Every summer before the war, Siegfried Sassoon had gloried in playing cricket. Yet, at Craiglockhart, he shunned team sports and clubs. His only athletic pursuits were golf and leaping alone “like a young ram” over the Pentland ridges. At the end of his first week, he wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “My fellow-patients are 160 more or less dotty officers. A great many of them are degenerate looking.” One had committed suicide. Estranged from the other inmates, Sassoon cherished his time with [Dr. William Halse Rivers] Rivers, “a sensible man who doesn’t say anything silly.” Rivers assured him he was sane, albeit with one abnormality: opposition to the war. Yet, Sassoon wrote to Ottoline, the doctor’s pro-war arguments “don’t make any impression on me.”

He used the evening sessions with Rivers “to give my anti-war complex an airing.” Doctor and patient debated the war’s rights and wrongs, neither making headway with the other. Among discussion topics were European politicians’ declarations as translated in The Cambridge Magazine. Sassoon maintained the statesmen, far from waging defensive war, sought to annex territory from Germany and its allies. France wanted Alsace and the portions of Lorraine that Germany had seized in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The Kingdom of Italy had joined the war in April 1915 to acquire chunks of Austria-Hungary. Britain coveted German colonies in Africa. The May 1916 Sykes-Picot accord dividing the Ottoman Empire among France, Britain, and Russia would have bolstered Sassoon’s case had it not been an official secret. Rivers argued that Germany would not negotiate. Its military and political leaders were as determined as Britain’s to fight until victory, despite the stasis of the trenches, the daily death toll, and the calamitous offensives. Like the belligerent nations, Rivers and Sassoon stuck to their positions without breakthrough or compromise.

Rivers accused Sassoon of inconsistency: his intellect was “suffering from trench fever” and his protest’s inspiration was more emotional than moral. Moreover, peace without Germany’s outright defeat would “nullify all the sacrifices we had made.” Sassoon answered, “It doesn’t seem to me to matter much what one does so long as one believes it is right!” As soon as the words were out, he regretted his “particularly fatuous” remark.

Rivers diagnosed Sassoon’s anxiety as stemming from the deaths of friends and of men in his platoon: “His view differs from that of the ordinary pacifist in that he would no longer object to the continuance of the War if he saw any reasonable prospect of a rapid conclusion.”

Sassoon suggested articles and books to Rivers, among them one of the first novels by a frontline soldier, Henri Barbusse’s Sur le Feu. The English translation, Under Fire, had just appeared in Britain. Barbusse fought in a French regiment for seventeen months as a poilu, “hairy” enlisted man, until gas-damaged lungs took him out of the war. His novel exposed the degradation of working-class troops caught between their officers and the enemy in a “troglodyte world.” Barbusse became a pacifist, whose works circulated in antiwar circles. Under Fire enlightened Rivers, who had not experienced life and death in the trenches as Sassoon had.

What struck Sassoon more than Rivers’s politics was the man himself. “All that matters is my remembrance of the great and good man who gave me his friendship and guidance,” he wrote, adding,

I can visualize him, sitting at his table in the late summer twilight, with his spectacles pushed up on his forehead and his hands clasped in front of one knee; always communicating his integrity of mind; never revealing that he was weary, as he must have been after long days of exceptionally tiring work on those war neuroses which demanded such an exercise of sympathy and detachment combined.

If Brock classified [Wilfred] Owen’s poetry as therapeutic, Rivers recognized Sassoon’s as art. Literary creativity fascinated him as much as Melanesian languages. Poetic images, he felt, “are symbolic expressions of some conflict which is raging in the mind of the poet, and that the real underlying meaning or latent content of the poem is very different from that which the outward imagery would suggest.” He conjectured that poems and dreams were alike in their hidden meanings, a point he could not prove “for the obvious reason that, unfortunately, I am not a poet.”

Sassoon was earning acclaim with Heinemann’s publication in May of The Old Huntsman and Other Poems. Many verses were shocking for their stark rendering of the soldier’s existence in this bloodiest of wars. No less a critic than Virginia Woolf wrote in The Times Literary Supplement, “What Mr. Sassoon has felt to be the most sordid and horrible experiences in the world he makes us feel to be so in a measure which no other poet of the war has achieved.” Woolf also praised Sassoon’s pastorals, quoting as an example “South Wind”:

You have robbed the bee, South Wind, in your adventure,
Blustering with gentle flowers; but I forgave you
When you stole to me shyly with scent of hawthorn.

Such passages in Woolf’s view constituted “evidence not of accomplishment, indeed, but of a gift much more valuable than that, the gift of being a poet, we must call it; and we shall look with interest to see what Mr. Sassoon does with his gifts.” Sassoon was struggling with those gifts at Craiglockhart, as new poems true to his experience of conflict, comradeship, and fear eluded him. The daily diary he kept most of his life had come to an abrupt halt. He was “marking time,” no closer to recanting.


