One of Britain’s best-known and most loved poets, Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) was killed at the age of 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, valour and futility of the conflict. In his recent biography, Guy Cuthbertson provides a fresh account of Owen’s life and formative influences: the lower-middle-class childhood 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.
George Miller talks to Guy Cuthbertson about Wilfred Owen,
subject of his new biography
You clearly felt a new biography of Owen was timely and necessary…
The timely aspect is of course fairly obvious, given that this is the centenary of the First World War, and if any figure, certainly in literature, is associated with the war, it’s Wilfred Owen, who’s become the face of war poetry. There have, of course, been biographies of Wilfred Owen before – there was an important one by Jon Stallworthy forty years ago, for instance – but our ideas of Owen are still changing and our ideas of the First World War are undergoing revision at the moment. Owen is somebody who has often been misinterpreted and misunderstood. And there’s still new material and information becoming available which allows us to reassess Wilfred Owen as well.
Owen also lived at an interesting cross-section point for thinking about the era more widely. In some ways he has come to represent not just the First World War, but the whole age he lived through. It was great fun to look at Wilfred Owen in relation to other Edwardian writers, people he’s not usually associated with; with painters as well, and with all the developments that were going on in everyday life, such as the arrival of the motor-car and the aeroplane. So we get Wilfred Owen becoming excited about seeing aeroplanes in the sky and so forth; we get the arrival of the cinema. Owen takes a great interest in that.
Owen is obviously someone who is of great importance in his own right, but he also seems to say so much about the war and the Edwardian period before it, and his life brings in all sorts of themes about innocence and the extent to which people of his generation entered the war naively. And because he dies at the end of the war – famously, his death was announced to his family on the last day of the war – he comes to represent a whole generation.
You mentioned that Owen’s life has sometimes been misinterpreted. Were there specific misconceptions you set out to correct?
Well, for a start perhaps, simply the idea that Wilfred Owen is the anti-war poet. He’s far too complex a figure, I think, to pigeon-hole in that way, not least because he never actually objected to the war in terms of refusing to fight. Lots of people did refuse to fight. Owen never really makes any kind of public protest against the war, unlike Siegfried Sassoon, whose declaration against the war made its way into the press and parliament.
Also Owen’s poetry – although it might be read as anti-war in some cases – was not published in his lifetime as any kind of declaration against the war. He even talks about how he hates ‘washy pacifists’. So although he’s often described as a pacifist or anti-war figure (he’s certainly someone who sees many things wrong with the conflict, and having had a religious upbringing, he questions whether a true Christian could fight in the war), he holds himself back from being truly anti-war.
He’s also clearly someone who is attracted to the aesthetic side of conflict and to the literary and historical side, which I’ve tried to bring out in the book: the notion of chivalry, which it’s sometimes thought he loses once he sees the reality of the war, as if he were some foolishly naïve figure who didn’t really understand the reality of war until he had people firing at him. I think that is too simplistic. He knew full well what war would involve. And we can see that chivalric aspect of him and his attraction to certain concepts of war running right through into 1918 and the end of his life.
Also, sometimes he’s interpreted as someone who’s lost faith or is anti the Church, or who associates the Church with the war and blames it for its involvement. There’s certainly an aspect of that in his thinking, but it would be wrong to think of him as someone who rejects Christianity. He’s still inspired by Christian teachings and by the example of Christ. He falls out with the Church of England certainly, but he has some attraction to Roman Catholicism that we can see in his letters, and even in his poems. If you look at a poem such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, you could interpret that as a fairly straightforward religious poem, though it’s normally seen as an anti-war poem.
He’s also often interpreted as someone who’s on the left politically. I’ve seen that recently on Twitter, in relation to Michael Gove and debates about the First World War and how it should be taught – Owen is held up as a left-wing figure, though ‘Dulce et decorum est’ is David Cameron’s favourite poem. And in many ways Owen was a conservative, certainly with a small ‘c’. He was greatly interested in people of a higher social status than him and very keen to make friends with them. For instance, he strongly regretted not going to Oxford, and was also attracted to public schools. We find him quite late into the war reading public school stories. He points out that a boy from Harrow who he meets in 1918 is the ‘best piece of Nation left in England’ and the public school boy for him comes to represent the ideal England.
