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Wilfred Owen Paperback – 2 Oct 2015
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"In this compassionate and moving biography, Cuthbertson lifts the lid on Owen's early years and their impact on his work... While his boyishness nurtured his verse, his writing was mature and sophisticated, and Cuthbertson scrutinises this relationship wonderfully.--Julia Richardson, Daily Mail--Julia Richardson"Daily Mail" (10/23/2015)
About the Author
Guy Cuthbertson is senior lecturer in English literature at Liverpool Hope University and an expert on the First World War poets.
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I liked the expansive way in which Cuthbertson detailed Owen's background, both family and geography, and discusses how these affected him. Others may have done this to a degree but this author has delved deeper and further. While some may find this insufficiently close to Owen, I found it useful and informative for instance to be able to picture what Bordeaux was like in 1914, how its prosperous middle class and visitors lived, the Catholicism of the place, in what unfamiliar milieu he found himself and how this affected his development.
There seems to be a tendency for people of one sexual orientation or another to claim Owen as their own. Cuthbertson avoids this, and makes it clear that with the limited factual knowledge available the jury has to be undecided on this matter- a 'not proven' verdict. With cleverly extracted quotations from letters the author also shows the degree to which Owen's class and sensitivity to class affected his life, work and soldiering.
This book is full of useful, interesting material and is easy to read- highly recommended.
The book opens with a seemingly slight but telling encounter at a dinner party, which is skilfully handled to elicit a key aspect of Owen's character. It would seem an unexpected anecdote by which to introduce the man, but is an extremely effective one. The theme of Owen's persistent boyishness is brought forward by a string of well distributed observations, a persona that not even exceptionally severe privations encountered on the battlefield (of which a vivid anecdote of an exceptionally arduous period in January 1917 is given) could undermine. How much of this immaturity was conscious and how much subconscious it is hard to determine. The dichotomy between the poet and the overgrown schoolboy is pointed out and accompanied by several examples of how such a situation has been that of many successful poets, who lived to reach an age tragically denied to Owen. The suggestion that perhaps Owens embrace of his inner child was a response to the strange, threatening, and turbulent times in which he found himself does arise, but it is not advanced. Owen's thoughts of his mother whilst in severe physical jeopardy might not be especially telling, such sensations being widely reported in accounts of men in combat. But they do fit a pattern of the boy who did not want to grow up.
There is an interesting elision of Owen's background, with enough information to serve as a guide for a tour. There are some amusing anecdotes of his childhood, accompanied by some telling remarks about his early penchant for looking beyond the visible world. The significance of the loss of his grandparents home and subsequent move to Birkenhead is brought to the fore, and the Merseyside of the early 20th century is vividly evoked, with no trace of sentiment or exaggeration. The contrast between dirt and progress, wealth and squalor, is well brought out, and Owen's dislike of the area is properly stressed, with no apparent exaggeration. Owen's various explorations of other worlds, separated by space and time, are not and should not be, dismissed as mere escapism. They of course are a key part of his development. The exotic influences contingent on Merseyside's status as a major port are given their proper significance. Of course even the meanest harbour has a air of mystery and potential about it, due to its being a prospective gateway to fairer shores. Tracking down a school essay of Owen's was a nice piece of work, and illustrative of the diligence evidenced throughout the book. Owen's Shrewsbury years are made as much as possible of - despite their uneventful nature, it was a significant part of his development.The lower middle class stereotypes are keenly evoked, but without malice, and it is clear why a sensitive and imaginative person would want to escape such a paradigm. The Empire of course offered a certain alternative to such gloomy prospects, although the consequences of its being made to meet the psychological needs of disaffected citizens of the colonial power can be imagined. His father's foible of permitting it to be believed`that he was a sea captain is another interesting detail.
