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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

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