Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
It sounds out of proportion to say the First World War changed everything in literature in English. Out of proportion, because most of the millions who lost their lives, limbs or minds, were hardly worrying about literary art as they went to their fates. As it happens, though, Wilfred Owen was worrying about just that, and so were Edward Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, and several others whose work connected literature to the politics of plain speaking. Perhaps plain speaking is more important in the avoidance of war than anything else. They were still sophisticated writers, but their sophistication was of a different kind: their subtleties came through poetic understatement in vocabulary and in structure.
Only Hemingway survived the War. Owen was killed just a few days before the Armistice, aged 25, Thomas the year before (aged 39). Yet these untheoretical three were as responsible as anyone for turning literature away from its tired, classicist language, its pomposity, and its aversion to the experience of people who ranked low on the socio-economic ladder.
Owen, as an occupant of the perch labelled "lower middle class", was acutely class-conscious, a sensibility made more pointed by his failure to get to university. "Dulce et decorum est", perhaps Owen's greatest poem, is not only a vivid account of an assault by gas, nor just an attack on home propaganda ("Sweet and fitting to die for one's country"?), it is a poem which is at war with the education system of the time. Though exceptionally bright, and fascinated by the Classics - to his poetry's detriment, it has to be said, before the breakthrough of the last poems - Owen was unable to secure a place at university because his Latin was so poor. The knowledge of Latin and its shibboleths, like the phrase from Horace in the poem's title, counted for a great deal then. In university in general, and at Oxbridge in particular, privilege and brief competency in a dead language secured further privilege.
As Dominic Hibberd shows, Owen's own education promised to be indentured slavery. Already unsettled by the mixed fortunes of his family, which meant house move after house move, Owen, with the best intentions, was made a probationer pupil-teacher at the age of fourteen. This meant he not only had to learn his own lessons, he had to learn how to teach other lessons at the same time. After two years of this, he would then have been obliged to teach for at least another seven, or else pay back all grants given to him. The system stored up dangerous pent-up energies: anger, resentment, and bitterness.
This is surely one of the main sources of the "edge" that gives Owen's best poems such bite. As often with auto-didacts, Owen used the tools of the established education system against itself. In "Dulce et Decorum est", Owen confronts "children ardent for some desperate glory" with the horrors of the Front. Owen is here reaching behind the brain-washing of the soon-to-be-recruits: most obviously through the terrible events of the poem, but also via the Latin etymology of "ardent", meaning "burning", a polemical description for the Front's miles-long bonfire of live bodies. This fractured double sonnet is dissonant, confident, and defiant.
I'm not sure that Hibberd's excellent biography emphasises Owen's sensitivity to education, class, and Latinate language quite enough - although he more than registers it - but perhaps this is because Owen himself appears almost always, eventually, to have got through injustices which would have dragged a more psychologically vulnerable person down. I especially liked the account of Owen's pre-war months in France, working at a language school in Bordeaux and gaining enough independence to eventually reject the stultifying educational and religious life he had left behind.
In fact it is one of the strengths of this book that, bar the tragedy of his last moments, Owen emerges as an untragic figure. Hibberd shows how this was a gradual process, the first major break coming fairly late, in 1911, when Owen was in his eighteenth year, and when he was able to move far away from his family home in Shrewsbury and work as a parish assistant at a vicarage a few miles outside Reading. It was here that he began to be dissatisfied with Christian teachings - not a trivial thing for Owen because his upbringing was essentially Evangelical.
His mother, Susan, was the strongest personality in his life and even as his doubts increased Hibberd shows how careful Owen was not to hurt her feelings. Although later angry at the use of Christianity for war propaganda, he also seems to have felt his own lack of belief was not something with which he wished to poison younger minds. This was an important principle for Owen because, as the eldest child of a family of four children, he was in the situation of mentor and even idol from an early age. It is too much to say that he was a "natural leader" - Hibberd shows how he was uncomfortable to begin with as an officer - but that he was made a pupil teacher at all suggest he did have considerable natural authority.
As a parish assistant in the South of England he quickly assumed considerable responsibilities, becoming a kind of secretary for the vicar at a time when the parish minister was still close to the centre of local power. Owen's growing confidence led him more and more to act on his own initiative and it seems that it was here that his sexual development was given unwitting space to develop.
Hibberd has had to address the considerable and in places irreversible censorship by Owen's younger brother, Harold, whose autobiography and "protective" mutilation of the poet's letters have distorted Owen's life for years. Harold Owen was clearly worried that his brother's reputation would be damaged by his sexuality. Sadly, this was probably with good reason. Perhaps even today this "revelation" will matter to some people, will "spoil" the poems. There was certainly a sexual crisis for Owen, but this seems to have been more to do with the fact of his homosexuality being unacceptable to much of society rather than he himself having too many qualms about it. Almost certainly because of Howard's censorship, Hibberd is unable to absolutely confirm that Owen's sexual orientation was the cause of his rapid departure from the vicarage in 1913. Again Hibberd is a sensitive reader of the situation, emphasising that there was no "scandal". Owen was clearly welcome to visit the village and vicarage after his departure, and it is likely that the Vicar Herbert Wigan was more interested in quietly pre-empting complications, since Owen had started to take a particular interest in one teenage boy, than castigating him for any actual offence. Owen's religious doubts meant that this was all for the best.
In any case, one or two of Owen's poems are positively exultant about being gay. One of the best dates from Owen's convalescence at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, and opens with the line, "Who is the god of Canongate?" Another more dreamy poem has a London dockyard locale and imagines the male lovers as ghosts sleeping together.
This was not, I think, the worst of Harold's censorships. He actually seems to have falsified a War Office citation, changing the fact of Owen's killing a number of Germans to his taking them prisoner, making the poet just the "gentle Jesus" figure he would actually have despised. The Wilfred Owen who emerges from this book is an expert marksman, a confident commander of men, and someone quick enough, at a time of extreme crisis, to protect his soldiers by killing the enemy's. He was many other things besides (although I'd have liked more on Owen's brief role as an amateur projectionist and as someone who knew how to develop his own photographs, and on his obsession with the sonnet form). As with his fascinating biography of the poet and Poetry Bookshop founder Harold Monro, Dominic Hibberd has given us an exemplary work of biography, and a fine introduction to one of the more modest but still significant voices of literary modernity.
All texts unless otherwise stated are ©