THE GREEK LOVE POEMS OF WILFRED OWEN
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (18 March 1893 - 4 November 1918) was an English poet, often regarded as the greatest of the many who wrote evocatively about the 1st World War. Only five relatively uninteresting poems had been published by the time he was killed, aged 25, a week before the armistice. His best-known verse, written during his last year, was published posthumously as Poems in 1920.
However, Owen did not win widespread renown until the 1960s, nor, until then, was it known that he was attracted to boys. This emerged from the publications of a much larger collection of his poems by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963 and of his letters in Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters (Oxford, 1967).
Twenty-five of the seventy-nine poems published by Day Lewis referred to “boys” or “lads” and it is not possible to be categorical about which concerned Greek love. Only the four of most obvious interest are presented here in chronological order, the first only fragmentary. They are all to be found in Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments edited by Jon Stallworthy (Oxford, 1983).
Each poem presented here is introduced with comments putting it in context from the two biographers who have written much the most comprehensively about Owen: Dominic Hibberd in Owen the Poet (London, 1986) and Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London, 2002), and Jon Stallworthy in Wilfred Owen (London, 2013) as well as his above-mentioned edition of Owen’s poems.
Ballad of the Morose Afternoon
The manuscript of this fragmentary poem was written in pencil (represented by italic type) and a later ink (represented by roman).
Hibberd (1986) p. 22 calls it a “sketch for part of an autobiographical poem that never got written” and identifies the subject as Vivian Rampton, a boy with whom Owen was intimate for at least a year from early 1912 to February 1913, while acting as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Berkshire. Owen was then nineteen and Vivian twelve to thirteen. He wrote it in Bagnères-de-Bigorre in 1914: “The memory of Rampton persisted, becoming an idealised figure with deep, sad eyes, a hand that could sometimes be touched and a beauty that was for ever unattainable. The relationship was perhaps Owen's first love affair, although he may well have been much less aware of its sexual implications at the time than Wigan [the vicar of Dunsden] probably was.”
Stallworthy (2013), generally more cautious in drawing conclusions says (pp. 72-3): “This would seem to indicate an adolescent infatuation for another boy, but when and for whom it is not possible to say” and was “written most probably some time after he had left Dunsden”.
And many of my thoughts were given to him
And many of his hours were given to me …
We two were friends while two short years outran
suffered that grand,
The while he underwent the crucial change
The inalterable change, from boy to man.
And metamorphoses not less strange
created and annhihilated, turn by turn
and would it after all
Be better if I had not touched my hand
known my voice not for me
Be better if I
Or heard my heart? And would it after all
Be better if I had not seen his face?
never to have seen
to have looked on him?
Hibberd (1986) p. 53 says Owen wrote this at Mérignac near Bordeaux in early 1915, while he was living with and tutoring four brothers called de la Touche, aged ten to fourteen. Hibberd (2002) p. 154 says an unknown one of the four was a special favourite of Owen.
Now, let me feel the feeling of thy hand -
For it is softer than the breast of girls,
And warmer than the pillows of their cheeks,
And richer than the fullness of their eyes,
And stronger than the ardour of their hearts.
Its shape is subtler than a dancer's limbs;
Its skin is coloured like the twilight Alp;
And odoured like the pale, night-scented flowers,
And fresh as early love, as earth with dawn.
Yield me thy hand, a little while, fair love;
That I may feel it; and so feel thy life,
And kiss across it, as the sea the sand,
And love it, with the love of Sun for Earth.
Ah! let me look a long while in thine eyes,
For they are deeper than the depths of thought,
And clearer than the ether after rain,
And suaver than the moving of the moon,
And vaster than the void of all desire.
Child, let me fully see and know thy eyes!
Their fire is like the wrath of shaken rubies;
Their shade is like the peaceful forest-heart.
They hold me as the great star holds the less.
I see them as the lights beyond this life.
They reach me by a sense not found in man,
And bless me with a bliss unguessed of God.
