Wilfred Owen: A New Biography
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.
£25.00, 424 pages, ISBN 0297829459.
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, Owens 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 Susans
familial home and the lower-class status of Tom Owen, Wilfreds father,
caused the Owen children to be raised with a deep class-consciousness. Part of
the difficulty of unraveling Owens history and true status lies in Harold
Owens 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
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 Harolds telling of Wilfreds life. That Wilfred was
born at his mothers 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 Wilfreds.
Harold describes the Shrewsbury house as rather shabby [
] in a long
street of other mean little housesall 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 Susans 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 Wilfreds life
as it is portrayed in Harolds book and as he manages to reconstruct it
from outside sources.
About the years of Wilfreds childhood, Hibberd notices that the miseries
of the Birkenhead years have been overstated because the main accounts of those
years have come from Harolds accounts. But it is clear that Susan Owens
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
Wilfreds 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 Wilfreds 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 Monros Before
He moved on to read the other Romantics, developed palpitations,
and lost his Christian faith. In a draft of a letter to Wigan,
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, Owens 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
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).
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
So while England was being mobilized Wilfred was developing his
Decadent sensibility, the urge to shock and outrage with graphic
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 poets 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 boysdirectly 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
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
Owen shows us a true war story. It does not instruct us in
For years this quote has puzzled me because it seemed that
and OBriens 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 Owens
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
Susans 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
Owens life in depth and with sympathy. A not so minor quibble is Hibberds
penchant for speculation, which undermines his reliability. At one point he speculates
that while Owen understood his mothers 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
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.