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Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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    Wilfred Owen
    Book Description:

    One of Britain's best-known and most loved poets, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was killed at age 25 on one of the last days of the First World War, having acted heroically as soldier and officer despite his famous misgivings about the war's rationale and conduct. He left behind a body of poetry that sensitively captured the pity, rage, valor, and futility of the conflict.In this new biography Guy Cuthbertson provides a fresh account of Owen's life and formative influences: the lower-middle-class childhood that he tried to escape; the places he lived in, from Birkenhead to Bordeaux; his class anxieties and his religious doubts; his sexuality and friendships; his close relationship with his mother and his childlike personality. Cuthbertson chronicles a great poet's growth to poetic maturity, illuminates the social strata of the extraordinary Edwardian era, and adds rich context to how Owen's enduring verse can be understood.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19855-3
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  4. A Note of Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    The Caledonian Hotel, a rosy-coloured Victorian building, stands regally at the western end of Princes Street in Edinburgh, and its opulent interior has long been a place for special dinners and romantic assignations. There, one evening in September 1917, the artist Cecile Walton was at a glamorous dinner when ‘with a certain amount of fuss’ she was handed a note.¹ The piece of paper told her to be nice to the man sitting on her left, who was ‘a dear a real dear’, an officer called Owen. The beautiful twenty-six-year-old woman, a lady seen in many paintings, turned to Lieutenant...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Lands of Our Fathers
    (pp. 6-21)

    Fighting in 1918, Wilfred Owen scrambled out of a trench and confronted the machine guns with ‘quick bounds from cover to cover’, ‘remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the Mountains’.³ The Owens seem to have come, some way back, from the north-west of Wales, wild Wales, and Wilfred Owen’s father Tom certainly liked to believe that he was descended from a certain Baron Lewis Owen, knight of the shire and baron of the exchequer under the Tudors, a member of parliament, an usher of the chamber and sheriff of mountainous Merionethshire: ‘it was...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Struggle for Existence
    (pp. 22-39)

    One famous Birkenhead resident, Nathaniel Hawthorne, admitted that ‘Liverpool, though not very delightful as a place of residence, is a most convenient and admirable point to get away from’.³ Owen did escape, but not too far. In 1907, Tom Owen was promoted to assistant superintendent and the Owens moved back to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury had become something of a railway town as a link between the Midlands and the North, and with a grand neo-Tudor station, built in 1849 and expanded in 1855, and with a huge signal box the size of a row of houses, it announced to the traveller...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Banned Word
    (pp. 40-60)

    In 1911 or 1912, Wilfred Owen could have been arriving at university as the full cliché, tweedy with a tin trunk and a long scarf, talking to a porter in an old gateway, ready for three years of beautiful buildings and brilliant friends, a poet awaiting the glittering prizes. Rupert Brooke went to Cambridge, Edward Thomas went to Oxford, Siegfried Sassoon went to Cambridge, Edmund Blunden went to Oxford, Robert Nichols went to Oxford, Robert Graves went to Oxford, Julian Grenfell went to Oxford: most of the ‘war poets’ were Oxbridge products or Oxbridge-bound. Vera Brittain arrived at Oxford in...

  8. CHAPTER 4 L’Homme du Monde
    (pp. 61-73)

    Wilfred Owen arrived in France in September 1913 in order to teach English at the Berlitz School. Through the autumn and winter in Bordeaux, when it was frequently wet, he worked long days in an elegant balconied building on the corner of the rue du Temple, above the glistening trams and umbrellas of the Cours de l’Intendance. The Berlitz language schools were found, and are still found, in most major European cities and teachers were required to converse only in the language they were teaching, not in the language of the students – the students were adults rather than children, and...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Venus and Mars
    (pp. 74-88)

    In Bordeaux in March 1914, it seemed to rain constantly; as in England, there had hardly been a wetter March. Rain soaked the sailors and dockers at the quays, and at the Place des Quinconces it ran down the statues of Montaigne, Montesquieu, Liberty, Eloquence, History, Bordeaux, Garonne, Dordogne, the Republic and Concord. Women moved about the streets as quickly as their long skirts would allow, and the benches favoured by young couples were left vacant. Against café awnings, the rain pattered so loudly that it almost drowned out the city’s church bells, while at the vast Catholic cemetery the...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Valleys Shadowful
    (pp. 89-109)

    A town can tell its story through its railway stations. Tom Owen’s Shrewsbury Station was ‘the Gateway to Wales’, fortified with battlements: Shrewsbury was a border town, and, as the King said, a town of battles. By contrast, the Gare St Jean at Bordeaux is one of the more luxurious stations in France, a château forle chemin de fer, suited to vineyards and the city’s eighteenth-century prime, and its rail shed sits on classical columns, like those of the Grand Théâtre. Wilfred Owen arrived here early on the morning of 30 July with plenty of time to take in...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Mist’ Howin’s Honied Slumber
    (pp. 110-128)

