Owen's war just a click away

November 6, 1998

On the anniversary of the death of poet Wilfred Owen, Phil White and Natasha Loder report on a remarkable digital archive that enriches his work in the context of the Great War

There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines," wrote the poet Wilfred Owen, 80 years ago last Saturday. Four days later he was dead at the age of 25, a week before the armistice. Along with numerous letters, he left some of the most poignant poetry of the Great War.

The anniversary coincides with a remarkable work of digital scholarship, the Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive, which brings together a mass of material for use by teachers and researchers in modern history and literature.

"It has virtually reassembled the Wilfred Owen collection," says Stuart Lee, head of the centre for humanities computing at Oxford University. "This was dispersed in the 1970s between Oxford, the British Library and Texas. It has also brought his records from the Public Record Office. Previously a scholar would have had to travel around the world to see them all - and have a very good reason for seeing them."

The archive contains a complete digital collection of manuscripts, selected letters, the poet's personal, medical and war service records, and numerous audio and video clips. There is also an almost complete run of Hydra, a literary review from Craiglockhart Military Hospital, which Owen edited during convalescence there. "You don't often find archives with audio and video linked together in such a thematic way," says Lee.

Owen's work was almost all unpublished at his death. With few final versions of his poems, access to manuscripts of his original writing is all the more important for students and scholars. You can see the progression of Owen's poems between drafts, and the way he honed his adjectives. "He was a great rewriter of his works. You can see how he developed, what he wanted to change," says Lee. Owen's most famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" was originally dedicated to Jessie Pope, an inscription which disappears from later manuscripts.

Owen's writing is filled with suppressed energy belied by a detached, shell-shocked style of description - something clear from the combined letters and poetry in the archive. Owen, Lee observes, "has that style of detachment, but at the same time slipping everything in. The emotion comes through in the poetry but of course it's much more crafted there".

The multimedia format of the archive lends itself to setting Owen's material with other related items from the war.

"We wanted to immerse the poetry in its historical context, and were keen to have other approaches to it, so put in material for historians. The Imperial War Museum has been wonderful. They helped us select 250 pictures from thousands," says Lee.

The museum supplied video including the 1916 propaganda movie Battle of the Somme "for minimal cost" , along with audio clips of 1970s interviews with Great War veterans.

The format also sets the psychological backdrop to Owen's poetry, with items that place the writing in the context of the poet's experience. Lee says: "There's an interview with a lady. Her husband was shot for cowardice. Incredible, because he was clearly suffering from shell shock. You can bear that in mind with Owen."

One of Lee's personal highlights of the archive is a photograph of the grave of a 15-year-old boy - one of the youngest to die in the war: "That sort of thing brings it home. It's quite a wonderful picture. At the bottom are some cards left by his great nieces and nephews saying 'from the family you never knew'."

With manuscripts approaching their ninth decade, "it was clear a digital archive had a role to play in preservation".

Lee says: "We're happy. Particularly about the Hydra. That's Owen's personal collection on the site. An expert said in ten years' time you'd be unable to open the journal without damage. We've got good images of every page."

Funding for the project, some Pounds 56,000, came largely from the Joint Information Systems Committee's Technology Applications Programme. Most of this was spent employing a project officer. Aside from this, only around Pounds 10,000 was needed - largely for digitising material. The web archive has around 200 megabytes of material, comprising 600 documents related to Owen, 60 video clips, more than 100 audio clips and 500 photographs.

The Oxford centre developed the project as an extension of a popular online tutorial on the work of war poet Isaac Rosenberg. "We were working in the area of the First World War, and the English faculty library is extremely keen to get into information technology," Lee explains.

The archive represents two years of full-time work by project manager Paul Groves, and a good slice of Lee's time. Originally a medievalist, he now works on the Great War period and has "picked up computing".

There is now abundant material online in the humanities, but WOMDA represents one of the first multimedia collections designed specifically as a teaching resource.

Fundamental to this is a "path creation scheme" - a facility which allows users to tag useful material and add annotations as they move through the data. Such paths can be saved for use as lessons. Until now, Lee claims, internet databases provided "no way of mapping a path through it for yourself, or for your students. So we're pretty pleased. So pleased we slapped a copyright notice on it quite quickly when a major publishing company came to see it."

Since its launch on October 1, WOMDA has attracted many thousands of visitors. Tenth and 11th grade United States students and English A-level students are known to have been taught with the archive, and Lee's own students will soon find it part of their studies.

"The US Navy are using it," he adds, "which is quite daunting. A course about battlefield conditions had a couple of lectures on the western front which said 'see the movie clips and listen to the audio'. I don't know whether it has changed their perception of warfare."

Another useful spin-off was the use of the archive in a hybrid library experiment. "We took the archive, modified the interface and put it in the English faculty library next to the case containing Owen's personal library. It (the archive) directs you to non-digitised material such as journals and books around you," Lee says.

"It's an interesting experiment. Scholars now only have to look at the digital copy. They don't have to finger the manuscripts, which has pleased the library no end."

Lee expects to be busy with similar work for some time. Already, his work has led to a scheme developing similar projects for academics from Oxford's other humanities departments. Over the next nine months he will be thinking a bit bigger. He is moving onto a new project which will look at all Oxford's collections to assess if they can be digitised. "My subject is War," Owen wrote, "and the pity of War." Eighty years ago the conflict that made him a poet took his life. Today, Wilfred Owen is at scholarship's cutting edge, the centrepiece in a project bringing alive his poetry and the war to end all wars.

WOMDA website: http://firth.natcorp. ox.ac.uk/jtap/

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