Owen's being barred by circumstance from any real prospect of entry to Oxford is an important part of the story, and is properly focused upon. The negative emotional consequences of this, as significant then as now, are well considered, and the substantial barriers facing those of humble background aspiring to an Oxford education, rising rather than falling in the present day, are unsentimentally delineated. There is much interest found in Owen's time as an assistant to a country vicar in Oxfordshire and time at Reading, which, although it seemed dull and frustrating, is filled with literary connections from Tennyson to Orwell in a neat assemblage of significances. The author deals well with a potentially very difficult detail in Owen's intense friendship with the schoolboy Vivian Rampton - something that would be downright impossible today. The twin stream of botany and poetry may seem odd to modern urban minds, but makes perfect sense upon a moment's consideration. The bitterness seeping into Owen's character is sympathetically dealt with and quite understandable.
The chapters dealing with Owen's life in France are especially colourful. In a book filled with apposite quotations, that from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that introduces Chapter 4 is especially well chosen. The description of Berlitz language schools in the early twentieth century begs a comparison with the TEFL culture of today. Again, the culture of the area is brought out with references to Toulouse-Lautrec and Goya, who closed his distinguished career in Bordeaux with a charming painting, The Little Milkmaid of Bordeaux, that is quite bereft of the ferocity for which he is world-famous. Owen's fascination with the new technology of heavier-than-air flight is a revelation - southwest France was of course at the centre of the action, the Wright brothers basing their European operation at Pau. The deception practiced by Owen and his father concerning their social position is an amusing vignette, but his mother's concern for his welfare with the example of his lost uncle is not. Owen's relations with women in France are well handled, with no unsustainable assertions made - he doubtless found them attractive, but nothing seems to have happened. Here reality cannot fail to disappoint. His talk of requiring a high standard of partner is quite the sign of youthful idealism to which all can relate. There is a delicate treatment of complex and difficult matters, such as Owen's behaviour towards the young Nenette Leger, shown to quite common at the time and by no means necessitating the especially unpleasant interpretation that would be inevitable in our own day. A controversy that is largely expired, by contrast, is the influence of Catholicism. A dead letter today, becoming too closely involved with Catholicism would have provoked tension in his family, although it is deftly shown how Owen responded to the picturesque aspects of Catholic ritual at least. The sense of a vast catastrophe looming, yet quite undetectable to those upon whom it would soon descend is wonderfully framed, from French newspaper articles to the Royal Agricultural Society show in Owen's home town. Familiar it may be, but poignant it cannot fail to be. The period with the Legers evokes a great deal with little description, and this part of the book really does demand a map of the region, still fairly remote - and intensely picturesque in our own day, the still-extant belief in witchcraft and fairies reminiscent of more remote parts of Europe than France. Perhaps the most important part of these chapters, however, is Owen's real arrival as a poet - and with such a short career it is easy to view him solely as a war poet, ignoring the necessarily slight, but significant, wider dimension of his work. And there is a slight surprise in the verse he wrote condemning the outbreak of war - the furious denunciation of the conflict that has made him famous did not require bitter personal experience. And it is both at odds with the prevailing popular sentiment and a clear perspective on the unfolding catastrophe. Which was to descend upon him soon enough. The range of Owen's ideas, from enlisting in the Italian forces to escaping to neutral Spain are both broad and surprising. But the critical decision was upon him and what now seems the most logical answer was chosen.
Owen's enlistment in the Artist's Rifles and Manchester Regiment is filled out with plentiful references to other war poets, displaying the author's particular expertise. The question of his sexuality is raised again, and not exactly disposed of for sheer lack of evidence. Another frustration, in a life that is already racking up several, is added in the form of Owen's failure to join the RFC. His visits home are especially poignant. The chapter dealing with Owen's deployment includes the full text of Dulce Et Decorum Est, which functions well, as the pole about which all the other quotations of Owen's work orbit. There is sensibly no effort expended on describing the horrors of the trenches, which will be familiar to the readership and better treated of elsewhere. The likening of the trenches to archaeological sites might have seemed incongruous at the time, but seems less so a century on, and will doubtless make yet more sense in centuries to come. There is a typically acute observation made of the report of Owen's Medical Board examination, where the name of the family home is misspelt almost as the French for 'unhealthy'.
