knows, indeed?
I’m not at all convinced that Thomas could have given Owen’s poetry the kick-start that Sassoon did. The great and useful thing about Sassoon was that he was a very different kind of poet from Owen. His sharp satires were so different from what Owen was writing that there was no chance of Owen merely producing copies of them. Sassoon’s poems were a challenge, an opening up of rich and terrible subject matter, an invitation to take risks.
Tutorials from Thomas would doubtless have been useful to Owen, and might have purged his verse of the flowery bits (as Sassoon was to do, very effectively) but would not, I’d say, have provided the stimulus that would spur Owen into originality and greatness.
On balance, then, I’m more convinced by the Ricketts version than the Hollis.
A small thought that strikes me though, is that while these two were at Hare Hall , another member of the Artists’ Rifles was just conceivably also training there. Before the War A.M. Burrage had made himself a small reputation as a reliable provider of romantic magazine stories. While in the Army (and even while in France) he continued to produce light fiction, to support his family.
The point of the Artists’ Rifles seems to have been that men of education enlisted as privates, but that after basic training most would apply for a commission, and become officers before they headed to France. This happened to Thomas and Owen, but Burrage, by his own admission not a very good soldier, remained in the ranks as a truculent private. In 1930 he would produce his scabrous War is War, one of the very best depictions of Great War army life as seen from the lower ranks.
Did Edward Thomas try to teach him map-reading? Would he have kept awake during the lectures?
And what if he had met Wilfred Owen? What if he had taken on the Sassoon tutorial role and given the impressionable young man some tips on how to write marketable romantic fiction? What if Owen had enthusiastically responded, given up poetry and devoted his talents to ingenious variations on ‛Boy meets girl/ Boy loses girl/ Boy finds girl’? The literary history of the twentieth century would have been a bit different.
Another speculative question. Is the huge camp at Gidea Park the one referred to in this song (included in the invaluable Tommy’s Tunes of 1917)? And if so, did Thomas and Owen join in the sing-songs? I wish I knew.
OUR ESSEX CAMP.
Tune : “Back Home in Tennessee”
Down in our Essex camp,
That’s where we get the cramp
Through sleeping in the damp ;
We’re not allowed a lamp.
All we get there each day
Is left, right, left, right, all the way ;
Sergeants calling, lance-jacks bawling
” Get out on parade.”
We go to bed at night,
You ought to see the sight,
The earwigs on the floors
All night are forming fours.
If we’re in bed in the morning,
You will hear the sergeant yawning :
” Show a leg there, show a leg “there,”
‘Way down in our Essex camp.