Most helpful positive review
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An excellent edition of an outstanding poet
on 31 October 2008
This review is intended to serve two different audiences: in the first part I'll talk about Owen's poetry, and why, if you've not done so before, you should, must and absolutely have to spend some time getting to grips with his writing; and in the second part I'll deal with the ins and outs of this particular edition of his verse (there being a great many available on the market.)
So, why be so insistent that you read Owen? Well, he was in many ways the most talented poet writing in English in the First World War, and his poems go furthest to communicate the experience of the men who fought in the trenches to readers almost a century away from the battles he saw. His most famous poems, such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et decorum est" are lyrical, elegant pieces of poetry that present intensely moving images of what Owen himself described as "the pity of war", and no-one will ever forget the image of the young man who was a second too slow to put his gas mask on. These poems are his most traditional, owing a clear debt to Keats and Shelley, and it seems as though in them he is writing the final verses of the great Victorian century of poetry. Yet there is much more to his writing: some of his poetry shows the early shoots of modernism, for example in the more allusive (and elusive) "Strange Meeting" and "Insensibilty", in which Owen seems to be looking forward, using language and techniques not unlike those of Eliot and Pound. For me, though, the poem which has moved me every time I have read it for over 15 years is "Futility", a tender and beautiful lament for a young man killed just before dawn. It is true that 90 years have passed since Owen died, but his poetry remains for us the defining account of the Great War.
So to the second part of this review. Owen is back on the A-level syllabus, and many readers will want to know if this book will help them in their studies. And the short answer is, yes. John Stallworthy is an excellent editor: honest and open about the choices he has made, and uncricitical in his provision of a great variety of alternative views and interpretations. His notes, which follow every poem, are wonderfully generous (citing whole other poems where necessary), and each poem is given a brief account of the circumstances in which it was produced. His introduction is excellent, describing Owen's life and literary influences (an understanding of which is essential if you are to really get to grips with his work), and giving readings of some of his more famous works. In all, I could not wish for a better edition of his war poetry: early and incomplete works are also provided, and the feeling one gets is of first rate scholarship.
I will be honest that for some time I had an ambivalent relationship with Owen's work, beeing too much distracted by the apparent simplicity of his more famous work, and not appreciating the remarkable creative process, and in particular his engagement with the poetic tradition, that lies behind his work. Using this edition has restored my enjoyment, and I am hugely greatful for it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.