A century ago, the war poet Wilfred Owen spent summer and autumn in Edinburgh, recovering from shellshock. Owen’s stay in Edinburgh in 1917 proved to be a turning point in the history of English literature, for it’s here that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon. Their subsequent friendship was to prove as important as Wordsworth and Coleridge’s, for what the Romantics did for nature, Owen and Sassoon did for war. Never again could the masters of war claim ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’; to translate the Roman poet Horace’s words, ‘It is sweet and proper to die for the fatherland.’ Before Edinburgh, Owen was a pale imitator of Keats, barely readable. Under Sassoon’s guidance, he became the author of several of the most powerful poems in the English language: ‘Strange Meeting’, 'Futility’, ‘Disabled’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’; the first drafts of the latter two poems were began in Edinburgh.
We’re pleased to announce that the Scottish Poetry Library is involved in a series of events to be held in the latter part of the year marking the centenary of Owen’s transformative time in the capital.
The National Poet for Scotland Jackie Kay has written a poem about Owen and Edinburgh which she will premiere at a special event in August, close to the day we believe Owen and Sassoon first met (the exact date is a matter of some controversy amongst Owen scholars) in Craiglockhart Military Hospital; there will be a further announcement about the date and venue of the event in the coming weeks.
On Thursday 17 August, the Filmhouse will screen Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel about Siegfried Sassoon and his doctor, Dr William H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital. The screening will be introduced by the film’s screenwriter Allan Shiach.
The commemoration begins, however, on Monday, June 26, a century to the day Owen arrived in Edinburgh. The Caledonian Sleeper will arrive in Waverley station, where a Great War re-enactor playing Owen will be met by Edinburgh’s Makar Christine De Luca, who will welcome him by reciting an Owen poem, and violinist Thoren Ferguson playing the Wilfred Owen Violin. The re-enactor will be accompanied by Peter Owen, the poet’s nephew. After his arrival, WW1 re-enactors will be positioned along Princes Street collecting money for Poppy Scotland and handing out a leaflet with Owen’s poem ‘Six O’Clock in Princes Street’. Later the same day, Edinburgh Napier University will host a lecture by distinguished historian Professor Sir Hew Strachan on 1917 and the First World War.
On Friday, November 3, Owen’s last day in Edinburgh in 1917, the Scottish Poetry Library will hold a special event on Owen’s legacy. We’ll discuss how his poetry influenced later generations of writers, and whether perhaps the power of his words hasn’t distorted how we view the Great War. Watch this space as we confirm panellists in the coming weeks.
We hope the people of Edinburgh will be intrigued and proud to learn or to be reminded of this literary flowering that took place in the Scottish capital a century ago. The year 1917 was one of butchery and tragedy around the world, but here, in Edinburgh, away from the fighting, a young man, only 24-years-old, was about to change forever how war is viewed. And he did it with poems.
The Scottish Poetry Library is deeply grateful to Wilfred Owen Association for the assistance it will be giving to our Owen events later this year.