restricted access Owen's Voices
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BOOK REVIEWS Owen's Voices Douglas Kerr. Owen's Voices:LanguageandCommunity. Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1993. χ + 346 pp. $54.00 THIS IS an important book, not least because it treats Wilfred Owen's homosexuality as only one of several important issues (an overdue readjustment of emphases). The justification for still another treatment of Owen's life and work does not lie in a lattice-work of guesses about Owen's hunger for love or about the factual data lurking behind references to parts of the male body contained in various poems and letters. Douglas Kerr, a Lecturer in English at the University of Hong Kong, has here produced a rethinking of the bases of the kind of soldier and poet Owen became in the final months of his extraordinarily promising development, and sexual orientation does not dominate his sense of why Owen is worth remembering. Though he offers his share of psychobiographical interpretations, these are based on solid documentation , and will convince most readers: but they are not the most significant part of his study. I personally was impressed by the reasonableness and the ingratiating diffidence with which all such interpretations are offered up for a reader's consideration. Three caveats before I comment on the positive contribution made by Kerr. The first has to do with what seems to have become a plague of parenthetical inserts in the scholarship of the last two decades: editorial asides that offer unwanted witticisms and derailing side-issues. These, if they must be recorded, belong in footnotes or endnotes. So do abbreviated titles of works followed by specific page numbers; they should not break up the text. Kerr is following a practice promulgated by many publishers, not to mention the Modern Language Association in this country; it undoubtedly saves on typesetting costs; but it also uglifies the text, slows down reading, and almost inevitably becomes an unwelcome stylistic mannerism. I lost track of the number of sentences that employed two, three, and sometimes four such inserts. I record this complaint with considerable sadness, but mine is neither a trivial nor a passing concern; Kerr has a distinctive and elegant style, which shows evidence of considerable work to get it said just right. Clarendon Press—and all other academic publishers—really should reconsider the whole matter of a book's readability, which is much more than type-fonts and line-spacing on a given page. The second and third caveats have to do with the way this manuscript is structured. Since Kerr's concern is with the maturation of a literary 521 ELT 37:4 1994 sensibility, events in Owen's life are arranged more or less chronologically : Family, Church, Army, Poetry. The difficulties with such an ordering show up bumpily in the first three divisions, which go over particular issues and use specific quotations repetitively, depending on new points that Kerr wants to make (the assumption, perhaps more condescending than Kerr appreciates, is that the reader has forgotten the first time the point was made or the quotation was used). But it is surprising that he delays his treatment of the issue of Owen's readings, and of Owen's indebtedness to the classics, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Mrs. Browning, and Dickens, until the final hundred pages, despite the fact that Owen read and re-read all these writers long before he entered military service. The reading influences which were new to Owen in his last few years—the Georgians, Harold Monro, Siegfried Sassoon, Leslie Gunston, Charles Baudelaire, Laurent Tailhade , and several French poets whose names and works he often first encountered in anthologies and literary histories—come at the tag end of a lengthy chapter entitled "A Modern Voice," which is presented to us after some 250 pages of text. The unfortunate impression that this sequencing creates is that the literary influences on Owen discussed in the sections on Family, Church, and Army—mentioned while Kerr was considering allied problems affecting the development of Owen's mind—were relatively insignificant. The last two chapters seem relatively pallid compared to the detailed and often brilliant analysis of Owen's adolescence and young manhood that has preceded it. Kerr devotes his final fifty-odd...


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