Thanks to Joyce Reed for providing this narrative.
A WW1 anti-tank bullet inscribed ‘Un Souvenir de la Guerre’… a crucifix fashioned out of bullets… both ironic and iconic, and grasped in the warmth of your hand.
Held in Dunsden Church, where Owen was lay preacher for two years, the ‘Wilfred Owen Day’, on November 10, 2018, fused past and present, art and literature, painting and poetry.
John Bodman, co-founder & co-chair with Jennifer Leach, of the Dunsden Owen Association, welcomed visitors from Ors, near Sambre sur Oise where Owen died on 4 November, 1918. The church was packed to capacity. Jean Eastwood, so instrumental in shaping the Association and charting Owen’s time here, movingly read ‘The Send Off’ with its evocation of country lads, country lanes and country wells.
Indeed, the event was a ‘send off’ for a very special book commemorating Owen’s work, illustrated by local contemporary artists. The Two Rivers Press is committed to celebrating local, literary talent, past and present and to developing a cooperative of artists and writers creating a vibrant arts scene. Previous publications include Wilde’s famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Arts of Peace and The Memoirs of Edith Morley (a ground-breaking woman and professor of English whose encouragement of young Owen buoyed him when others were encouraging him to give up). What a debt we owe her and those who today encourage and promote artistic endeavour.
Jane Potter, who wrote the ‘Afterword’ for Pennies on my Eyes, is a Reader in Arts at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing, at Oxford Brookes University. She gave a cogent, penetrating talk encompassing Owen’s life at Dunsden, his links to Reading university, and his family connections to the local area. She revealed how his time in Dunsden unequivocally changed his life and his poetry, shaping his courageous decision to re-evaluate both. Here was food for all – for those knowing the key Owen poems and for the passionate aficionados. With just five poems published in his lifetime, tribute was paid to those who kept his name and poetry alive, including, among others, his mother, Sassoon, Blunden, Heaney and Hughes. She chose resonating details: his love of the colour purple, his piano playing, the children in Dunsden school, his horror at the rural deprivation, his brother’s strange vision of Wilfred in his ship’s cabin. The material was captivating. In 1917, a New Year’s Eve letter to his mother showed his confidence that he could become a ‘poet’s poet’. His style, voice and content were assured. The cadences, emotions, innovations and imagery sing today. His poem ‘A Terre’ portrays the bandages obscuring the narrator’s vision; Pennies on my Eyes with its poetry, artwork and ‘Afterword’ symbolically removes them.
Near a plaque, erected on the wall in 1978 in the presence of the Bishop of Oxford and attended by the likes of Ted Hughes and John Stallworthy, a reading of Owen’s ‘Smile, Smile, Smile’ was given by Prof Peter Pearson, of Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’ fame, and Lauren Leach-Scrivens, a student at Gillotts School, tellingly read ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’: what a moving contrast of ages, voices and emphasis.
Three of the local artists chosen to illustrate the poems gave insights into their approaches. Sally Castle showed how her research at The Imperial War Museum shaped her ‘visions’ – slippers, china tea cups, white feathers, gas masks, blending home life and trenches, politics and people, trench signs and trampled barbed wire posing as a question mark.
Martin Andrews responded to the creative challenge by creating generic rather than specific evocations for particular poems. His grandfather’s WW1 treasures, shown lovingly to him as a boy featured strongly; the cherished items – the bullet and the crucifix, generously passed around to each and every one of us, were truly touching in every sense. His grandfather’s bugle, given away to a boy down his road, must surely be sounding out for its rightful ‘last post’ – to be reunited with Martin.
Jennifer Leach (an artist, writer, editor, well known for Outrider Anthems, The Reading Festival of the Dark, and Song of Crow) illustrated ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Insensibility’. Sheltering from a rainstorm in the church lobby, she discovered the Owen connection – a personal ‘strange meeting’.
Peter’s reading of ‘Insensibility’ in this packed church gave hope that, now, someone bothers! The final reading, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, was a fitting end, focusing painfully on the eyes of a comrade in his death throes. There were no ‘old lies’ here.
Pennies on my Eyes has achieved a new vision – to expose the obverse of the coins! Owen’s poetic art and experiences like this event enable us to see the world, multifaceted, through the eyes of others. Pennies on my Eyes no longer. Walking back through the churchyard, on the way home, the way was lit by the flickering lamps on the Owen family graves, illuminating our pathways 100 years on.