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Wilfred Owen: A New Biography
Dominic Hibberd
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
£25.00, 424 pages, ISBN 0297829459.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

It is at best odd to be reviewing a biography of Wilfred Owen during a time of war. Owen remains one of the best, if not the best chronicler of modern warfare in its dehumanizing awfulness. Most contemporary readers think of Owen as the sensitive young officer who managed despite his youth and shell shock to write poems that echo down nearly a century and tell of the waste and desecration of war. That image of Owen as Romantic poet is certainly valid, but as Dominic Hibberd makes clear in this excellent biography, Wilfred Owen was more complex than his literary reputation allows.

In his Introduction, Hibberd says of Owen: “He loved words and language; even if he had written no poems, he would deserve to be remembered as one of the finest letter writers of his century” (xix). He goes on to add, “The endearing, sometimes pretentious young versifier, self-absorbed, class-conscious and pedantic, grew into a fiercely compassionate, deeply impressive man” (xix). And as he presents it, Owen’s life divides into the part before the war, and the much shorter part after he enters the conflict in France. Before the war, Owen does appear as self-absorbed and class-conscious. When he was about a year old, his mother, Susan Owen, wrapped up a lock of his hair and wrote “Sir Wilfred Edward Salter-Owen” (1). The name tells us much about her aspirations for her son. He was born into a family of gentry, but not title. His father worked for the railway, but had been out to India. The subsequent loss of Susan’s familial home and the lower-class status of Tom Owen, Wilfred’s father, caused the Owen children to be raised with a deep class-consciousness. Part of the difficulty of unraveling Owen’s history and true status lies in Harold Owen’s biography of his brother. In Journey From Obscurity Harold Owen often claims things that cannot be reconciled with actual dates: he claims that Tom Owen met Susan Shaw in 1880 before Tom went to India. The difficulty with this story, Hibberd points out, is that Tom would have been fifteen at the time, and Susan ten or eleven (4).

This early in the book, Hibberd sets up one of the his agendas which seems to be to correct Harold’s telling of Wilfred’s life. That Wilfred was born at his mother’s ancestral home is not in doubt, nor is the fact that the family lost that home in 1897. The house and possessions went on the auction block, immediately after her father died. Thereafter the family was forced to move to another house in Shrewsbury, where Tom Owen had a job as a relief clerk for the railway. Hibberd points out that Harold, in his instinctive coloring of his narrative, highlights the contrast between his birthplace and Wilfred’s. Harold describes the Shrewsbury house as “rather shabby […] in a long street of other mean little houses—all exactly the same” (12). Whereas Wilfred was born at Plas Wilmot which had five bedrooms, French windows, a garden, a gabled front, a little cottage for servants, and four or five acres of land. Hibberd points out that while Susan’s family was not wealthy, neither was the house on Canon Street mean or small. Throughout the remainder of the book, Hibberd struggles to reconcile the discrepancies between Wilfred’s life as it is portrayed in Harold’s book and as he manages to reconstruct it from outside sources.

About the years of Wilfred’s childhood, Hibberd notices that the miseries of the Birkenhead years have been overstated because the main accounts of those years have come from Harold’s accounts. But it is clear that Susan Owen’s chronic and perhaps hypochondriac invalidism began at this point. Wilfred started school in the only independent middle-class school in the area. He was also enrolled in the Sunday school of the Evangelical church his parents attended: “Mother and son studied the Bible together until Wilfred was able to continue on his own, and for years afterwards he kept up the discipline” (19). Hibberd notes that the exercise was not only religious but also “a regular, intense exposure of the imagination to a book. He learned the language of the Authorized Version, storing up words and phrases” (19). This is, of course, the beginning of Wilfred’s poetic vocabulary and training, though he himself had not yet recognized his calling as a poet. As Hibberd says later on, “The adult Wilfred cannot be understood as man or poet unless his youthful experience of Evangelical religions is remembered. It was a religion based on the Word, on words, on language” (22).

Both Harold and Wilfred mark his beginnings as a poet from a stay in the country near Broxton. Harold claims that Wilfred “looked back to Broxton as the start of his life as a poet. Later, in 1914, Wilfred mentions his beginnings as poet in darkness and disobedience, having been suckled by the moon. And Hibberd then points out that a few key elements of Wilfred’s poetic environment stem from this time: “darkness, secrecy and breaking the rules” (26). Wilfred went roundabout to his calling. For a long time he aimed for the ministry. He went to serve the Reverend Herbert Wigan, Vicar of Dunsden in 1911, who felt that “the ministry stood to gain an excellent recruit” (62). Owen himself planned to study for university entrance exams, hoping to go to Oxford eventually and become a gentleman. And according to Hibberd, he began to feel the strain of the work of teaching and assisting the Vicar. More importantly he began to doubt, a doubt fueled by the tension between his reading of Dickens, Ruskin and Shelley, and the pat scriptural answers to every problem given by the Evangelical preachers around him. More destructive was his discovery of Harold Monro’s Before Dawn (72).

