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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

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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