Po­ems in Dot­tyville: How two trau­ma­tized sol­diers changed pub­lic’s no­tions of war

Business World - - ARTS & LEISURE -

ED­IN­BURGH — An im­pos­ing 19th cen­tury build­ing with el­e­gant man­i­cured lawns and sweep­ing views of the Ed­in­burgh sky­line seems an un­likely place to have earned the nick­name “Dot­tyville” from one of Bri­tain’s most revered po­ets.

But Craiglock­hart War Hos­pi­tal, now part of an Ed­in­burgh Napier Univer­sity cam­pus on the out­skirts of the Scot­tish cap­i­tal, was where trau­ma­tized souls took refuge from war and where Siegfried Sas­soon and Wil­fred Owen wrote about their ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences as part of treat­ment for shell-shock in 1917.

Their friend­ship and mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion be­came the cat­a­lyst for some of the most vivid and best-known writ­ing in English about war, play­ing a big part in chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tions of a pa­tri­otic death be­ing a glo­ri­ous destiny.

Last week­end, Bri­tain com­mem­o­rated its war dead on Re­mem­brance Sun­day with the lay­ing of wreaths at of­fi­cial cer­e­monies up and down the coun­try.

Owen and Sas­soon, whose work of­ten features in such cer­e­monies, were treated for a kind of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der when they were sent to Craiglock­hart, a psy­chi­atric mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity Sas­soon af­fec­tion­ately nick­named Dot­tyville in a play on the English slang word for “mad.”

The doc­tor treat­ing Owen rec­om­mended a “talk­ing cure,” urg­ing him to write to over­come the ter­ror of be­ing blown into the air by a bomb, Cather­ine Walker, cu­ra­tor of the War Po­ets’ Col­lec­tion housed at Craiglock­hart, told Reuters.

His first po­ems were pub­lished anony­mously in The Hy­dra, Craiglock­hart’s in-house mag­a­zine, which Owen edited.

Most of his po­ems, how­ever, were pub­lished posthu­mously.

“Dulce et Deco­rum est,” in which he slates the idea that dy­ing for one’s coun­try is an honor, por­trays the ter­ror of a sol­dier dy­ing of gas-poi­son­ing, hear­ing “the blood/Come gar­gling from the froth-cor­rupted lungs,/ Ob­scene as can­cer.”

Owen was the younger of the two writ­ers and wor­shipped pub­lished au­thor Sas­soon, who was from a wealthy in­flu­en­tial fam­ily. Sas­soon edited and en­cour­aged Owen dur­ing a con­va­les­cence of sev­eral months in Scot­land.

“You can cer­tainly see that their poetry tight­ens up and be­comes more pow­er­ful while they’re here,” said Walker. “‘An­them for Doomed Youth’ was orig­i­nally ‘An­them for Dead Youth’ and you can see in the orig­i­nal man­u­script that ‘Dead’ is scored out and ‘Doomed’ is sub­sti­tuted, which was Sas­soon’s in­flu­ence on Owen.”

Sas­soon had es­caped court mar­tial af­ter writ­ing an open let­ter, read in Bri­tain’s par­lia­ment, declar­ing “will­ful de­fi­ance of mil­i­tary au­thor­ity be­cause I be­lieve that the war is be­ing de­lib­er­ately pro­longed by those who have the power to end it.” In­stead he was given leave.

Once at Craiglock­hart, a for­mer ho­tel, he de­scribed how it was “elab­o­rately cheer­ful” dur­ing the day.

“In the evenings it be­came, as Sas­soon said, ‘a liv­ing mu­seum of war neu­roses,’” Walker said. “Peo­ple would hal­lu­ci­nate, have bad dreams, mi­graines and dis­turbed sleep and lots of of­fi­cers stam­mered and were de­pressed.”

Their friend­ship and the cures es­poused by their psy­chi­a­trists helped both to return to the front, driven by a loy­alty to the men they fought with, de­spite their crit­i­cism of the war.

Owen died in bat­tle just be­fore the end of World War One, in 1918, aged 25. Sas­soon sur­vived the war and died aged 80.

A per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion now al­lows vis­i­tors to view the War Po­ets’ Col­lec­tion, of­fer­ing a glimpse into the minds and ex­pe­ri­ences of the po­ets, pa­tients and med­i­cal staff at Craiglock­hart through doc­u­ments, pho­to­graphs and mem­o­ra­bilia. —

AC­TORS Jake Mor­gan and Sam Du­cane ex­tend their hands to catch pop­pies, as they pose for pho­to­graphs at the launch of the 1918 Poppy Pledge in a recre­ation of a First World War trench at Pol­lock House in Glas­gow, Scot­land on Nov. 10. The ac­tors ap­peared in the The Wipers Times, a play named af­ter a mag­a­zine pub­lished by Bri­tish sol­diers in the First World War.

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