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A review of Wilfred Owen: A New Biography by Dominic Hibberd
A review of Wilfred Owen , by Dominic Hibberd.
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When I was in high school in the late 1970s, my English class did a unit on war poetry. I remember reading Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Randall Jarrell’s “Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner,” and Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, on going to war”: “I could not love thee, dear, so well lov’d I not honour more.” (Who’s Honor Moore?, was our juvenile joke.)
We also read a number of poems by Wilfred Owen (1893–1918). I now know this was partly because by the Sixties, when our teacher would have been training to teach us, Wilfred Owen had become the anti-war poet, the poet of pity enshrined in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1962). Hatred of war was obviously an essential part of our education: to our teachers’ horror, we knew nothing about Vietnam—my class was the first one they’d had who didn’t recognize dog tags or a draft letter in a collage. But the larger, greater reason for reading Owen was the unmistakable power of his extraordinary poetry even (especially?) on callow students like us. His imagery carried us into comparing sonnets, had us listening for rhyme and pararhyme (e.g., silent/salient, wire/war), checking allusions and consulting maps, even voluntarily looking words up in the dictionary. My experience then was not a fluke. Whenever I have a bunch of college students dubious about poetry, Owen is guaranteed to galvanize them.
Owen has become the new Keats. Like Keats, the intensity of his love for poetry, his laboring in obscurity, above all the ironies and romance of his early death are powerful even despite their frequent telling: only five of Owen’s poems were published during his lifetime; he suffered from shell-shock; back at the front, he died a week before the end of the war on an attempted canal crossing that he would have survived if it had been called off ten minutes earlier; on November 11, as the church bells were pealing out the news of the Armistice, his parents got the telegram reporting his death. For Owen and Keats, both dead in their mid-twenties, the life story can threaten to replace the work. Dominic Hibberd gracefully balances both in his new biography of Owen.
Hibberd, who has previously published two books on Owen, has an unsentimental sympathy for the verbal postures and absurdities of the young Owen. Nor does he let Owen’s final poetic annus mirabilis predetermine the earlier parts of the story. Hibberd also judiciously leaves some gaps in Owen’s life unfilled. Harold, Wilfred’s long-lived younger brother, plays an important role in the footnotes. He took censorious scissors to Wilfred’s letters and, not surprisingly, elicits some exasperation from the biographer: “Harold eventually reconciled himself to the idea of being Welsh, but he was never able to admit that one of his family’s principal occupations had been shopkeeping.” Harold once actually thanked Siegfried Sassoon for destroying letters that hinted at his brother’s homosexuality. Hibberd treats the issue calmly—he concludes that Owen came to realize he was a homosexual but that “there is no evidence either way” to suggest he ever acted upon the discovery (except for a possible botched sexual relationship with Scott Moncrieff, the translator of Proust). Although Hibberd isn’t writing a poet-and-his-age biography, the book richly details Owen’s religious, educational, and class background.
Wilfred Owen came from the distinctly unromantic northern urban lower-middle-class. Owen’s father was a railway clerk, his mother a serious Evangelical. Practical education, the earnest virtues of hard work, sobriety, and thrift, and genteel manners were their hopes for rising in society. This straining for status could be crippling to a poet—stinking, for example, “was a banned word in the Owen family”—and much of Owen’s early poetry bears the marks of such anxious high-mindededness. Leaving school at fourteen, Owen worked hard to find a place for himself, but couldn’t settle on the right niche: elementary-school teacher, parish assistant, Berlitz instructor, tutor … . Poetry had long been a constant, however. When he discovered a new poet—Keats, Wordsworth—he set himself to imitating him; he versified Hans Christian Andersen stories as an exercise; rail-passes from his father let him experience the frisson of literary places firsthand. And in a sense it was poetry that drew Owen into the war. Unlike his public-school contemporaries, he had been in no hurry to join up—Hibberd points out that Owen’s first “artistic response to the war” was playing Chopin’s Marche Funèbre on the piano. But when an older decadent poet who had befriended him, Laurent Tailhade, recruited soldiers with Anatole France, Owen thought it a “beautiful gesture.” In 1916 he joined an officer’s training corps, the Artists’ Rifles.
