Wilfred Owen: A New Biography by Dominic Hibberd
Read by: Anna/Central Teen Room
Wilfred Owen was a young poet who believed that ones personal experiences made for the best poetry. He was born in 1893 and spent a good portion of his teenage years teaching English in France. His mother was Evangelical in her religion and so was Wilfred for most of his life. He began to question the beliefs of the church after spending a year as a parish assistant, eventually cutting the job short and moving to France. In a new country, he learned a good deal more about the ways of life, however, the Great War was just starting up and he began to feel guilty for not serving his country. In October 1915, he joined the British Army in a regiment known as The Artists’ Rifles, which had begun life as a Volunteer Corps for actual artists. There, they trained him to become an officer. In joining the Army, he met other poets who were able to put him in touch with bookstores and publishers. He began to write more and more poetry, basing it on his new experiences in the army and on some of the work by his new friends. His work grew steadily better and everyone was talking about the new promising poet. A few of his poems were published in magazines. He also spent a good deal of time with suspected homosexuals such as Oscar Wilde and Scott Moncrieff, the latter being attracted to Wilfred enough to write him poems. And though Wilfred doesn’t seem to return the affection toward Scott Moncrieff, he does send his affection and hero-worship toward another male poet and soldier, Siegfried Sassoon. Yet, there is nothing to suggest that any of his relationships were of a sexual nature. Wilfred was in and out of action during the war, suffering from shell shock, or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His poetry reflects what he has seen and cuts no corners. They are as truthfully written as ever they could be. However, in 1918, in the middle of the very last battle, when Wilfred had finally made up his mind to be a full-time poet after the war, the unthinkable happened. Wilfred was helping his men cross a canal when he was shot and killed. He was only 25. He may have died an early death, but his poetry still lives on, and is still just as relevant nearly 100 years later, as it was when he first put it down on paper.
There are many things we will never know about Wilfred. When he went into the Army, he gave his mother a sack of papers, presumably letters to friends and family and drafts of poems too private to show anyone. He told her to burn the sack should anything happen to him and she did. Also, his younger brother, Harold, held many grudges against Wilfred and went through the surviving letters and other papers, editing them to suit his needs. Never-the-less, this biography is the most complete biography of Wilfred Owen, to date, though Hibberd does acknowledge that there may be other papers of Wilfred’s in an attic or two between England and France, waiting to be discovered. Before this book was published there were several others, though Hibberd notes that they were distinctly lacking in many facts, mostly due to family interference. (There appears to be a new biography published in March 2014, though how it compares to this one, I cannot say, as I have not read it yet.)
I enjoyed this biography a lot. It’s very long and detailed, going over every inch of Wilfred’s life. But by the end, I felt as if I had met him and had time to chat with him awhile over a cup of tea. Finishing the book felt like leaving a good friend. I did my best to read this one chapter a day, so yes, it took me awhile to get through it. But it was totally worth it in my opinion. The only thing I would have liked the author to do, was to have given translations to the French. There were several lines copied from French poems that were not translated into English, so what they said, I do not know. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed this biography, especially as it included many pictures of Wilfred, his family and friends, and others mentioned within the text. It also included several maps of the battles Wilfred was involved with to help the reader orient themselves while reading the details of what was going on. All in all, this was a very well researched and well written book. If you have need to read a biography and have the time to get through this one, I highly recommend it.
I also recommend getting a copy of Wilfred’s poems, so that you can read them as they are mentioned in the biography. One should not read the biography without having some knowledge of his poetry. I recommend The Poems of Wilfred Owen edited by Jon Stallworthy, as it contains most of the poems mentioned in the biography. Below, I have included one of his most popular poems that speaks on the horror of war.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Source: The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1986)