The first time Wilfred reads one of Sassoon’s poems is while sipping a cup of tea on the Hindenburg line. The paper is dim with lack of quality and his ears near deafened by the shrieks of shells, but the words still manage to gleam through the faded newspaper, blinding Wilfred’s irises with their power. Never before has he read such intense poetry. After finishing the last line, he finds himself re-reading one particular verse again and again, slowly mesmerizing each expression. But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure / Horror and pain, not uncontent to die / That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure...
“Lieutenant Owen, sir?”
“Officer Stanhope wants you, sir. Down in your dugout.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a minute.”
The chipped cup quivers in his already shaking hand as he brings it to his lips amid the noise and bustle of the trench. Wilfred knows these are no conditions for a poet to exist in, let alone thrive and command the world through words like he sometimes feels his heart ache to. Although, judging by this small section of the Daily Mail, Siegfried Sassoon seems already to have succeeded.
That same evening Wilfred sits down, as is common for him, to write to his mother. His gaze falls yet again upon the Daily Mail at the opposite end of the table.
‘Mother,’ he begins, ‘After reading these pieces I feel a high sense of emotion. I believe this man has begun to explain the unexplainable. Shakespeare reads vapid after these. Not of course because Sassoon is the greater artist, but the content – this is what it is all about, dear Mother. What it has always been about; what I, with my small efforts and voice, have as of yet failed to convey…’
So much she does not know; and so much she simply would not be able to understand. Wilfred breathes out slowly, drawing a careful line through the paragraph. How it felt not to have washed his face, nor taken off his boots, nor slept a deep sleep for twelve days in an icy November. How it felt to be an officer, a shepherd of sheep that did not know your voice and who were impossible to protect. How it felt to be buried in a shell hole for three days opposite a limbless man you know…or at least, he thinks with a shudder, you used to know.
Just thinking that last thought turns his whole body numb. The memories stab at him like tiny, spiteful daggers, and Wilfred feels the claustrophobic sensation that has become so familiar as of late rise in his chest, halting his breathing and breaking his concentration.
The panic. It is always there, whether he is staring at the dugout ceiling under his blanket at night or crawling forwards across No Man’s Land in the heat of battle. It never leaves. And the panic is growing.
Wilfred places his head in his hands and wonders, not for the first time that day, when his breaking point will come.