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Truth amid the trenches; As the centenary of the start of World War One approaches, Richard Edmonds reviews a biography of Wilfred Owen, one of the great war poets PROFILE.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

WILFRED OWEN (1893-1918) is one of Britain's best known and most loved war poets. There were others - Rupert Brooke, for example, Charles Sorley, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Siegfried Sassoon and the quietly lyrical Edward Thomas.

All these men looked at the First World War with new eyes, seeing the brutality and horror which lay beneath the accepted political rhetoric which glorified the slaughter of innocent young soldiers beneath the hollow words: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" - "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country". They knew it was not.

Wilfred Owen was a deeply compassionate man who said: "My subject is War, and the pity of War." Owen also believed that any poet worth his salt must be truthful, it was a belief born out of his experiences in the trenches as a serving soldier.

And rarely has a poet been better served than by Guy Cuthbertson's sensitive and beautifully-written account of a young life which ended so brutally with a sniper's bullet in the head on November 4 1918, just a week before the Armistice.

Owen left behind a body of poetry which was developed during his years as a serving officer, where he acted heroically despite his famous misgivings about the rationale of war.

It is fine books like this which draw us back again and again to Owen's Anthem For Doomed Youth, (where you have that scalding line: "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"), Dulce et Decorum Est and Exposure. Where else has the pity and futility of conflict been better captured than here? It is scarcely surprising that young soldiers returning from Afghanistan speak of their experience of that futility Owen understood so well, and carry his verses in their kit bags.

But where did it begin and what brought a decent young lad from Shrewsbury through a series of highly formative experiences (which ended up in the mud and horror of the trenches), to the point where his writings were to place him on a pinnacle as the greatest war poet we have? Throughout this highly readable study, the author, using a wealth of fascinating detail (friendships, places, innermost thoughts etc), never loses sight of the continual development of Owen's poetic style which came to its highest point during the war when the young poet witnessed violence, maimed bodies and a continual destruction of innocent men which drove words out of him with what his friend and mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, called "a compassionate and challenging realism".

Sassoon and Owen met at Craiglockhart, a smart hydro near Edinburgh hastily converted to a military hospital for severe cases of shellshock. Sassoon, who was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, was there as an alternative to a military prison when he decided to take a stand against the conduct of the war in 1917.

Owen was sent there following a fall into a cellar on the front line which left him badly concussed. But the physical shock gradually transferred to his inner self and images of death began to haunt him.

There is a fascinating section at this point in the writing where Cuthbertson discusses the effect on Owen's poetry of this illness. Certainly his gift strengthens at Craiglockhart. But did it strengthen through his fragile condition, as Keats (Owen's hero) found a stronger voice around the early 1800s as tuberculosis began to eat into his lungs? At the hospital, craftwork was encouraged: Owen beat a piece of copper into a bowl. There were talks about the virtues of local communities working with the land, labour was good as were folk traditions, the open air and cold baths.

It was all very public school with a pervading sense of muscular Christianity.

But the greater significance in Owen's life was his developing reputation as a poet, something which brought him into contact with literary London. H.G.Wells took to Owen, publishers were brought into the equation and he became an intimate acquaintance of Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's friend and champion and a man who helped Wilde through his prison sentence and cared for him later.

At Craiglockhart the relationship with Sassoon flourished in spite of class differences. Owen didn't see Craiglockhart as a posh looney-bin, having failed to get into university (trying twice from Shrewsbury) he called it his "free-and-easy Oxford" , it was where the first draft of Dulce et Decorum Est was set down.

There were talks, discussions, (Owen gave a paper on "Do Plants Think?") and in the evenings, he visited Sassoon and took his advice on his poetry, which the older man already saw as acquiring greatness. Owen wrote not of the glory of war, but about the people in the gutter, the anonymous soldiers drowning uselessly in the deadly mud, dying on the barbed wire along the trench borders or screaming with pain in military hospitals.

In later years, DH Lawrence spoke of male friendship as a positive thing. Sassoon believed in male closeness, and Owen, aloof and shy by nature, probably felt the same emotions. In modern terms he and Sassoon bonded, it was "man love".

Owen's letter to Sassoon written from Shrewsbury contains this: "I love you - dispassionately - so much. You have fixed my life-however short."

Prophetic words. Owen barely reached 25.

Should you purchase this truly lovely and deeply humane book, I guarantee you will read and re-read it - maybe for the rest of your life.

Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson (Yale: PS25)


Wilfred Owen in his uniform. Photograph taken by John Gunston in 1916. Courtesey The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Owen Collection (English Faculty Library) and, inset, Guy Cuthbertson's new book

Wilfred Owen as a boy and in Dunsden, probably in 1912, courtesey: The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Owen Collection (English Faculty Library). In uniform (smiling) in 1915 or 1916 - picture probably taken by John Gunston, courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 10, 2014
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