The pity and poetry inspired by a war

Click to follow
EARLIER this year there was a centenary celebration for the birth of Wilfred Owen. On 4 November fell the 75th anniversary of his death. In Shrewsbury in 1918 the Armistice bells were ringing out at the moment the Owen family received the telegram announcing the poet's death a week earlier. I went from Oxford to Shrewsbury last week to take part in a celebration, and on the train I read once again the poems of Owen's fleeting maturity.

The best way to appreciate them is to look at Owen's work as a whole in the Oxford edition edited by John Stallworthy, which comes in two volumes, the first giving the poems in final form, the second being devoted to manuscript versions. You do not have to agree with Stallworthy, either as an editor or as a biographer, to get a lot out of these two volumes. Indeed, many people think he is over-reticent and unwilling to interpret the sexual evidence that is staring him in the face. But that is only one issue. Stallworthy gives you all the evidence on which to make up your mind about Owen as a poet.

There are 177 items in the Collected, not all of them by any means finished. The first passable poem, in August 1917, is 'Inspection', which is written in Sassoon's style. The last item of all is 'Spring Offensive', dating from just over a year later. 'Inspection' is Number 90 in the Stallworthy edition, but that does not mean there are a further 87 mature works dating from that last productive year. Owen spent part of his sick leave working away at revisions of earlier stuff at the same time as composing in his new manner.

The extreme interest of the Oxford edition comes from the way it shows you how a poet can stumble into greatness while still not knowing what he is up to. That 'fleeting maturity' I referred to earlier did not really offer any time for mature reflection.

There was the sex thing already mentioned. Owen's problem was to come to terms with his erotic impulses, and the evidence is that he was doing this in two ways. One was that he was finding a literary milieu that would not be shocked by homosexuality. The other was that he had found a sexual milieu, an underground, in Edinburgh and London. He had not found happiness but he was not entirely isolated.

Then there was the end of his infatuation with Poesy and the beginning of his finding of poetry itself. This is infinitely touching. For Owen, poetry had meant a particular reading of Keats, a reading he had to outgrow. For Keats himself, I always think his maturity dates from a meeting with Wordsworth when a particular infatuation ended: Keats saw Wordsworth as an unpleasant, prickly, rivalrous man, and at that moment was able to see what might be wrong with his poetry. That in turn brought the possibility of a mature attitude to poetry itself. Coltish infatuation has to end before serious work begins.

Owen had a subject, war, on which he was now an authority. Sassoon had shown him one method of tackling that subject, but there were others which he himself would find. By nature he was an experimenter, and it is in the nature of experiment that one goes through a lot of failure before achieving any results. If you approach Owen's work in the spirit of critical fastidiousness, you will continually find things that do not necessarily 'work' or 'could perhaps have been better put', but if you read this author in this way you will always miss the point.

In that one year's writing, Owen produced, by my calculation, about 30 items to consider - one hesitates to say 30 poems because some are definitely unfinished while many others are not entirely achieved. If you keep the fleetingness of a year's work always in mind, and remember that this was not a year of rest and recuperation but included light military duties for much of the time, plus two months of frontline service in France - the achievement of the annus mirabilis becomes clear.

To get yourself fit again for active service in the Great War is, I would have thought, quite enough to be doing in one year. To get yourself sorted out sexually is, these days, considered quite a major achievement. To break into print, to become an author whose works are suddenly sought, is something else again. But to find your subject - your own subject - is everything.

Owen's experiences of trench warfare belong to the first half of 1917, during which he served on the Somme until May, when he was evacuated with shell- shock. The annus mirabilis, in which everything began to come together, was something that followed immediately, with a devastating immediacy, upon the trauma of the front.

'Inspection', the first poem already mentioned, was not something written upon mature reflection - it was written at the same time that he was getting ready to introduce himself to Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital. Owen was already, as it were, firing on all cylinders.

One imagines two great factors at work. The first was that he knew he had undergone and in some sense passed a great initiation. No one was likely to question his manhood with much authority after what he had done and seen. The effect of this must have been to place his erotic turmoil in a certain perspective. Although he never succeeded in any of his numerous attempts at erotic poetry, and although he was still capable of the most embarrassing lapses (see the poem 'Page Eglantine') one feels the erotic is no longer the most important thing in the world for him. It no longer kept him tongue-tied.

The second great factor was, of course, that he was on leave. The War, his subject, would be returned to. It was mad. It was run despicably. It was unbearable. But it was where his duty lay. If this sense of being a soldier on leave from a slaughterhouse had the effect of wonderfully concentrating everyone's minds, we would be knee- deep in great poetry. But many minds go numb.

It is from this conscious reconciliation of hatred of the war, with acceptance of his destiny in it, that Owen's distinctive authority springs. He hated the war in a way that only a soldier can hate it. That was his subject, his discovery. That was the death of him.