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253 OWEN AGONISTES By Joseph Cohen (Newcomb College, TuIane University) In BLASTING AND BOMBARDIERING, Wyndham Lewis crowed in 1937 that "the hens of the War are all coming home to roost."1 They have not, however, all made it home yet. For critical interest in the war poets is only now mounting to the point of sustained assessment; and even with the recent appearance of several books dealing with these writers^ there is much that remains to be investigated. Wilfred Owen is a case in point. Though all three volumes in his brother Harold's JOURNEY FROM OBSCURITY: MEMOIRS OF THE OWEN FAMiLY3 are now published we still know, for example, practically nothing of Wilfred Owen's day by day life as man and poet on the Western Front. While Volume 3 ¡Îμ subtitled "War", its opening lines belie this context: "... although the war looms darkly as a background I have not attempted a detailed account of Wilfred's experiences as a soldier....Wi1fred and I were too widely separated to learn anything important or first-hand about each other's war. My meetings with him in the war years, chronicled in these pages, were tragically few and fleeting , ,. , . This volume therefore is not a 'War' book" (MEMOIRS, III, ix)„ A decade of research has suggested to me that our wide lack of information concerning Owen's military life and its relationship to his poetry is not accidental . There seems almost to have been a conspiracy of silence punctuated over the years by the occasional release of carefully chosen materials designed to create an image not of a human being but of a self-sacrificing soldier-hero who in a brilliant and poignant protest bequeathed his eloquent wisdom to posterity. No one denies the eloquence, but the guarded and controlled dissemination of information has prevented our viewing the poet in all his human dimensions. If a conspiracy has existed, it was initiated innocently, to be sure, by Siegfried Sassoon in his Introduction to Owen's POEMS in the now famous 1920 edition. In his opening paragraph, Sassoon wrote, "All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems; any superficial impressions of his personality, any records of his conversation, behaviour, or appearance, would be irrelevant and unseemly. The curiosity which demands such morsels would be incapable of appreciating the richness of his work."^ In 1931, Edmund Blunden prefaced his edition of the POEMS with a memoir5 that glosses over some salient aspects of the war poet's life at the Front about which there is still considerable speculation. Blunden's intention was to carve masterfully a picture of a hero speaking from the grave to all who would listen. Up to this time, the conspiracy seems to have been casual; afterward, it hardened. In I947, Harold Owen wrote to the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT replying to an inquiry from Dennis Weiland in which he stated unequivocably that neither information nor permissions to publish could be granted anyone. "There are," he said, "aspects of Owen which . . . can oniy be truthfully disclosed by someone who shares his blood."° When WeI land's book finally appeared in 1960,7 it was devoid of references to Owen's private 1 i fe. Prior to I960 I had established contact with Harold Owen, and in a long series of letters between 1954 and I96O he iterated over and over the view that any information obtained outside of the poet's immediate family about their private lives was suspect and almost certain to be incredibly misleading. The truth, he argued, would have to be set forth by a member of the family» Until that time came, the 254 world had no alternative but to wait and indulge in fruitless speculation over the autobiographical content of the poems. In 1958 Edmund Blunden's WAR POETS 1914-1918 was published in the WRITERS AND THEIR WORK series, and again, the gaps in Owen's life were left unattended. Blunden concentrated his energies entirely on extending the hero-legend: "Overworked, valiant, modest and kind [Owen] was just a company commander on the lines of so many at that date; and the machine-gun got him while he was coaxing his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 253-268
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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