- Passing Glory: Wilfred Owen
REACHING PAGE TWO of the new biography of Great War poet Wilfred Owen and reading of his “horrific experience” in the trenches, that “he was kept from death by thoughts of home, and of his mother especially,” I wondered why the Yale editor recommending the book for publication hadn’t merely returned it to the author with regrets. But Owen, matineé-idol handsome, was a celebrated poet killed in action. The telegram announcing his death at twenty-five arrived as the Armistice bells were ringing on 11 November 1918. Wilfred Owen has been, since, the John Keats of war.
Unintentionally, Guy Cuthbertson’s life of Owen has demythologized his considerable literary stature. He will be remembered for some quotable quatrains, and for his remarkable but hardly memorable assonances—half-rhymes (children/cauldron, [a]ware/hear, once/wince, leaves/lives, killed/cold). Although he remains best recalled for the lines “My subject is War, and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity,” Conal O’Riordan, an Irishman whom Owen met at the replacement depot at Étaples in 1917, Cuthbertson notes, had published in 1906 a book titled The Pity of War. Owen’s posthumous fame has eclipsed the forgotten O’Riordan.
In “Strange Meeting,” Owen wrote, more unforgettably, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.…” However paradoxical, the concept reflected most wars, including the one that cost Owen his life. Opponents in battle more often than not represented sides of the same culture, looked like each other, had similar aspirations, worshipped the same deity. It would not be the same in future conflicts, such as the Pacific War in 1941–1945, the Korean War in 1950–1953, and such later wars as in Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
As concepts alone do not make a poem live on the page, the irony of this new biography is that it diminishes Owen’s output as literature. For that, and for Owen’s endurance as a heroic figure, one must return to John Stallworthy’s biography of 1974, which Cuthbertson’s does not replace. A decade later, in 1985, sixteen poets of World War I were commemorated in a Poets’ Corner memorial in Westminster Abbey, established after the last of the honorees, Robert Graves, had died. Owen’s “Pity” lines are on the memorial, confirming him as the iconic poet of the group, which includes Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac [End Page 276] Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Richard Aldington, Edmund Blunden, and Ivor Gurney. Yet one reclusive academic too old to serve and who lived through the war, and whose influential lines long predated 1914, might just as well have been included. The poet of deep melancholy, blasted hopes and early death, whose Shropshire Lad eerily echoed in Owen, was A. E. Housman, who invented the Shropshire that was Owen’s by origin. Housman even infused his lines, begun in the year of Owen’s birth in 1893, with what he described as a “military element.” However downplayed, he may have been the better writer.
Like so many poets Owen admired, on paper and in person, Housman was a closeted homosexual (gay seems anachronistic in this context). So, apparently, was Owen. Cuthbertson, like earlier biographers and editors, finds close male friendships but no liaisons, and an almost passionate attachment to his doting and often distant mother, to whom he wrote unceasingly, and who received, in the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury, the War Office wire about her son’s death.
Owen had not rushed to accept the King’s shilling, as did so many young men with gentlemanly Oxbridge backgrounds. He was the son of a railway stationmaster and only attended college in then-obscure Reading. While Rupert Brooke and others went to their deaths, Owen dawdled as a teacher of English to French students in lush, seaside Bordeaux, which was hardly touched by the war. He resented the bad hand his origins had dealt to him and was ambitious to move up in class-ridden England, where many of those he thought his real peers had already fallen in the foul...