As befits a central experience of Owen's life, the time at Craiglockhart is dwelt upon at length and in a particularly vivid manner. The rather eccentric character of Brock is brilliantly depicted and illustrated with references to everything from National Socialism to The Wicker Man. The institution comes across very sympathetically, as being dedicated to the holistic rebuilding of broken men with bountiful measures of humanity and enthusiasm. Comparisons with the modern-day Headley Court are not entirely encouraging. There is no attempt to gloss over the nature of the inmate's problems, however - if Craiglockhart is shown as peaceful during the day it takes on a very different character at night. Owen's poetry during this period is not neglected for the sake of his healing. The important meeting with Sassoon is naturally a chief feature of this chapter, and the differences between the two most famous war poets is smartly presented - Owen never took the firm antiwar stance espoused by Sassoon and no politics are really evinced. There is a good account of Owen's time outside the hospital in Edinburgh, and the significant relationships he developed there. The libertinism and progressive views of the couples he came to know in St. Bernard's Crescent, stand in rather exotic opposition to the privations of a war entering its fourth year. Certainly Owen's time at Craiglockhart consisted of anything than being shut up. The relationship with Sassoon and the maturation of Owen's poetry is of course well characterised. The reference to Charlie Chaplin in The Dead-Beat is another typically sharp observation.
The description of Owen's friendship with Scott Moncrieff and by extension his yearning for the public school life always denied him forms an interesting diversion as the book heads towards its conclusion, the calamitous ending all know. The author might be excused any examination of Owen's sexuality at all given the severe paucity of evidence supporting any preferences. But instead a fairly thorough and sympathetic examination is made, of a topic that might be considered a sensational irrelevance in most regards but cannot reasonably be ignored in a biography, which must needs be comprehensive. The very different world of the early 20th century is presented, in terms of the degree of toleration of pederasty in the public school environment. It is certainly difficult to conceive of a book such as Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth being considered fit to publish today, by any firm with any sort of eye on mass circulation. The author has not always made friends for his failure to firmly state that Owen was gay, but he gives compelling reasons for not having done so. And one can only go in the direction that, and as far as, the facts take one.
In describing Owen's last months in Britain, the author generates a perfectly-pitched sense of unstoppable convergence, that is part and parcel of any real tragedy. It is not at all burdensome, even these closing phases of Owen's life are treated in the witty and erudite manner displayed throughout the book. It certainly seems clear that Owen's return to France brought out the best in him, even as the war was lumbering towards its close. The author pays good attention to the departures of the troops for the Continent, which had more finality than people allowed themselves to believe. There is of course no sentimentality in this. The final chapter cannot have been particularly easy to write, treating as it does of the one experience common to all, but the description of the hammer blow that fell on the Owen household just as the family were expecting to receive their three sons home is ideal - terse, concise, and bereft of excessive emotional payload. It is both ironic and illustrative that Owen's grave lies close to the front line of 1914. A peculiar incident recounted is the exchange between Scott Moncrieff and Susan Owen, claiming that he had been helped by Owen from beyond the grave - one fruit of careful research. Among the excellent selection of illustrations is a portrait of Owen that is reminiscent of the photographs that appeared in the grief-stricken Britain of 1918, apparently showing the shades of dead soldiers returning to their loved ones. Another powerful and ingenious illustration is the Morse code for that most dreaded of telegrams, which excites considerable admiration for the fortitude of the clerks whose bitter duty it was to process hundreds or thousands of these. Owen's legacy is discussed briefly but expertly and provides one solid justification for the existence of the biography.
Overall, the book is a superb read, filled throughout with nuggets of erudition, and an ideal mixture of acuity and sympathy. I was quite surprised at its size when first seeing it, but there is no wasted space. Much is said, all with the author's good humour and patience. Some on here have complained of the author's plentiful use of association with matters beyond Owen's life - such references are not just acceptable but probably inevitable, given the need to entwine a brief life into times past and future. Other criticism, that the author has not identified Owen as gay, has arisen. That he has not done so - and given his reasons - is testament to both his scholarship and integrity. One goes as far as the facts taken one - and no further. The life and work are masterfully interwoven and much is done to make one think anew on things that might seem dully familiar. As a life of the most famous of the war poets, and of the entire 20th century, accessiblilty obtained without the sacrifice of accuracy in the apparently easy manner that is the prerogative of those who truly know their subject, it is hard indeed to see how it could be bettered. Thoroughly recommended.
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