The sun is warm, the sky is clear, the waves are dancing fast and bright…
Thus wrote Wilfred Owen, citing Shelley, in a poignant letter to his friend Siegfried Sassoon on 1 September 1918, little more than two months before his untimely death on 4 November. Owen had left Folkestone the day before, and had swum in the sea, enjoying what must have been his last swim.
Wilfred Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, Oswestry in 1893 and spent much of his childhood in Birkenhead. He subsequently lived in Shrewsbury and Bordeaux, with periods in London. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, he was working as a language tutor in the High Pyrenees. He would join up, in the Artists Rifles, in October 2015, shortly before his first meeting with Harold Monroe at the Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street, London W1. He saw fighting in France in the early months of 1917, and was evacuated with shell-shock in May. He was transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he first met Siegfried Sassoon, who would be a profound influence on his development as a poet.
Owen twice passed through Folkestone on his way to the Western Front. On 29 December 1916, he wrote to his mother from the Metropole Hotel on the Leas, having arrived there after a protracted journey by train from Charing Cross: ‘At Folkestone here I met a Canadian Doctor who seems to be the only other on the train reporting tomorrow. He took me to the best Hotel, where we are sharing a magnificent room.’ On 4 January 1917, now in France, he wrote again: ‘I have joined the Regiment, who are just at the end of six weeks’ rest. I will not describe the awful vicissitudes of the journey here. I arrived at Folkestone, and put up at the best hotel. It was a place of luxury – inconceivable now – carpets as deep as the mud here – golden flunkeys; pages who must have been melted into their clothes and expanded since; even the porters had clean hands. Even the dogs that licked up the crumbs had clean teeth’.
Owen made his brief return to Folkestone in August 1918. On the day of his departure for the Front, he wrote to his mother: ‘My last hours in England were brightened by a bathe in the fair green Channel, in company of the best piece of Nation left in England – a Harrow boy, of superb intellect and refinement because of the way he spoke of my going away; and the way he spoke of the Sun; and of the Sea, and the Air; and everything. In fact the way he spoke.’ The next day, 1 September 1918, he would write to Sassoon from Base Camp, Etaples, addressing him as ‘Dearest of all Friends’ and revisiting his experience in the sea off Folkestone: ‘Serenity Shelley never dreamed of crowns me. Will it last when I shall have gone into Caverns & Abysmals such as he never reserved for his worst daemons? Yesterday I went down to Folkestone Beach and into the sea, thinking to go through those stanzas and emotions of Shelley’s to the full. But I was too happy, or the Sun was too supreme.’
On 4 November, a week before the Armistice was signed, he met his death near Ors. His biographer Dominic Hibberd notes: ‘Owen would have survived the war if the attempted canal crossing at Ors had been called off. Ten minutes might have been enough.’ Tragically, he would never know the high regard in which his poetry would come to be held, or the enduring legacy of his work.
On Remembrance Day 2018, his portrait was raked into the sand on the beach at Folkestone as part of Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project. Crowds gathered to watch as it was washed away by the tide.
Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: a new biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2002.
Owen, Wilfred. Selected Letters. Edited by John Bell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.