Listening and the war poets


Dr. William Rivers

Listening Quote of the Month

It was a sort of power of getting into another man’s life and treating it as if it were his own. And yet all the time he made you feel that your life was your own to guide, and above everything else that you could if you cared make something important out of it.

Sir Frederic Bartlett of Dr William Rivers

Would the War Poets ever have written their poems without ‘listening’?

‘Quite possibly not’ is a reasonable answer to this question!



In this time of World War 1 anniversaries we have seen poppies by the million, 888,246 of them at the great memorial at The Tower of London in the UK, each one representing a fallen British and Commonwealth soldier.  One was for Wilfred Owen whose poems graphically describe some of the real horrors of war: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs bitter as the cud of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” [1]

Siegfried Sassoon was another war poet of WW1 although there would have been no poppy for him at the Tower as he lived on until the 1960s.  He wrote of the atrocities experienced in the trenches: “The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs, high-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps and trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud” [2]

Anybody who knew anybody who came back from WW1 trenches will tell you that they would not talk about it; indeed in another poem Sassoon alludes to this universal tenet of soldierly faith: “In winter trenches, cowed and glum, with crumps and lice and lack of rum, he put a bullet through his brain. No one spoke of him again.” [3]

hydrae28093february-1918 During the war both Owen and Sassoon were sent to Craig Lockhart Hospital suffering from neurasthenia or ‘shell shock’; what perhaps today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

William Rivers was a pioneering psychiatrist at Craig Lockhart Hospital.  He spent many hours listening to both Sassoon and Owen with the then radical aim of getting them to open up about the horrors they had witnessed.  He also encouraged them to publish their poems in an in-house magazine, The Hydra.

So would the War Poets ever have written their poems without Dr Rivers cathartic listening? What do you think? Meanwhile, the impact of the Craig Lokhart Hospital on the history of the treatment of mental illness is discussed in an excellent BBC iWonder website which hosts a superb discussion resource for students of Owen, Sassoon and the History of Medicine.


Peter Hudson: 

Peter Hudson is a consultant with Consilium Education, who specialises in developing teacher listening skills and supporting school counsellors.  He is a founder of the Motivated Learning Trust.


wilfred-owen (1)

Wilfred Owen


[1] Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen

[2] Counter Attack, Siegfried Sassoon

[3] Suicide in the Trenches, Siegfried Sassoon

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