- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

Wilfred Owen, the English poet killed in France just a week before the Armistice in November 1918, went off to a war very different from that upon which U.S. troops stand poised this New Year in the Middle East. No one expected allied soldiers to slaughter the enemy virtually at will and come home relatively unscathed. Rather, they were assiduously trained to go out and get killed as far too many were.
That is what happened, and no one had any illusions about it once the full terror of the war dissipated initial jingoistic euphoria. When Owen died storming the Sambre-Oise canal with the 2nd battalion of the Manchester Regiment, senior staff officers assured local commanders that artillery support would blot out enemy opposition. But the latter knew from experience on the Somme that this never worked. They "had worked hard to stiffen their battalion's morale after its disastrous charge on Joncourt ridge, and now they would have to pretend that all would be well on the canal. It must have been obvious to everyone that all would not be well."
Beyond the canal and the rest of the Hindenburg Line, the road lay open to Berlin; this was the Germans' last gasp and the temptation for the higher-level British commanders. It was at an element in the last battle of World War I. Owen had been recommended for an award in fierce fighting a very few days earlier. On November 4, his fellow officer and friend 2nd Lieut. John Foulkes, also of the Manchesters, reported last sighting Owen on a raft while the canal was raked by the enemy machine-gun fire for which it was opportunely placed.
Owen did not achieve his Calvary comparison of the British fighting man with Jesus Christ was popular by any saintly means. His military career had been an up and down thing, starting with not being in any hurry to join up. When he arrived in France at the end of 1916, the new second lieutenant conducted himself well in the "Seventh Hell" of Serre and Beaumont Hamel.
But after a terrible episode spent cowering under a sheet of galvanized iron during a many hours-long artillery barrage, Owen's nerve began to fail him. He was invalided home, finding his way to Craiglockart, the Scottish military hospital for officers made famous by W.H.R. Rivers, the anthropologist, and in Owen's case blessed by the presence of Capt.Arthur Brock, a psychiatrist gifted at putting torn-up souls back together again.
With hospital care, recuperation and months of light duty on the home front, it was September of that year, two months before the end of the war, when Owen returned to France. By that time he didn't want to go back. He had made influential friends, Siegfried Sassoon, with whom Owen had a sort of master-disciple friendship, Robert Graves, Robert Ross, Charles Scott Moncrieff (later translator of Proust), the Sitwells.
Representations were made at the War Office through Edward Marsh, another of the friends, to keep Owen in England for which there was some case, his poetry having matured marvelously but the adjutant-general wasn't having any of it. Exactly why Owen returned to the battlefieldremains something of a mystery; he said he'd decided to go, but there remains the suggested taint of authorities not wishing to favor an officer who had broken down rather than staying at the front and doing his duty until death or wounds cut him down. (One commanding officer during Owen's first period in France, accused him of cowardice, but this could have been triggered by a moment of irritability on the superior's part rather than seriously intended.)
In the event, Owen, now sure of his poetic powers, in process of finding himself and sense of purpose all across the board, felt that before settling down to tell in his poetry about the dreadfulness and waste of war, he "needed some reputation of gallantry," and went over to pick it up. He was as whole in himself as it is possible to be, strengthened by, rather than merely recovered from his mental travail and other doubts. He had made a man of himself the hard way. He fought, won his Military Cross and, as suddenly, was killed.
Today, much of the poetry is well known, thanks to a resurgence of interest in Owen in the early 1960s (triggered in part by Vietnam). His last written lines probably are these, asking of those who have survived the savagery of battle:
But what say such as from exis- tence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to
The few who rushed in the body to
enter hell,
And there ouf-fiending all its
friends and flames

Regained cool peaceful air in won-
Why speak not they of comrades
that went under?
The battlefield portion of the story, key to any assessment of Owen the man takes up but a portion of "Wilfred Owen: A New Biography" by Dominic Hibberd, who has filled 200 pages, more than half of his narrative, before getting his man off to war. Mr. Hibberd has devoted much of his working life to Owen, editing the war poems and writing his earlier "Wilfred Owen the Poet" and "Wilfred Owen: The Last Year."
Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, in 1893, the eldest offour children (others Haroldwhose later memoirs and censoring of his brother's correspondence, in part to conceal his homosexuality, caused the loss of much valuable materialMary, Colin) of Thomas and Susan Owen. The family was middle-class but lost prestige when a grandfather's fortune melted away with changing economic times. Wilfred's father was an assistant stationmaster on the railway, his motherto whom he remained close lifelongwas an exceedingly pious evangelical who kept the rest of the family in tow in that regard. There were a succession of homes from Oswestry to Birkenhead to Shrewsbury as Tom laboriously built his career to an executive level, and the book, among its bounty of illustrations and maps, has sketches of them, semi-detached or row villas with bay windows beside the front door in the English style.
Owen was educated in a series of excellent, if socially modest, private schools along with a rigorous religious education provided through church and Sunday school. One of his first jobs after leaving schoolhe never made it to university, failing a scholarship to Reading and regretting never having been to Oxford with a bitterness reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's Jude in "Jude the Obscure" was as parish assistant to the Rev. Herbert Wigan, vicar of Dunsden and a man of much goodness but suffocating piety. A side effect of this assignment was Owen's learning to live in a large house and appreciate the amenities it offered, his social ambition was beginning to come into play. A not-so-side effect was the loss of his faith.
It is almost impossible to convey to an American readership now what the England of those days was like to a young man ofbig ideas but scant resources (inner or material). Sassoon, meeting the poet in 1917, complained that "little Owen" had a grammar-school accent, which he (Sassoon) found "embarrassing."
In getting a quick fix on Owen's place in the history of English poetry, it is helpful to recall something which John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian, wrote in his recent "The Landscape of History," reflecting on how certain people got into the history books where others didn't. It was, the historian judged, largely a matter of being there when the opportunity came along. Owen is in part rooted in the English traditionthe first poet he really noticed was William Wordsworth, and he trained himself to write using John Keats' sonnetsand, in another part, on the good luck of having, before the war and when wondering what to do next, taken a job teaching at Bordeaux's Berlitz Institute branch.
In France during those palmy days before the war, Owen found social mobility simpler to achieve that he had in England, and he was taken up by the older poet Laurent Tailhade. Tailhade had been a student of Stephane Mallarme, and by this route young Wilfred achieved an understanding of, and affection for, the Decadent and Symbolist poets, which he never lost. His poetic edifice is, thus, founded upon a combination of the English tradition and the French radicalism that was to be so influencing of the Modernist poets.
Owen, curiously, never knew the Modernists or their work until he met Osbert Sitwell and became acquainted with the Sitwell siblings' anthology "Wheels." He was beginning to experiment with Modernist poetry when he was killed, but remains a Georgianpoet, situated between the Victorians and the Modernists. Mr. Hibberd understands all this, using the poetry in large measure to portray his subject's development both as man and poet. The method makes for an unusual and masterful work of biography.
By Dominic Hibberd
Ivan R. Dee, $30, 424 pages, illustrated, maps

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