Listening to the rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Education and his allies, you could be forgiven for thinking that the anti-heroic reading of the First World War began with Joan Littlewood, or even Richard Curtis. The truth is that the culprits are far more deeply entrenched in the cultural and educational world: the rot set in with the eyewitnesses whose records of the war made such an anti-heroic version almost canonical within a few years – the journalists and memoirists and, above all, the poets. Wilfred Owen has far more to answer for than Rowan Atkinson.
The prevailing reading of the 1914-18 conflict among most thoughtful people – across the class divides – was that it was a nightmare of ineptitude, squalor and waste. Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”), the army chaplain whose brave, sometimes nakedly sentimental poems shaped the response of huge numbers during and after the war, famously described the conflict as a “Waste of Muscle, Waste of Brain, Waste of Patience, Waste of Pain … Waste of Glory, Waste of God.” In another of his poems he describes his feeling after a week of conducting funerals: “God! What sorrow and what rain!” The stubborn affirmation of the dignity and, yes, heroism of individual soldiers is not allowed to obscure the absurdity and offence of the whole enterprise.
But it’s hardly as though these were the first poets to observe the horrors of war. There is Shakespeare’s startling prose meditation – tellingly, in the voice of a private soldier – in Henry V (“the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place”). Looking back from this, there is Homer; forward, Tolstoy. Why should anyone going into the trenches have had any illusions about war? Was it really such a shock?
Part of the answer is perhaps that the First World War was the first major conflict in which mechanised weaponry made mass killing possible on a scale that must have rendered any individual acts of heroism virtually meaningless. The sheer industrial magnitude of the operation meant that giving significance to the routine atrocity and suffering all around was unprecedentedly hard. The shock was not the physical danger or degradation itself, but the mixture of a protracted stalemate and an uninterrupted production line of technologically crafted killing.
Hence, as Guy Cuthbertson rightly notes in this very readable and focused biography, Wilfred Owen’s deepest protest is captured in one of the best-known poems, his sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, which starts “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” It is not, says Cuthbertson, a protest against war as such but against a war that seems to silence proper mourning and to blur the distinctive human actions and human faces of the victims. It is a very uneven poem: the octave is full of sharp consonantal blows and images of violent chaos, and the sestet softens into a liquid gentleness – skilfully done, but at the cost of a slightly cloying romanticism (“The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall,/Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds”). Yet the stark opening is justly thought of as one of the iconic statements of the war.
Owen vacillates about the justifiability of armed conflict, although he becomes more convinced a pacifist as time goes on; but here he is not making a point about war so much as underscoring something about the new levels of depersonalisation in modern conflict. It is indeed a religiously haunted poem – though Cuthbertson wrongly thinks that passing-bells are a Roman Catholic convention rather than something any country parish in England would be familiar with – in its search for an appropriate ritual in which to reclaim lost dignities.
This wobbling of tone between starkness and sentimentality is one of the more challenging things about Owen’s poetry. Cuthbertson quotes a fair amount of the pre-war material, much of which is frankly dismal: quite a lot of sub-Tennysonian maundering, medieval stage-setting and just a hint of flirtation with 1890s sensualism, though very much at second hand. Poetry – or rather “Poesy” – is presented as a kind of antidote to the risks of physical passion (“God’s soothest answer to all passion’s plea”), a way of conserving imaginative energy through continence.
Passages such as this raise the difficult question of Owen’s emotional and sexual life – a very complex matter that Cuthbertson deals with intelligently and unsensationally. On balance, he is inclined to think that Owen consummated no relationships, with men or women; he remained profoundly attached to a mother whom he addresses in quasi-religious terms, and his deepest attachments seem to have been with young teenagers of both sexes – uncomfortable for a modern reader, though not by any means unusual in the period.
His poems for Arthur Newbolt, a boy he befriended during his stay at the Craiglockhart hospital, are not simple rhapsodies to youthful male beauty: Arthur is (in a striking turn of thought) “not yet young”, and “youth” is what will bring the shutting down of innocence, the arrival of irony (“wry meanings in our words”). Once again, there is a real unease about sexual self-awareness: poetry is there to conserve a pre-pubertal clarity and intensity of vision.
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