For many years, the authoritative text on Owen’s life and deeds has been Jon Stallworthy’s 1974 biography, but Hibberd's not only compliments but surpasses its predecessor in every way; never before has Wilfred been so candidly, definitively and charmingly sculpted than in this ‘New Biography’.
For too long, Wilfred has been seen only as a ‘trench poet’, his work admired, but his life known in scant detail beyond his acquaintance with Siegfried Sassoon in Craiglockhart and his tragic death just one week before the armistice (anyone who protests that I've just 'spoiled the ending' will be emphatically ignored). As Stallworthy before him, Hibberd has endeavoured to present Wilfred not as a deified myth but as a person, and succeeds spectacularly - gone are Stallworthy’s tentative brushings at ‘adolescent infatuations’, replaced by frank, open discussion of the greatest poet of his century’s sexual orientation, his tendencies towards hypochondria and hero-worship, his self-doubt...all his idiosyncrasies and foibles.
With comprehensive details of his horrific life in the ‘seventh hell’ of the trenches as well as his life before becoming a soldier, as a teacher, a vicar’s assistant and a devoted son, every facet of Wilfred’s life that he has left in human memories or in the letters not censored by his brother, Harold, is touched upon. I applaud Hibberd’s accessible style, his objective unwillingness to pass moral judgement, his astounding level of research and his utter dedication. Even for we to whom Owen is a great passion will find much that is new here - yet I would recommend the book to anyone with an appreciation for poetry, braveness or simply the beautiful life of an ordinary man who happened to be the greatest poet of his age.
There is very little to fault. Occasional points could have been clarified with detail found in the letters, and it was occasionally frustrating to find a point of interest with no source, but I cannot help but feel entirely assured that Hibberd, the new authority, knows exactly what he's talking about...