Wilfred Owen, unlike Sassoon, immersed himself in the Craiglockhart regime. He edited The Hydra, wrote articles for it, studied the region’s rocks and flora, investigated conditions in Edinburgh’s slums, took a Berlitz course in German (“It’s a vile language to learn.”), and acted in plays at the Saturday concerts. This was the university life that his family’s lack of money had denied him. He called it “a free-and-easy Oxford,” where he exercised mind and body. Swimming, he wrote, “never fails to give me a Greek feeling of energy and elemental life.”

Brock suggested he visit a munitions factory and then a brass foundry, where he spent the morning of July 13 “beating out a plate of copper into a bowl.” He was also pounding words together, melding memory and nightmare into verse. The Hercules-Antaeus poem Brock had asked him to compose began as a sonnet before outgrowing the fourteen-line form and becoming a blank verse Homeric epic. Owen took “The Wrestlers” to [Arthur John] Brock and, despite his nervous stammer, read it aloud. It began,

So neck to neck and obstinate knee to knee
Wrestled those two; and peerless Heracles
Could not prevail nor catch any vantage . . .

Heracles/Hercules, whose “huge hands which small had strangled snakes,” exhausts himself through hours of failing to gain hold of “slim Antaeus’s limbs.”  The sinewy Libyan evades Heracles’s grasp again and again, “While Heracles,—the  thews and cordage of his thighs / Straitened and strained beyond the utmost stretch.” Young Hylas, Heracles’s servant, divines the source of Antaeus’s strength. As night approaches, Hylas runs to his master with sponges to wipe away his sweat and whispers, “If thou could’st lift the man in air—enough / His feet suck secret virtue of the earth / Lift him, and buckle him to thy breast and win.” Heracles leaps up, recalling “how he tore the oaks in Argos,” and wraps his arms around Antaeus. He uproots him, crushes “his inmost bones,” parades his corpse through the town, and drops him at the altar of his earth goddess mother, Gea/Gaia. The poem does not end with Antaeus’s death. Owen has Gea causing the ground to erupt and rouse her son back to life. The two wrestlers feast, and Heracles “on the morrow passed with Hylas / Down to the Argo, for the wind was fair.”

Owen’s depiction of muscle resisting muscle, pantings “like the sighs of lions at their meat,” and the struggle of each contestant to kill the other mirrored his own grappling with the demons of his dreams. The war machine, like Hercules, had ripped him from his earth and metaphorically killed him. In the poem, earth redeems Antaeus, as Owen’s growing connection to the world was rehabilitating him. For Brock, the poem demonstrated Owen’s understanding of the myth depicted on his office wall. Yet “The Wrestlers” was more than that: Owen, as much as a recovering neurasthenic, was a maturing poet. His Hercules sailed away, but the war machine that crippled him did not. It lurked in beastly fury, awaiting Owen’s cure to ambush him again.

Owen made his stage debut with a small part in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice during July 28’s Saturday concert. Four other cast members were professional actors, patients Lieutenant John Leslie Isaacson, Second Lieutenant James Walter Graham Pockett, and their wives. Owen wrote to his mother two nights later that Mrs. Isaacson as Portia forgot her lines and Mrs. Pockett, “fresh from the vast London stage, prompted her at the top of her voice!” Owen assured Susan [Owen, his mother], who disapproved of actresses, that “both these ladies are model wives, no less than model women.” Hydra critic Peas Blossom praised the actresses’ “charming” elocution, but his sole allusion to Owen, his editor, was the quip, “The remaining characters were of course only background.” Owen wrote to Susan that Peas Blossom’s review had arrived too late for him to edit. After finishing his letter to her, he readied The Hydra to hand to the printers in the morning.

Owen wrote to his cousin Leslie Gunston, with whom he and Gunston’s sisters, Vera and Emma, had organized their childhood nature society, that he was preparing an imaginative lecture for Craiglockhart’s Field Club: “My subject has the rather journalese Title of ‘Do Plants Think?‘—a  study of the Response to Stimuli & Devices for Fertilisation, etc. I have no books yet, but I remember a number of useful points from your big Cassell’s [Encyclopedia] (I  think  it  was Cassell’s) studied in 1911.”  On Monday evening, July 30, the Field Club assembled to hear Owen argue that “plants have all the elements of perception, and if not consciousness, at least sensience: that they have the glimmerings of sight; that vaguely and sleepily, they feel; they feel heat and cold, dryness and damp, and the contact of bodies, that they are even able to smell.” His novel theory compared soldiers with their tin helmets and bayonets to a plant that “produces special protective coverings, sharpens its spines, wastes its young substance in riotous colours, allows those colours to fade immediately fertilization is accomplished.” The question-and-answer session went on until 10:20. At eleven, he wrote to Susan from his room upstairs, “The lecture was a huge success . . . I have only once since getting through the Barrage at Feyet [Fayet] felt such exultation as when winding up to my peroration tonight!” He wrote a full report on his lecture for The Hydra, again modestly remaining anonymous in print.