He moved on to read the other Romantics, developed palpitations, and lost his Christian faith. In a draft of a letter to Wigan, he writes that Christianity leaves no room for “imagination, physical sensation, aesthetic philosophy” (98). The myth of Owen the war poet includes the idea that he lost his faith in the war, but Hibberd makes it clear that Owen began to drift away from Evangelical Christianity a few years before he got to France. After this point in the book, Hibberd seems to trace in parallel threads, Owen’s evolution as a poet and his development as a man more and more independent of his mother and her religion. He went to France to tutor for a Berlitz school and to improve his own French. Hibberd maintains that our record of him will always be incomplete for these years because Harold censored them. He was, apparently “especially ruthless with letters that mention himself” (108). In France, Owen discovered the Decadents and perhaps began to come to terms with his own homosexuality.

More importantly, Owen went from France to the Great War and in the process evolved into the mature poet we remember and the man he wanted to be. In France, no one objected to his drinking wine or smoking. His mother was not there to keep him away from theaters. He was called Professor (108-109). He was free to invent himself. He “hinted quietly that his father had a title” (111). His literary influences also changed in France. He read the Symbolists and decided that his true calling was to Art, Poetry, Language. He also began a friendship with the French poet and pacifist Laurent Tailhade, a disciple of Mallarmé and close friend of Verlaine. Though Tailhade has been accused of influencing Owen toward pacifism, his real influence lay in his passionate defense of their Roman-ness against the ‘blond barbarians’ who would destroy it (132-33). Curiously Wilfred seems to have interpreted this to mean that the only reason he would go to war would be to preserve the language “Keats and the rest of them wrote” (133).

So while England was being mobilized Wilfred was developing his Decadent sensibility, the urge to shock and outrage with graphic language that he later used in his war poetry. “Purple” and “moon-white” came into this vocabulary, as did “sweet,” “strange, ” and “exquisite” all from the language of the Decadents. And yet, as Hibberd carefully points out, Owen was developing the calling to something more than poetry that shocks. Owen himself says that “the poet’s task was to tell ‘the truth untold’” (153). Whatever that may have meant to him in France, by the last year of the war, when he had returned to the front, he wrote to his mother: “I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first” (352). Hibberd asserts that he had done the second also. And history and literature bear him out.

Owen succeeded at telling a “true war story” to use Tim O’Brien’s phrase, which “does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done” ( Owen shows us a true war story. It does not instruct us in morality, rather the opposite. For years this quote has puzzled me because it seemed that Owen’s poetry and O’Brien’s books do instruct us. But I realized in reading this biography, that both writers are telling us that war itself is not moral nor instructive, nor preventative. But as evidenced in Owen’s poetry, individual soldiers’ stories can be all of those things. He cared, for all his snobbishness about his own stature, for individual soldiers’ experiences of war.

Hibberd quotes selectively from the poems, but I wished for complete texts. The book includes appendices that feature a history of Susan’s family which seems adequately covered in the text, and the voyages of Harold Owens which are rather unnecessary in this book. The notes are thorough and informative, though the index leaves much to be desired. “Decadent” is not even listed, nor are the individual poem titles. The latter would have assisted the reader who wants to find quickly a reference to a particular poem. In all the book covers Owen’s life in depth and with sympathy. A not so minor quibble is Hibberd’s penchant for speculation, which undermines his reliability. At one point he speculates that while Owen understood his mother’s need for protection and clung to her steadfastness, he was “subconsciously already longing to be free” (20). Hibberd uses phrases like “probably,” “must have,” “could have,” to qualify observations he has little visible support for. The book is perhaps a bit long and marred in a very few places with flat dull sentences. Still, there is so much information that it would be hard to know what to cut from it. Indeed, I wanted the texts of all the poems Hibberd mentions at my fingertips. The evolution of Owen from a Romantic, Decadent Poet, to an officer whose first duty and care is for the men under his charge is a fascinating story. We are grateful to Hibberd for his work, and yet again grateful to the Poet who saw war so clearly that we wonder that there has ever been another.


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