At first Owen quite enjoyed the status of officer. He “amused himself by looking sternly at men his own age still in civilian dress, enjoying their embarrassed expressions.” He proved to be a good officer, but by the very end of the war, in a late letter to Osbert Sitwell, he had come to a more ambiguous, even tormented, understanding of what that meant.
For 14 hours yesterday I was at work—teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst till after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.
The War killed off most of his old abstract notions about “poetry”: “I have no Fancies and no Feelings… . Positively they went numb with my feet.” He’d landed in “seventh Hell,” where the mud was “an octopus of sucking clay,” the corpses in No Man’s Land were frozen in their grotesque death throes, and men could drown in bomb craters. Owen was not yet the poet of pity—he collected battlefield souvenirs for himself and his youngest brother Colin—but the corpses in his poems are no longer decadent symbols, but the real decaying thing. During a nine-day bombardment in April 1917, Owen was blasted into a railway cutting where he spent days looking at his “brother officer [who] lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him.” A later shell disinterred the dead officer who lay “in various places round about.”
As Hibberd notes, “Shell-shock gave [Owen] seventeen months of safety.” The most important part of that time was spent at Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers. There Owen met the two people who most influenced his war poetry. First was Arthur Brock, “precisely the right doctor” for Owen. He was interested in treating not merely the illness, but the whole man in relationship with his environment (he had recently published a translation of Galen). He called his treatment “ergotherapy;” the work-cure he set for Owen included writing poetry to unleash “the phantoms of the mind.”
Then appeared another soldier-poet. Siegfried Sassoon was already a published writer whose work Owen admired. Sassoon is often credited with discovering and revising Owen’s poetry, but Hibberd’s Sassoon is no Ezra Pound. Still, Sassoon, almost by his mere presence, encouraged Owen to work on his poems. He also introduced him to the aesthetic values of the proto-modernist Georgians and to rising poetic players such as Robert Graves and the Sitwells. Sassoon condescended to the hero-worshipping, provincially vowelled “little Owen” (again like Keats, Owen’s shortness seemed to prevent taller upper-class contemporaries from appreciating his inner heroism). By this time Owen was mature enough to discount Sassoon’s “blasting little smile” and could gratefully assess what he owed: “[Y]ou have fixed my Life—however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me.”
Hibberd believes that, thanks to these new poetic possibilities, Owen was able to forge a “new mode for war poetry, neither Graves’s cool stoicism nor Sassoon’s tormented satire.” Owen had always admired Keats’ credo—“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Beauty had been blasted out of the physical realm entirely, but Truth might still be possible. As he wrote in the Preface he drafted for the volume of poetry that didn’t appear until after his death, “Above all I am not concerned with poetry./ My subject is War, and the pity of War./ The Poetry is in the pity.”
Thrifty Owen loathed the waste of the wasteland. The fragments that he shores up against his ruins are made of more common stone than Eliot’s—the Gospels and Tennyson—but they are more straightforwardly affecting, too. In such poems as “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” “Exposure,” “At a Calvary near Ancre,” and the astonishing “Strange Meeting” in which he imagines a meeting between himself and a man he’d killed, Owen recreates the possibility of moral poetry. Sometimes the tone is one of moral excoriation: “Thinking of the eyes I have made sightless, and the bleeding lads’ cheeks I have wiped, I say: Vengeance is mine, I, Owen will repay.” But increasingly, he used what he had salvaged of his religious and pedagogic training for a nobler project. “Dulce et Decorum Est,” the first poem of Owen’s I ever read, begins by describing a mustard gas attack in which one soldier, too slow at getting his gas mask on, “drowns.” The descriptions are harrowing, the final moral to all of us noncombatants pointed, but strangely generous.
The sensuous verbal luxury he learned from Keats has been transmuted into moral sympathy of strange power. And here’s the final unintended irony: many readers first feel the power of Horace’s words through Owen’s. Among the dead, who gives whom the lie?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 February 2003, on page 75
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Beauty-blasted-1818
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