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Wilfred Owen: The Peter Pan of the trenches

The anti-heroic reading of the First World War did not begin with Blackadder - Wilfred Owen has far more to answer for than Richard Curtis, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Young soldiers from the Royal Lancers in Tonbridge
during the First World War, 1915.
Photo: Popperfoto

Wilfred Owen 
Guy Cuthbertson
Yale University Press, 346pp, £25

Listening to the rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Education and his allies, you could be forgiven for thinking that the anti-heroic reading of the First World War began with Joan Littlewood, or even Richard Curtis. The truth is that the culprits are far more deeply entrenched in the cultural and educational world: the rot set in with the eyewitnesses whose records of the war made such an anti-heroic version almost canonical within a few years – the journalists and memoirists and, above all, the poets. Wilfred Owen has far more to answer for than Rowan Atkinson.

The prevailing reading of the 1914-18 conflict among most thoughtful people – across the class divides – was that it was a nightmare of ineptitude, squalor and waste. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”), the army chaplain whose brave, sometimes nakedly sentimental poems shaped the response of huge numbers during and after the war, famously described the conflict as a “Waste of Muscle, Waste of Brain, Waste of Patience, Waste of Pain … Waste of Glory, Waste of God.” In another of his poems he describes his feeling after a week of conducting funerals: “God! What sorrow and what rain!” The stubborn affirmation of the dignity and, yes, heroism of individual soldiers is not allowed to obscure the absurdity and offence of the whole enterprise.

But it’s hardly as though these were the first poets to observe the horrors of war. There is Shakespeare’s startling prose meditation – tellingly, in the voice of a private soldier – in Henry V (“the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place”). Looking back from this, there is Homer; forward, Tolstoy. Why should anyone going into the trenches have had any illusions about war? Was it really such a shock?

Part of the answer is perhaps that the First World War was the first major conflict in which mechanised weaponry made mass killing possible on a scale that must have rendered any individual acts of heroism virtually meaningless. The sheer industrial magnitude of the operation meant that giving significance to the routine atrocity and suffering all around was unprecedentedly hard. The shock was not the physical danger or degradation itself, but the mixture of a protracted stalemate and an uninterrupted production line of technologically crafted killing.

Hence, as Guy Cuthbertson rightly notes in this very readable and focused biography, Wilfred Owen’s deepest protest is captured in one of the best-known poems, his sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, which starts “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” It is not, says Cuthbertson, a protest against war as such but against a war that seems to silence proper mourning and to blur the distinctive human actions and human faces of the victims. It is a very uneven poem: the octave is full of sharp consonantal blows and images of violent chaos, and the sestet softens into a liquid gentleness – skilfully done, but at the cost of a slightly cloying romanticism (“The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,/Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds”). Yet the stark opening is justly thought of as one of the iconic statements of the war.

Owen vacillates about the justifiability of armed conflict, although he becomes more convinced a pacifist as time goes on; but here he is not making a point about war so much as underscoring something about the new levels of depersonalisation in modern conflict. It is indeed a religiously haunted poem – though Cuthbertson wrongly thinks that passing-bells are a Roman Catholic convention rather than something any country parish in England would be familiar with – in its search for an appropriate ritual in which to reclaim lost dignities.

This wobbling of tone between starkness and sentimentality is one of the more challenging things about Owen’s poetry. Cuthbertson quotes a fair amount of the pre-war material, much of which is frankly dismal: quite a lot of sub-Tennysonian maundering, medieval stage-setting and just a hint of flirtation with 1890s sensualism, though very much at second hand. Poetry – or rather “Poesy” – is presented as a kind of antidote to the risks of physical passion (“God’s soothest answer to all passion’s plea”), a way of conserving imaginative energy through continence.

Passages such as this raise the difficult question of Owen’s emotional and sexual life – a very complex matter that Cuthbertson deals with intelligently and unsensationally. On balance, he is inclined to think that Owen consummated no relationships, with men or women; he remained profoundly attached to a mother whom he addresses in quasi-religious terms, and his deepest attachments seem to have been with young teenagers of both sexes – uncomfortable for a modern reader, though not by any means unusual in the period.

His poems for Arthur Newbolt, a boy he befriended during his stay at the Craiglockhart hospital, are not simple rhapsodies to youthful male beauty: Arthur is (in a striking turn of thought) “not yet young”, and “youth” is what will bring the shutting down of innocence, the arrival of irony (“wry meanings in our words”). Once again, there is a real unease about sexual self-awareness: poetry is there to conserve a pre-pubertal clarity and intensity of vision.

Cuthbertson offers little encouragement to those who want Owen’s identity to be straightforwardly gay but he acknowledges that there is a good deal of vague homo­erotic subtext in much of his mature verse – and that Owen was taken up by the discreet, fastidious and rather solemn group around Oscar Wilde’s loyal friend, Robbie Ross. He quotes some hair-raisingly silly and offensive observations by Robert Graves to the effect that Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were shocked by the deaths of soldiers because they were homosexual (that is, they felt the same shock and intensity about male victims of violence that others would feel about “fields of corpses of women”; this gets worse the longer you think about it), and that Owen’s “passive homosexual streak” made him a “weakling”.