    Wilfred Owen returned to Bordeaux in the middle of September 1914, when it was the time of the grape harvest. The countryside had lost many of the men who would normally have picked the grapes, but nonetheless the vineyards would have been home to an army of grape-pickers. The crop was smaller this year, but 1914 was a vintage year for Bordeaux. The train from the Pyrenees ran briefly past the vineyards, through the Sauternes wine country – Sauternes is home to the high-quality, sweet and pricey Château d’ Yquem wine that Owen favoured. Perhaps he recalled a phrase that he...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Mother and Fatherland
    (pp. 129-157)

    In London in late October or early November 1915, Owen wrote a train poem, ‘It was a Navy Boy’, where there’s a brief encounter between the poet and the navy boy in ‘my compartment of the train’. It is an intriguing poem because it brings together the railway, where his father worked, and a sailor, which is what his father wanted to be. Owen says ‘I am no “sir”’, possibly recalling the invention of ‘Sir’ Thomas Owen, and yet it isn’t a poem about his father – the poem could have become an analysis of a father–son relationship, but in...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Octopus
    (pp. 158-178)

    At the very end of 1916, after seeing his family at Christmas, Wilfred Owen arrived in France, having narrowly escaped a rail accident on his way to Folkestone and then having crossed the Channel from there. His arrival in France gave him some of the excitement that he had experienced when he arrived there in 1913. Unlike most soldiers, he was able to speak to the locals, and he was barely a foreigner. Returning to France in 1915, he had written that it took just three hours for everything to cease to feel foreign. At the large camp at Étaples,...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Brock’s Folk
    (pp. 179-202)

    On the morning of Monday 25 June, Wilfred Owen left Netley and took the train to London. Arriving after lunchtime, he had an afternoon as a gentleman of leisure, shopping and gallery-going, spending his officer’s pay. Even at Dunsden, he had rarely had the time or the money to pop up to Town for an afternoon of self-indulgence. Nonetheless, his description of his afternoon in London shows that, had he so wished, he could have written the kind of very English social comedy, revolving around class, clothes, cream teas, chatter and curates, that would be mastered by his fellow Oswestrian,...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Modern People
    (pp. 203-221)

    Through the late summer of 1917, Owen’s friendship with Sassoon developed, with Sassoon providing advice to the junior poet – Sassoon was the senior man not only in their poetic careers but also in age, class, education, height and military experience. He referred to Owen as ‘my little friend’, ‘an interesting little chap’, ‘perceptibly provincial’.³ Born in 1886, Sassoon had attended Marlborough College and Clare College; Cambridge; he had a private income from his wealthy family; he had acquired influential and literary friends at an early age, including Edmund Gosse and Edward Marsh; and at the Front he had shown incredible...

  16. CHAPTER 12 The Ghost and Graves
    (pp. 222-249)

    When Wilfred Owen appeared before the Medical Board at the end of October 1917 he was deemed to be unfit for General Service ‘permanently’, unfit for a garrison or labour battalion abroad ‘permanently’, and unfit for Home Service for ‘four months’, but fit for ‘Light duty of a clerical nature’ and was given three weeks’ leave.³ Sassoon was keen for Owen to spend some of his leave at Garsington Manor near Oxford, where the generous and comical hostess was Lady Ottoline Morrell, who invited to her home writers, intellectuals and artists, the great and the pseudo-great. One guest, D. H....

  17. CHAPTER 13 A Public School Man
    (pp. 250-266)

    Wilfred Owen’s new friend, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, worked in London, so he and Owen were two hundred miles apart once Owen had returned to Scarborough, and yet he became close to Owen, and Owen would become an important part of his life. Born in Scotland in September 1889, Scott Moncrieff was four years older than Owen, although he had only left university in 1914. Unlike Sassoon, he seems never to have looked down on his little friend, and, in fact, rather looked up to him: after all, Owen was the genuine poet, now recognised as such by Graves and...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Gallantry
    (pp. 267-290)

    Ripon’s huge military camp spread round three sides of the town, and since 1914 it had acquired many miles of new roads and paths, a railway, and thousands of men (about 70,000 troops by 1917), many of whom found it hard to enjoy the badly run camp – J. B. Priestley recalled that ‘my spirits sank as low there as they did anywhere during the whole war’.³ The inefficiencies of the camp were highlighted on Saturday 16 March, when, despite all those soldiers, six German officers, held there as prisoners of war, managed to escape.⁴ The British troops enjoyed escaping too...

  19. CHAPTER 15 Home
    (pp. 291-300)

    In Shrewsbury, the Owens could read in the newspapers about the progress towards peace. On 1 November 1918 there had been 1,497,198 British officers and men in France, out of a total of 3,458,586 in the British army as a whole, and now, surely, all but an unlucky few would survive the war. Wilfred Owen had told his mother to expect him home by February 1919. The Home Front was not an entirely safe place, since the influenza pandemic – the Spanish Flu – was now killing 7,000 people a week in Britain, and killed possibly 30 million across the globe, but...

  20. Abbreviations
    (pp. 301-301)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 302-330)
  22. Further Reading
    (pp. 331-332)
  23. Illustration Acknowledgments
    (pp. 333-333)
  24. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 334-337)
  25. Index
    (pp. 338-346)