Architecture: Bridges back to Wilfred Owen's poetry: Jonathan Glancey admires a memorial that rejects the figurative approach

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The Independent Culture
Three years ago, Paul de Monchaux was asked to sculpt a memorial for the churchyard of Shrewsbury Abbey to mark the centenary of the birth of Shropshire's most famous lad, Lt Wilfred Owen MC, poet and soldier. The completed project - a representation in stone of pontoon bridges crossing a Somme canal - is direct, moving and fashioned to last a lot longer than its subject. Unlike most military monuments, it is self-effacing: a visitor could easily pass the abbey and miss it.

The memorial is also a world and a war apart from the figurative 'Bomber' Harris-style commemorative statues the British remain so fond of. 'We only raised the idea of a lifelike statue so that we could dismiss it,' Helen McPhail, of the Wilfred Owen Association, says. 'We didn't want a tourist trail statue. We wanted something timeless and architectural.' The committee approached the Public Art Commissions Agency to find the appropriate artist.

Before the war Wilfred Owen wrote the poetic equivalent of mawkish, figurative statuary. Then the Somme and a fortuitous meeting with Siegfried Sassoon while recuperating from shell shock at Craiglockhart Military Hospital, Edinburgh, forged his verse into stainless steel. The first poem he wrote under Sassoon's influence, Anthem for Doomed Youth, was a masterpiece ('What passing bells for those who die as cattle?). That was in late September 1917.

On 4 November 1918, Owen was encouraging the men of the Manchester Regiment over pontoon bridges across the Sambre and Oise canal. The enemy machine-gun fire was intense.

'Through this hurricane,' wrote Jon Stallworthy, Owen's biographer, 'the small figure of Wilfred Owen walked backwards and forwards between his men, patting them on the shoulder, saying, 'Well done' and, 'You're doing very well, my boy'. He was at the water's edge, giving a hand with some duckboards, when he was hit and killed.'

In Shrewsbury, a week later, the armistice bells were ringing when his parents read the telegram informing them of Wilfred's death. Owen was 25, the age his beloved John Keats had died of consumption in Rome.

Strange Meeting, based on Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, is one of a volley of immortal poems that followed Owen's meeting with Sassoon. The poet imagines meeting the enemy soldier he has just killed and who has just killed him. This was the starting point for de Monchaux's sculpture.

'I'd never read Owen before, but when I came across Strange Meeting (It seemed that out of battle I escaped/Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped/Through granites which titanic wars had groined) I had the key to the memorial. The work is based on the imagery and symmetrical structure of the poem and the manner of Owen's actual death. I've used granite on a York stone base (representing compacted mud), while the red lettering (carved by Ruth de Monchaux, the sculptor's wife) can be read as blood. It's not meant to be literal, but an evocation of Owen's death, of war and our memory of it.'

On a wet spring day, surrounded not by Flanders poppies but by English daffodils, the Wilfred Owen memorial is as moving as it is unsentimental. Its message and humanity should encourage parents not to tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori. The Wilfred Owen memorial is a thing of life, not death.

(Photograph omitted)

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