This was first published by Day Lewis in his 1963 edition of the Collected Poems. He tentatively assigned it to the Dunsden period (1911-3), but Stallworthy (2013) p. 120 says: “Its tone and general level of sophistication suggest a date later than [that]. […] Moreover, the Roman Catholic service it describes, ‘the Veneration of the Cross’ (on Good Friday, incidentally, not Maundy Thursday), is most likely one that Wilfred attended with the de la Touche boys the previous Easter .” Hibberd (2002) p. 155 says: “Its polished insouciance suggests it was written well after the event it describes, perhaps in 1916.”
Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(They kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)
Hibberd (2002) p. 301 calls this a ballad with “homosexual implications” and (1986) p. 223 suggests it was written not long before January 1918. Stallworthy (1983) placed it chronologically a little before Who is the god of Canongate?, which he dates to around November 1917.
Nay, light me no fire tonight,
I have no desire tonight
To drink or dine;
I will suck no briar tonight,
Nor read no line;
An you be my quire tonight,
And you my wine.
Who is the god of Canongate?
Hibberd (2002) p. 301 says this ballad “seems to be about rent-boys in Canongate (Edinburgh) and Covent Garden (London), collectively represented as a ‘little god’ who walks the pavements barefoot. […] Draft work includes the phrase ‘Bow Street cases’: Wilde and others had appeared before magistrates at Bow Street. […] Maybe he [Owen] had by now been up secret stairs in London and Edinburgh, or perhaps he had just heard stories […] There is no evidence either way, except for the growing confidence of his poems, together with his repeated insistence that poetry should be based on experience, and a single, incautious mention to Leslie of ‘mon petit ami’ in Scarborough.”
Stallworthy (2013) p. 240 calls it “a curious and disturbing address to Eros, seen as the deity presiding over Canongate in Edinburgh and Covent Garden in London, two districts notorious for their prostitutes:” He says it was probably written around November 1917. However, while he agrees with Hibberd that “It is undoubtedly true – and has long been accepted – that Owen’s sexual orientation was ‘homosexual’,” he urges “agnosticism” on the question of whether Owen was ever homosexually active, given the lack of evidence and the risks Owen would have been taking with his puritanical and devout mother to whom he was so very close.
Who is the god of Canongate?
- I, for I trifle with men and fate.
Art thou high in the heart of London?
- Yea, for I do what is done and undone.
What is thou throne, thou barefoot god?
- All pavements where my feet have trod.
Where is thy shrine then, little god?
- Up secret stairs men mount unshod.
Say what libation such men fill?
- They lift their lusts and let them spill.
Why do you smell of the moss in Arden?
- If I told you, Sir, your look would harden.
What are you called, I ask your pardon?
- I am the flower of Covent Garden.
What shall I pay for you, lily-lad?
- Not all the gold King Solomon had.
How can I buy you, London flower?
- Buy me for ever, not just for an hour.
When shall I pay you, Violet Eyes?
- With laughter first, and after with sighs.
But you will fade, my delicate bud?
- No, there is too much sap in my blood.
Will you not shrink in my shut room?
- No, there I'll break into fullest bloom.
 “The Librarian of Reading School tells me V. C. Rampton (born 23 Nov 1899) entered the school in September 1915 and left in July 1917 (for war service? )” (Hibberd (1986) p. 22).
 Stallworthy criticises Hibberd for presuming that Owen did in the end become homosexually active. He points out that “The life of homosexuals in Owen’s lifetime – and long after – was a world away from that of gay men in the 21st century.” This observation is as irrelevant as it is obviously true, and illustrates well the hopelessness of trying to understand pederasts without appreciating that they were not “gay” (a word which, ironically, Stallworthy himself says should not be used for Owen, since it is anachronistic). The consequences for Owen with the law and a puritanical mother of being caught paying for sex with a little “lily-lad” in the 21st century would be incomparably worse (and the likelihood of his being caught far greater) than when he lived, so there was much less reason for him to have been deterred then. There is no shortage on this website of testimonies from early 20th-century men who had sex with boys after realising how important it was to them and despite having mothers who would have been deeply shocked. Michael Davidson is an example of one wrote on this precise point.