A Shropshire lad

Wilfred Owen: a new biography

Dominic Hibberd <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 424pp, £25</em>

ISBN 02

Wilfred Owen was unknown to all but his family and a handful of (albeit influential) friends when he was killed on 4 November 1918, a week before the end of the Great War. But the posthumous promotion of his work by supporters and editors - such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Cecil Day Lewis and Jon Stallworthy - has ensured that today, Owen is the poet through whom generations of school children have vicariously experienced the slaughter of the Western Front.

Dominic Hibberd has devoted most of his professional life to Owen scholarship. He is the author of distinguished critical studies of Owen's poetry and of his remarkable final year, during which he broke free from his early lush Romanticism and French decadent influences to compose the poems on which his reputation rests.

The passage of years and the death of Owen's homophobic, censorious brother Harold have allowed Hibberd to be certain where Owen's previous biographer Jon Stallworthy was timid. Yes, Owen was homosexual, covertly but proudly so. (Hibberd reveals a probable seduction by Proust's translator Charles Scott Moncrieff, and possible encounters with rent boys.) No, he was neither a coward nor unhinged by his traumas at the front. Although he understandably lost his nerve after being buried alive by a shell, he returned to the front to win a Military Cross for gallantry.

Like Sassoon, Owen put aside his pacifist convictions to lead the men he loved in more than an abstract sense: "A call I know/And I must go". And, despite the efforts of his appalling mother, who misquoted one of his poems on his tombstone to suggest he died an evangelical believer like herself, he died a despairing atheist. Just as he skilfully hid his homosexuality, for all his honesty, he spared her his loss of faith.

Hibberd shows that Owen's crisis of faith predated his experiences of war. After a misguided attempt to join the Church, he put his religious feeling not into choirs, but choirboys - and poetry. For a literary critic, Hibberd discusses the poems sparingly ; I would have liked more of his acute exegesis. But he spares no effort in explaining the military history essential to understanding the context in which the poems were written. At times, you feel as if you are there with Owen as he flinches under shellfire or freezes on the exposed slopes of the Somme.

Hibberd hopes that we will learn to love Owen by the end of the book, but it remains hard to love this poet of pity who became the voice of doomed youth. A petit-bourgeois provincial snob from Shropshire, he was ashamed of his lower-middle-class origins. He was, like Rupert Brooke and Sassoon, a mummy's boy. He wrote from the front to tell her that he was fighting not for his motherland, nor for his mother tongue, but for his mother.

Reading Owen - his excellent letters and poems - has contributed hugely to our contemporary picture of the Great War as a meaningless mass slaughter of innocent "lads" by the desiccated boys of the Old Brigade. If this is a distortion of history, as modern military historians complain, it is also the view of the war that has become our truth. Gentle, gay, whey-faced "Little Owen", in his mentor Sassoon's patronising patrician phrase, is our unanswerable chief witness for the prosecution. As such, he deserved - but had so far lacked - a definitive biography. Now it is indisputably here.

Nigel Jones is assistant editor of BBC History Magazine

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Show trial: the left in the dock