Editorship of The Hydra entitled Owen to a seat on the General Committee of Officers. Its monthly General Meeting convened on August 3 and approved Owen’s proposal to make The Hydra free for patients. The committee elected Major Bingham chairman; Owen’s therapy partner, Charles Mayes, treasurer; Pockett, head of Entertainment; and other officers, chiefs of tobacco, golf, cricket, Field Club, etc. After the meeting, Owen wrote to his mother that his second edition of The Hydra was ready and he would “plunk the copies outside the Breakfast Room Door tomorrow morning, where they will be given away to all the Club.”

At breakfast on Saturday, August 4, the patients could read Owen’s facetious editorial: “The results of the story and verse prize competition . . . took the eloquent form of the schoolboy’s essay ‘On the results of idleness’—a blank page . . . The competition is still running on the old lines—like the Edinburgh  tramways.” Next came a conversation ostensibly overheard on a tram about the meaning of “Hydra”: “A ’ydra’s a ’undred ’eaded serpent, and the ’eads grew again as fast as cut off, signifyin’ these ’ere officers at Craiglockhart; for as soon as one gets too uppish, like, they cut ’im off the strength, an’ another comes up in ’is place.” There followed accounts of societies and clubs, as well as criticism of the cricket squad: “The bowling of our eleven is decidedly weak.” That weakness did not prevent Craiglockhart from defeating Edinburgh Academy “in glorious sunshine” with 215 runs for eight wickets to the academy’s 134 for two. The Hydra of August 4 included short stories by patients. One was “Elise,” a macabre tale about a young Frenchwoman whose soldier husband “gave up his soul to God for you and for France” and miraculously appeared to her as she wept beside his grave. A poem of equal banality, “Why Worry!,” by a Guards officer who signed himself “SYNJIN,” graced the issue, Owen admitted, because it was the only poem submitted. He was not bold enough to print his own verse.

That evening’s musical program opened with the Craiglockhart Orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Chant sans Paroles and  “Glow Worm” from the German operetta Lysistrata. While commending Captain Williams’s conducting, Peas Blossom lamented, ”It was perhaps unfortunate that so many of the songs touched on death.” The concert concluded with Second Lieutenant Pockett’s production of the operetta The Lady Lawyer, which Peas compared favorably with Gilbert and Sullivan. Mr. Gage’s “light-hearted dancing and his free and easy ‘gags’” delighted Peas as much as Miss Goldie Scott’s singing.

Owen kept a rendezvous on August 8 with Second Lieutenant James Bell Salmond. Until he checked into Craiglockhart on June 25, a day before Owen, Salmond had served in the 7th Fife Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment. The garrulous six-foot twenty-five-year-old was the professional journalist Owen needed on The Hydra. Salmond’s late father had been editor and coproprietor of northern Scotland’s Arbroath Herald. His own journalism began with editing College Echoes at Saint Andrew’s University, where he graduated in 1912. He spent the following two years in London on the national press and writing for The Boy’s Own Paper. Salmond accepted Owen’s offer to become his deputy editor. Owen thought he was just the man to “talk our printer into shape.” Salmond had fought on the same front lines around Beaumont Hamel as Owen and suffered the same shell shock. The two officers had something else in common: both aspired to be poets. They discussed “many mighty things and men” until they had nothing left to say and “went upstairs to the Cinema, & so finished a very pleasant afternoon.”

After the film, Lieutenant Pockett offered Owen a larger role than he had in The Merchant of Venice. Owen would play Arthur Wallcomb, “a fashionable young fellow, whose chief business in the play is in introducing people,” in Wilson Barrett’s 1904 four-act melodrama Lucky Durham. Owen had only four days to learn his lines and rehearse before performing on August 11, when, he crowed to Susan, “I shall know what it really feels like to be on the stage.” Despite his excitement, he confessed mental confusion: “At present, I am a sick man in hospital, by night; a poet for a quarter of an hour after breakfast; I am whatever and whoever I see while going down to Edinburgh on the tram: greengrocer, policeman, shopping lady, errand boy, paper-boy, blind man, crippled Tommy, bankclerk, carter, all of these in half an hour.”