This tells us a great deal more about Graves than about Owen or Sassoon but at least it reminds us, Cuthbertson notes, of the risks of tidy binary categories in the reading of the literature of this period (Graves himself recognised the imaginative and emotional confusions connected with the conventions of middle- and upper-class education and with the exclusively male environment of the army, and seems to have been troubled by ambivalent memories of his own schooldays, “honourable and chaste” as they were).

In his introduction Cuthbertson quotes Owen’s characterisation of the poet as essentially “childish” – “a Child of Nine” – and the theme recurs, making the war poetry still more poignant: Peter Pan in the trenches, a boy (though Owen was in his mid-twenties when he died) determined not to grow up, yet confronted with unmanageable adult trauma and not turning away from it. No wonder that another of his iconic poems, “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young”, depicts an Abraham who has no compunction in slaughtering his child, despite God’s vain efforts to persuade him otherwise. Cuthbertson rather oddly thinks that this has more to do with Owen’s conflicted feelings about his father than with the war, and gives the poem less weight than it deserves; but it is difficult not to see in this a protest about everything – the war above all (why else the reference to “parapets and trenches”?) – that spells the doom of childhood perception.

One of the things that makes Owen still compelling is surely this style of celebrating the child’s eye – not in Trahernian or Wordsworthian directness but obliquely, by the furious lament for its violent destruction. It may seem strange to think of the hardened troops in the trenches as childlike, yet we need to remember not only Owen’s air of “innocence” (the descriptions of his social skills in mixed company make him sound like a schoolboy) but the bare fact that so many of the casualties of the 1914-18 war were virtually children. Only now, after all, are we slowly waking up to the truth that sending adolescents into battle has a few moral questions around it.

Cuthbertson’s judgements can be a bit uneven and some of his occasional identifications of literary or other echoes do not quite persuade. I cannot see that the wry “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” in “Strange Meeting” has anything to do with Wilde’s “Each man kills the thing he loves”, for instance. For Owen, what is happening is the ironic discovery only on the far side of death of a solidarity that has been there all along; not Wilde’s insight at all. His touch is also rather unsure on the obscure question of Owen’s religious sensibility: he tends in some passages to assimilate a rather autopilot medievalism to specifically Catholic promptings or interests (as with the passing-bells, and as with “The city lights across the waterside”, which is mostly standard and rather lifeless antiquarian stage-setting).

Owen had some passing interest in Catholic culture, not surprisingly, given his long sojourn in France, but his religious feeling was always difficult and independent. His evocation of the impact of war-shattered roadside crucifixes and ruined churches is powerful. But the most interesting thing Owen does with this is to suggest that the violence of the war has somehow stripped away the comfortable veneer of familiarity from the worn images of unspeakable suffering that litter churches. As for Studdert-Kennedy in his more unsophisticated verse, there is something about the trenches that makes for both the most extreme and angry protest about religious confidence (“Near Calvary strolls many a priest”) and the most intense sense of a real but helpless divinity (like the God who fails to stop Abraham’s sacrifice).

There seems to have been a conscious decision not to spend too much time comparing Owen with other war poets. Graves features a little, Sassoon a bit more, but Ivor Gurney rates only a couple of mentions, and David Jones – admittedly a rather special case – does not appear at all. It is an intelligible choice; but there might have been some allusion to the way in which the Jones of “In Parenthesis” tries, with brilliant effect, to “rescue” the archaic language of a heroic age for the unheroic casualties of the trenches and to clothe them with a mythology, religious and secular, appropriate to their human richness. And – though this may not be wholly fair – it is a bit surprising to find no use made of Pat Barker’s wonderful recreation of Craiglockhart and its inmates, especially her absorbing account of the process of Owen revising “Anthem for Doomed Youth” under Sassoon’s guidance.

This book does not aim to replace Jon Stallworthy’s definitive biography, or to be a comprehensive critical survey; but it is a vigorous, well-documented narrative, with fresh light to cast on some central themes. It is excellent on the Shropshire background, on Owen’s educational career, including his long-lived nostalgia for the Oxford he had never attended, and on the curious life he led as an émigré in France. It offers too some intelligent analysis of Owen’s growing technical accomplishment as a poet (it is tempting to connect his skilful use of chiming consonantal groups and vocalic half-rhymes with some Welsh genetic imprint from the classical form of cynghanedd). Quite properly, it does not try to explain the process by which a rather immature flâneur, writing mostly imitative and slack verse, comes to be not only such an emotionally raw and unsparing writer but one, increasingly, of hard-nosed technical proficiency.

Exactly what hurts anyone “into poetry” is not easily charted. But it would be sad if, in the confused noise currently surrounding the commemoration of the 1914-18 conflict, we domesticated the hurt or persuaded ourselves that “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” was any more innocent a slogan than Owen thought it was.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has joined the New Statesman as a lead book reviewer. His new poetry collection, “The Other Mountain”, will be published by Carcanet in October

Image: young soldiers from the Royal Lancers in Tonbridge during the First World War, 1915. Credit: Popperfoto

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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