WILFRED OWEN by Jon Stallworthy
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A restrained, perfectly modulated biography of the young English officer whose apparently mediocre poetic talents erupted into genius in the trenches of the Somme. Stallworthy depicts Owen, before he became one of the men who marched away, as a pleasantly ordinary young man who wrote wholly conventional poetry--highly idealized, self-consciously rhetorical stuff--throughout his adolescence. From boyhood Owen's idol was Keats, whose over-refined, hypochondriac sensibilities he shared. Though the Owen family was a close and happy one, Wilfred's father worried about the young aesthete who had no ""practical"" career plans. Not until 1916 did Wilfred enlist. He was sent to the Front in France and his first letters home describe the conditions he was to endure for several months: ""Mud. It has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas."" The aesthete spent his days under machine-gun fire in a dugout two feet high with cold, stinking water. After seeing his company decimated, Owen was diagnosed by a doctor as suffering from neurasthenia and shipped to Craiglockheart hospital in Edinburgh. There he met--and was immediately drawn to--the poet Siegfried Sassoon who had been labeled as suffering from hallucinations after he threw his Military Cross into the Mersey. At Craiglockhart, listening to the nocturnal moans of soldiers tormented by the nightmares that were the legacy of the battlefield, Owen wrote one of the most famous literary manifestoes of the 20th century: ""This book is not about heroes. . . . Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War."" In the few months he had left to live the change in Owen's style was complete. From overblown romanticism he moved to poems that were stark and compressed--an unbearably tactile poetry of pockmarked earth, maimed creatures and ""the sour sharp odour of the shell."" Stallworthy avoids all sentimentality just as the author of An Anthem For Doomed Youth would have wanted it.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1975
ISBN: 019282211X
Publisher: Oxford