Did you also feel that you wanted to prompt a re-examination of the poetry, because interpretations of it had become rather fixed?
I think partly because of the way it’s taught in schools, there’s too much of an immediate need to see it as anti-war and see that that as the point of it, when in fact ultimately he is someone whose poetry is founded upon his vast reading of English poetry and is a very subtle medium. But even, as I mentioned, a poem such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, is it really an anti-war poem? It’s always held up as such, but if you look at it again, you could say it’s more a poem about religion and beauty, and the need for beauty in life and in death.
In his work there’s a sense, too, of somebody who’s trying out different voices and styles, so we shouldn’t always straightforwardly think of the ‘I’ figure in the poetry as being Wilfred Owen and that he is always the same man with the same position and outlook in all of his poems. Many of his poems are actually rather Romantic and detached from the kind of realism he’s often associated with. He manages to combine a lot of the Romantic or even Celtic Twilight aspects of the nineteenth century with a kind of modern realism.
He famously said: ‘Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry’, yet he is clearly someone who is devoted to poetry, devoted to great poets of the past, whom he reads and absorbs and he wants to belong to a literary tradition. Sometimes he’s seen not in that context but as someone who is innovative and modern and different and it’s great to see him like that – and there is clearly something innovative about his work – but it’s also worth reminding ourselves how much it’s rooted in the past as well.
There has been much discussion of the nature of Owen’s sexuality – about whether he was homosexual, bisexual… Was that something you hoped to shed light on?
It wasn’t the main focus of the book. It is of course something that’s been much debated over the years, but I came to the topic feeling that it’s not something we’re ever going to have a perfect answer to, because no one can say exactly what goes on in someone’s heart or indeed in someone’s bedroom. But it is obviously important, partly because Owen has become for many people a ‘gay icon’, to use a phrase that has been used about him, and yet when Jon Stallworthy’s biography of him came out in the 1970s it was still an issue that some people wanted to deny.
But I was keen to point out that some people saw Owen as something of a lady’s man or certainly never made anything of assumptions about his sexuality being different from that of the majority. He seemed to be something of a charmer and certainly had lots of women who took an interest in him right from his time in Bordeaux before the war, to the war, where he’s a dashing man in uniform.
We should also point out that in terms of sexuality with Owen, so much of it is about a lack of sexuality; one of the themes I also pursue is Owen as a rather childlike figure whose attraction to people and to life is often about trying to remain in childhood in a pre-sexual condition. His interest in children and his ability to develop friendships with them is often based upon that kind of pre-adolescent mindset of his own. And so, to think about him all the time in relation to sex rather misses out on the innocence of him.
It’s hard the resist counter-factual speculation about what sort of later career Owen would have had if he had survived the war…
I point out in the book that people have come up with their own ideas about what would have happened to Owen [had he survived]. There’s even one person who knew him who said he would have become a leader of some Buddhist yoga sect! But other people suggested that he would have never written another word ever again, because he was so wrapped up in the war experience that after the war ended, that would have been it.
Some other people suggest that he might have become more of a love poet. And for some people that might have meant that he would have become an openly and ‘politically’ gay voice. I don’t find that entirely convincing, but then any talk of what Owen would have done after the war is speculative.
We do know from Owen’s letters and from his plans what he [thought he] wanted to do after the war, and that is really to become something more like a nineteenth-century poet writing about Welsh folklore, Welsh mythology, and so forth, using Tennyson and Yeats as his models. And he wanted to write ‘Idyls in Prose’ and poetry about classical mythology. So his own plans for after the war were not to become some gritty realist or a great poet of the modern age in terms of engagement with the modern condition in the sense that you might find in … well, I was going to say The Waste Land, a poem of modern London life, but then The Waste Land features Arthurian legends (Welsh legends) and classical mythology, and Tennyson, idyls, love, Buddhism, the war – so, who knows, maybe Owen would have written his Waste Land.’