Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remembering Wilfred Owen

On this Armistice Day of 2008 the Wild Reed remembers and honors Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), an English poet and soldier who is regarded as one of the leading poets of the First World War.

Notes Wikipedia:

[Owen’s] shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his friend Siegfried Sassoon and sat in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time, and to to the confidently patriotic verse written earlier by war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Some of his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – include Dulce Et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility, and Strange Meeting.

Owen was killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre on November 4, 1918, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration.

On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery
Brought into Action

By Wilfred Owen

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great Gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse.
Spend our resentment, cannon, - yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.

Yet, for men’s sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

Peter Rivendell notes that “[Owen] is generally now accepted as having being homosexual through indications in some of his poems, his circle of friends in London, and his letters – although his brother is acknowledged to have destroyed or edited hundreds of these.”

Wikipedia provides more information and evidence of Owen’s homosexuality:

Robert Graves and Sacheverell Sitwell (who also personally knew him) have stated Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen’s poetry. Through Siegfried Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which included Oscar Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross, writer and poet Osbert Sitwell, and Scottish writer C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of “Proust.” This contact broadened Owen’s outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work. Historians have debated whether Owen had an affair with Scott-Moncrieff in May 1918; Scott-Moncrieff had dedicated various works to a “Mr W.O.”, but Owen never responded.

The account of Owen’s sexual development has been somewhat obscured because his brother, Harold Owen, removed what he considered discreditable passages in Owen’s letters and diaries after the death of their mother.

Following is an excerpt from Warwick McFadyen’s review of Dominic Hibberd’s 2003 book, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography.

Wilfred Owen’s voice fell silent on November 4, 1918, a week before the guns of the Great War halted their guttural blood-red roar. Soldier Owen, 25, had published only five poems.

The stilling of his life, however, did not silence his work. A collection of poems appeared under the guidance of poets Siegfried Sassoon in 1919, and Edmund Blunden in 1931. But it was to be 50 years after the war that gave both succor to his writing and led to his death that Owen’s stature was realized.

There were many parts to Owen the man and presenting an informed and rounded view of him has been a task Icarus-like in its ambition. In Wilfred Owen, Dominic Hibberd has come closer to the sum of the man than any other. Owen’s life, death and poetry have been part of Hibberd’s life for 30 years. He is the fourth editor of Owen’s poems, following on from Sassoon, Blunden and Cecil Day Lewis, and has written Owen the Poet (1986) and Wilfred Owen: The Last Year (1992).

Hibberd has scraped back the layers of myth and ignorance on the family canvas to reveal a portrait of Owen unadorned, more vulnerable and, in the brutal randomness of the scything of his life, all the more tragic. Owen, as poet and man, had been on the verge of a blossoming.

As Hibberd says in his introduction to Wilfred Owen: “The endearing, sometimes pretentious young versifier, self-absorbed, class conscious and pedantic, grew into a fiercely compassionate, deeply impressive man.”

To Hibberd, the maturing of the man involved a secret that, for the times, was dangerous to reveal. Owen was gay. Traces of the Oscar Wilde trials from 20 years before still lingered. Indeed, Robbie Ross, who had been a Wilde supporter, was an acquaintance of Owen’s through the intermediary of Sassoon.

Hibberd sees “abundant evidence” in Owen’s writing “of a strong homoerotic impulse.” He believes Owen accepted it, and was aware that caution was needed in his relationships.

Owen’s poem “Maudy Thursday” is often cited as one of his most honest with regard to his sexual orientation. It also displays his skeptical attitude towards organized religion.

Maudy Thursday
By Wilfred Owen

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)

Recommended Off-site Links:
Myth and Magic of Wilfred Owen - Vincent Dowd (BBC World Service, November 4, 2008).
New Biography Shows the Real Wilfred Owen - BBC (September 2002).

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
The Christmas Truce of 1914

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