Wilfred Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal. A few days earlier he wrote his last letter while billeted at the ‘smoky cellar of the Forester’s house’ in Pommereuil, northern France. The letter to his mother was typically reassuring, particularly in light of the fact that Owen knew another attack was imminent.
‘There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines. I hope you are as warm as I am; as serene in your room as I am here. Of this I am certain. You could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.’
Death’s taken leave; the cellar
so crammed night can’t squeeze
under the lintel of this forester’s cottage.
He writes beside a fire that’s loaded
with damp wood. Pink cheeked, slack braced,
men jostle and joke like factory boys
around a smoke, like miners waiting on pints
or farm hands come in from winter cold, elbowing
and nudging in their rolled-up sleeves.
A lid chatters on a pot and cards
are squarely dealt. A boy turns in the arms
of mothering sleep. Low voices drift.
He loves, he lives, he loves, he lives.
The beat in his temple, repeating this.
From ‘The Sun Bathers’ (2013)