Owen paid regular visits to his mother’s friends the Newboults, reading poetry to Mrs. Newboult and dedicating two poems to Chubby Cubby, seven-year-old Arthur. “Winter Song” began,

From off your face, into the winds of winter,
The sun-brown and the summer-gold are blowing;
But they shall gleam with spiritual glinter,
When paler beauty on your brows falls snowing,
And through those snows my looks shall be soft-going.

His second poem to Arthur Newboult, “To Your Antique Body,” continued the theme of youth and beauty soon to fade, ending,

Your smile shall dull, because too keen aware;
And when for hopes your hand shall be uncurled,
Your eyes shall close, being opened to the world.

Owen’s fascination with young males found its way into many other poems. An Edinburgh newspaper boy inspired “Six O’Clock in Princes Street”:

Dared I go side by side with you;

Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
And all their sorrows in your face.

Owen began a poem about a shirtless working-class boy he had seen by the River Thames in London’s East End. He called it “Lines to a Beauty Seen in Limehouse.” “I saw thee siting carven like a god, / That may have cared for such as barefoot trod.” The poem praised the boy’s vermilion lips and “smooth, smooth naked knees,” before descending to the reality of the boy’s life:

And yet shall thy brows be given to a soiled pillow at night
       (Thy hands shall be gloved with?)
Because you are poor.

The poor lad in the London slums, like a god, was unapproachable. Calling him “half-god, / Immortal clay, incomparable clod,” Owen sighed,

So shalt thou take thy pleasures with thy kind,
Where love is cast, where I cannot go,
What image I have garlanded what throne,
What sacrifice wherewith I lie and moan.

Owen labored over “Limehouse,” which he left incomplete, and other poems in his first weeks at Craiglockhart. Brock made little of passages that implied sexual frustration, love of young soldiers, and the effect on him of their suffering. Owen’s upbringing had excluded sex, which his brother Harold wrote “belonged to one of the great mysteries which were never talked about in our house.” Homoerotic yearnings in an era when law and custom combined to conceal them went unexplored. The purpose of Brock’s therapy was to restore Owen’s confidence as a soldier. Reconnecting to the environment excluded consideration of romantic attachments to other males. Brock appeared not to acknowledge that to love, after all, is to connect and, rejecting Freud’s emphasis on the sexual in psychological analysis, missed or chose to disregard the symbols of manly love in poems like Owen’s “Has Your Soul Sipped”:

To me was that smile,
Faint as a wan, worn myth,
Faint and exceeding small,
On a boy’s murdered mouth.

Though from his throat
The life-tide leaps
There was no threat
On his lips.

But with the bitter blood
And the death-smell
All his life’s sweetness bled
Into a smile.

Charles Mayes was becoming a kind of younger brother to Owen, who showed him the concern he lavished on his real younger brothers, Harold and Colin. Mayes took charge of the accounts at The Hydra, and Owen appointed him the new “Peas Blossom” theater critic. Mayes/Peas Blossom covered August 11’s Saturday concert. He wrote that the first half of Lucky Durham—the second was scheduled for the following Saturday—was “produced and produced well; the stage setting was very pretty, and the stage staff are much to be congratulated upon their work.” The review praised all the cast save Owen, the self-effacing editor who “cancelled reference to myself.”

Owen’s varied pursuits did not arrest his nightmares or prevent him from slipping into melancholy. A biography of Victorian-era poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson told him that tragedy had haunted the poet throughout his life. “But as for misery,” Owen wrote to Susan on August 8, “was he ever frozen alive, with dead men for comforters.” The biographer quoted a friend who claimed Tennyson had always been “like a great child, simple and self-absorbed.”

“So should I have been,” wrote Owen, “but for Beaumont Hamel. (Not before January 1917 did I write the only lines of mine that carry the stamp of maturity: these:

( . . . But the old happiness is unreturning.
Boys have no grief so grievous as youth’s yearning;
Boys have no sadness sadder than our hope.)”

Owen’s dreams featured claustrophobic images redolent of his time trapped in cellars and in the hole astride the railroad track next to the maggot-eaten lumps of Cock Robin’s flesh: caves, pits, and dugouts rocking to the shock of exploding shells. Yet his treatment was progressing, nowhere more evident than in his poetry. Brock was satisfied with Owen’s poetic achievements, which he viewed as signs of health more than of artistic maturing. The doctor was not illiterate. He quoted from memory the poetry of Dante and Tennyson in his sessions with Owen, but he insisted art needed a purpose outside itself. That purpose was to find and remove the causes of Owen’s nightmares, shakes, and stammering. Poetry’s aid to the process was all the justification Brock needed to encourage it. Owen was more ambitious.


From Soldiers Don’t Go Mad by Charles Glass to be to be published on June 6, 2023, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Charles Glass.