Wilfred Owen, the poet whose work epitomises the horror of the First World War for most people in modern Britain, was born in Oswestry in the Shropshire Marches, close to his Welsh ancestral homeland, one hundred and twenty-one years ago today.
His brief life ended just a quarter of a century later, on November 4th 1918, when he was cut down by a German machine gun as he heroically led his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in the sort of suicidal attack that his poetry had implicitly criticised. Famously, the telegram announcing his death arrived at his parents’ home in Shrewsbury at the exact moment when the bells were ringing out to celebrate the Armistice ending the war.
Though a tragedy for his close-knit family, and particularly for his over-doting mother Susan, the circumstances and timing of Owen’s death in action was perfect for building his posthumous reputation as our premiere ‘poet of pity’ for the casualties and waste of the war. Owen had even defined his role and written his own epitaph in the preface he had sketched out for the poems he intended to publish himself post-war: ‘My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Pity recurs again in his most famous poem ‘Strange Meeting’ when he writes of ‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’.
Though the building of ‘little’ Owen’s reputation (as his mentor and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon patronisingly called his diminutive 5′ 4″ hero-worshipping friend) to its current giant status was a slow burn, his poetry, passing through successive issues edited by his fellow war poets Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, had, by the end of the 1960s, come to define the war itself in the minds of most people born after, say, 1950.
Thanks to books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys and films such as Oh, What a Lovely War! the attitudes of Owen’s poems – that the war had been a wicked conspiracy of the old against the young and that it would have been far better not to resist what the influential German historian Fritz Fischer (writing in the same year as Clark) called ‘Germany’s grab for world-power’ – became the dominant British groupthink.
Modern pacifist Owenites tend to overlook the fact that both their boy and his even more militantly pacifist mentor Sassoon, having made their protest against the war – Sassoon publicly, and Owen privately in his verses – chose to return to the front and fight. Owen, who had been hospitalised at Craiglockhart on suspicion of lacking moral fibre, emulated Sassoon’s heroism on his return, also winning a Military Cross for turning a captured machine gun on fleeing Germans.
The seal was set on Owen’s secular canonisation when no less an authority than Jeremy Paxman proclaimed: ‘For me he is the greatest of all the war poets … the author of some of the most stunning poetry of the twentieth century – and the voice of a generation’.
Historians of the war can – and the vast majority do – lament the fact of Owen’s near deification, pointing out that the war poets were atypical of most soldiers, and their pacifism the viewpoint of a tiny and despised minority at the time. The plain truth is, however, that in contemporary Britain the Great War is Wilfred Owen’s war, and he is today a far better known figure than soldiers such as Douglas Haig or statesmen like Asquith or Lloyd George.
So how justified is Owen’s towering reputation? And just how good are his poems as poetry? There have always been heretics among Owen’s poetic peers who do not share the near-universal adulation heaped upon him. Justifying his refusal to include Owen in the 1936 edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse he was editing, W.B. Yeats magisterially pronounced that: ‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’.
More recently, the acerbic poet and critic Craig Raine scornfully remarked that Owen’s ‘tiny corpus’ of significant work was among the most ‘overrated poetry of the 20th century’. He accused Owen of exemplifying ‘Poetry’s greatest weakness – its easy, posturing eloquence’.
It is, therefore, perfectly legitimate to ask whether Owen’s standing would be half as high as it is had he not died when and how he did. For me, moving as some of Owen’s work is (I rate his account of his early ‘blooding’ in no man’s land ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Exposure’ particularly highly) much of it suffers technical faults of clotted language, obscurity, archaisms and a straining after exaggerated effects that would break the back of a mule.
I defy anyone to let lines like this roll smoothly off the tongue or easily tease out their meaning:
‘Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying..’
(from ‘Exposure’ considered by many to be his greatest poem.)
Even Owen’s supposed major contribution to poetic technique, his ‘invention’ of the half or para-rhyme as in:
‘Wisdom was mine and I had mystery,
Courage was mine and I had mastery’
(from his masterpiece ‘Strange Meeting’) had been used by other poets before him such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Owen’s frequent use of alliteration is also a characteristic of Welsh poetry such as in Dylan Thomas.
It is, of course, unfair to attack Owen for a possibly inflated posthumous reputation puffed up by others (though there is much evidence that Owen was eager and hungry for the fame that only his ghost enjoyed). And it is as impossible to predict in which direction his talents would have taken him had he survived that fatal canal crossing as it is to say what his hero Keats would have accomplished had the TB bacilli not got him at around the same age as the bullets got Owen.
There is also the possibility that Owen’s long shadow has blocked the place in the sun deserved by equally talented but often overlooked poets – Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, for example. It is probable that a reputation as high as Owen’s now stands can only go in one direction: down.
Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and First World War specialist. His Peace and War: Britain in 1914 is published by Head of Zeus. His biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth appears in a new edition in November. He guides tours to the western front with www.historicaltrips.com
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