A good eye for the pity of the 7th hell

Wilfred Owen
April 16, 2004

Wilfred Owen, whose reputation has increased since the 1960s and who is studied by pupils in secondary schools as part of the national curriculum, challenged both the Horatian rhetoric of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori and the rhetoric of poetry itself when he wrote that all a poet could do was warn, and that a true poet should be truthful about the pity of war because therein lies the poetry. Expressing this truth was hard. Yeats, the arch-poet, could not appreciate Owen's poetry, as we were reminded recently at the Royal Society of Literature by Jon Stallworthy, editor of the standard edition of Owen's poems and author of the official biography published in 1974.

This biography by Dominic Hibberd offers a wealth of detail and addresses previously taboo issues. Though there is an ambiguous relationship between life and works (as Jon Silkin, the poet, observed), biography can provide pointers. Hibberd traces Owen's poetic development, illustrating how a sensitivity to language bred through early familiarity with the Bible from his evangelical upbringing led to absorption of other influences, in particular a Keatsian sensuality.

The "literary shock" of meeting Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital speeded self-recognition and a more modern voice but it seems, though doubted by some, that Owen would have matured as a poet without the catalyst of war. Before Dawn by Harold Monro led him to Monro's bookshop in Bloomsbury but it was through Sassoon that he met influential members of London literary society with "Uranian" (that is to say, homoerotic) views.

Their impression of Owen's ordinariness changed to an appreciation of his talent and intelligence, and he was flattered to feel "one of the ones". If the extent of his homosexual experience remains unclear, homoerotic elements in his poetry are evident and Owen becomes another recruit to the "Homintern".

A fascinating view of social history comes into focus with details about family background, social milieu, education and career. Susan Shaw, Owen's mother, appears to have married a little beneath her. Tom Owen worked for the railways, eventually becoming an assistant superintendent (he had spent some years in India, also in the railways), but he was never well off. The extended family (on both sides) was supportive and Susan had useful networking talents. Plas Wilmot, the house built by her maternal grandfather Edward Salter, where Wilfred was born, became a symbol of lost gentility that the magic wish "Sir Wilfred Salter-Owen", written on a piece of paper wrapped round a baby curl, might recover. Journey from Obscurity , the memoirs written by Harold Owen, one of Wilfred's brothers, is mentioned frequently, often to correct facts, but also to illustrate status anxiety and exaggeration about unsuitable neighbours and the cramped condition of houses inhabited after Plas Wilmot.

Owen's pupil-teacher apprenticeship (a means for an intelligent pupil to have a free secondary education) was followed by a period as a parish assistant to the vicar of Dunsden (his mother wanted him to become a clergyman). For a variety of reasons - religious, sexual and social (the comforts of the vicar's house contrasted sharply with the living conditions of the poorest parishioners) - Hibberd considers this to have been a highly traumatic time for Owen, who developed serious doubts about evangelicalism and had dreadful nightmares (to which he was prone). In contrast, his time in Bordeaux, teaching in a Berlitz school and tutoring, suggests freedom from home and class, some loneliness, but a sense of sunshine.

The letters Owen wrote to his mother throughout his life reflect their close bond and offer vivid glimpses of character. Speaking of a reading at Monro's bookshop he describes a Miss Klemantaski who read from Rabindranath Tagore "without much insight into the Hindu spirit". Susan, though busy, suffered from ailments and, hearing she had taken to bed, he suggested that she drink wine to relax, recognising the psychosomatic nature of some of her problems. He also wrote about the "seventh hell" of the trenches. If relations with his father had often been strained, he won his approval on enlisting. It is interesting to note that he was a good soldier and leader, all the more endearing for enjoying wearing uniform and appreciating the gentlemanly prestige of becoming an officer.

The shell-shock that sent him to Craiglockhart did not break him (as suggested by Henry Newbolt) but deepened the experience that made him the poet of the war. Captain Arthur Brock, the specialist to whom Owen was fortunately assigned, believed, like Galen, in treating the whole man, and ergotherapy (reconnecting with environment) has a contemporary relevance in our global society where home is often a lost environment.

Owen rejoined his battalion in action in 1918, the poet-witness drawn by that bond beyond rhetoric and nationalist sentiment - the truth untold.

Anita Money was formerly assistant editor, Agenda .

Wilfred Owen: A New Biography

Author - Dominic Hibberd
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 424
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 297 82945 9

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