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Wilfred Owen, by Guy Cuthbertson, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$40, 352 pages
In Regeneration, the first in her trilogy of novels about the first world war, Pat Barker enthrallingly recreates the period in summer 1917 when Wilfred Owen was being treated for shell shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Owen was having what Guy Cuthbertson in his new book describes as “horrible dreams, often memories of the Front”. But it was also there at the hospital, under the influence of fellow soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, that Owen, overcome by the futility of what he had experienced even if he was never a pacifist, outgrew the fey romanticism of his early verse and began to write with controlled intensity and confidence.
In Edinburgh, Owen worked on multiple revisions of “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, with its vision of so many young men dying “as cattle” on the western front. Owen, who was a believer but disliked the Church, wrote in May 1917 of how, amid the carnage and the slaughter, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land”, and his best work, as well as anger, has deep spiritual resonance.
After recovering from shell shock Owen eventually returned to the front, only to be killed a week before the end of the war. He was 25 and had published five poems. Yet today the best of what he wrote – “Anthem”, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Strange Meeting” – is among the most enduring poetry in the language and Owen is deservedly one of our most cherished poets.
Cuthbertson’s Wilfred Owen is a fan’s biography. It is ardent, dreamy and at times a touch swooning. There are some problems of tone and register because the author, an academic at Liverpool Hope University who has also written a book on poet Edward Thomas, moves uneasily between the more conventional language of literary biography and a kind of breathless raciness more suited to popular fiction.
The pre-soldier Owen is described as a “dashing gent sporting . . . his famous moustache”. There are many descriptions of this moustache, which according to Cuthbertson (who in his author’s photograph is clean-shaven) has become “one of the most famous of the 20th century . . . up there with those of, say, Harold Macmillan and HG Wells”. On another occasion he writes that Owen’s “cry was a Garbo-esque ‘I want to be alone.’”
Before enlisting in the Artists’ Rifles, a volunteer regiment, Owen spent a period working as a teacher of English in Bordeaux, and one of the well-connected female acquaintances he met there is introduced as being “easy on the eye”. Another woman Owen met in France is a “real stunner”.
Yet one forgives the author his stylistic foibles and also his weakness for overstatement because he writes with such sincerity, telling the story of Owen’s short life and journey from provincial obscurity to the carnage of the western front and then to posthumous fame as a “war” poet with diligence and empathy.
Owen was not one of England’s gilded youths, a product of the great public schools and Oxbridge. He was born into a lower-middle-class Anglo-Welsh family, or just “slightly above the working classes” as Cuthbertson would have it. His father was a railway worker who became a stationmaster in Birkenhead and then Shrewsbury, where Owen attended the local technical school. As an intelligent, sensitive young boy with literary aspirations, he felt keenly a sense of social disadvantage, resentful of those with family money and privilege.
In Cuthbertson’s retelling of his life, Owen resembles Thomas Hardy’s Jude, thwarted in his ambition to go to Oxford. “Couldn’t you divine why ‘Oxford’ is a banned word with me,” Owen wrote in a letter to a cousin in 1915. “I ought to be there.”
Owen’s closest relationship was with his mother Susan. Freud wrote that “a man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror”. Owen never felt like a conqueror exactly but, even in lonely adolescence, he was convinced of his destiny as a poet and drew strength and purpose from his mother’s unstinting love. “Wilfred was always such a devoted son, our love for each other ‘intense,’ ” Susan wrote after her son’s death. From the trenches, in 1917, Owen wrote to his mother in a kind of rapture: “I saw you gliding up to me, veiled in azure . . . I thought you looked very very beautiful and well, through the veil.”
It’s often assumed that Owen was homosexual and he certainly became very close to Sassoon in Edinburgh. However, Cuthbertson suggests that the poet’s relationships with men and women were chaste and that even if some of his poetry has a homoerotic subtext, he was romantically, though not carnally, attracted to sexless adolescents, boys and girls. Perhaps he simply loved his mother too much.
Owen was an unashamed romantic, deeply influenced by Keats, whom he read from an early age, and Shelley. He had little interest in modernist experimentation; much of his verse has a Georgian conventionality. He may not have been a modernist but his war poems remain startlingly modern: urgent, alive with felt experience.
His short, vivid, unsparing poetic recastings of life in the trenches – the senseless slaughter, the suffering, the moments of compassion, the juxtaposition of tenderness and brutality – have helped harden our understanding of the first world war as a futile catastrophe. The many hundreds of thousands of young British men who were killed in the mud of the western front were, indeed, doomed through their participation in a conflict that even today, a century later, we continue to misinterpret and misunderstand.
The last of those who fought in the Great War are dead now but, because of Wilfred Owen and fellow war poets, because of a great novel such as All Quiet on the Western Front and the shattered landscapes of the paintings of Paul Nash, we are fortunate to have imperishable first-hand artistic representations of the horror and the pity of it all.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman