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Tribute to Peter Owen

December 03rd 2018    Category: General

A transcription of Sam Gray's, our Vice-Chair, tribute to Peter Owen, as shared at the WOA's AGM in Shrewsbury, this September.

Robert Hutchison 'found' Peter Owen, who was swiftly installed as President of the WOA, succeeding Bishop Davies. It is with great sorrow that I mourn the sudden loss of this dear and much valued friend, always cheerful and generous, open and direct, a tireless worker for his uncle's memory, and conscientious collector of everything produced about him. He was the living embodiment of the Owen legacy and was constantly in demand. For me, Wilfred seemed to live on though Peter and now when I attend any event in Wilfred's memory, it will also be in Peter's memory.

It is my custom at these meetings to give primacy to Wilfred's own words by reciting one of his poems. I was going to choose 'The Send-Off', as that is topical, but in order to link Wilfred and Peter, via Colin, I have chosen 'Sonnet with an Identity Disc'. On 24th March, 1917, in hospital at Gailly on the bank of the Somme Canal, Wilfred wrote to his brother Colin: "… after the war, I am determined to keep pigs. I should like to take a cottage in Kent Surrey or Sussex…" Ironically he follows his plans for pig-farming after the war with a sonnet that foresees his own death. "I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I shall address it to you. Adieu mon petit. Je t'embrasse."

Being in a Casualty Clearing Station, Owen was well aware that some of the patients died each day from their wounds. He, as he told his brother Harold the last time they talked, "knew" he would be killed, and he and Sassoon had said the same thing to each other. The life expectancy of a second lieutenant on the Western Front in 1916-1917 was about three weeks, and Owen had seen many of his fellow officers killed in action alongside him. So he contemplates his own death philosophically. The ironic thing about this sonnet, however, is that all three of the potential outcomes of his death that he considers, but then rejects as impossible, have recently come true. First he thinks how he once longed to follow in his hero Keats' footsteps by becoming a famous poet, and finally join the greats like him and Tennyson engraved high in the heart of London, memorialised for ever in stone in Poets' Corner; then he considers how he would love to lie next to Keats' grave, shaded by trees in the Protestant cemetery in Rome; and finally he is relieved that his name will never be carved in stone, nor his dates or deeds inscribed anywhere. He will just be remembered by his identity disc, and it seems certain that when he said he was dedicating the poem to Colin he was thinking of him as the "sweet friend" who should wear that disc next to his heart.

But these fantasies he envisaged - and dismissed - have now been realised! Owen's name is in Poets' Corner, "high in the heart of London"; he is memoried in holy ground, shaded by trees, at Symmetry, here in Shrewsbury Abbey's graveyard; and his name and dates and deeds are all inscribed in stone, and these are repeated on blue plaques all round the country! So this poem is, to me, very special for two generations of Owens: Wilfred and Colin - and Peter.

Sonnet with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,

I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life's heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That keep in shade the quiet place of Keats.

Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed,
But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night and day,
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

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