Kevin Saving on

Guy Cuthbertson's
Wilfred Owen
(Yale University Press, 2014)

A small landslide of material has been published this centennial year to commemorate (or should that be 'cash in on'?) the anniversary of the commencement of a war which was supposed to 'end all wars' -but ended up being the casus belli for more subsequent bloodshed than any other one previously. While I'm fairly certain that this slight (three hundred page) biography of that conflict's star-testifier will not earn its author -a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool Hope University- either massive acclaim or great wealth, it will at least further publicise his subject's testimony -and may even, perhaps, go someway towards highlighting the sheer plenitude of 'the pity'.

To be clear: this Wilfred Owen does not add anything substantial to our knowledge of a man who was, after all, aged only twenty five when he was killed-in-action. Two decent biographies -Stallworthy's (1974) and Hibberd's (2003)- already exist. However, Cuthbertson has read around his subject eclectically and comes up with unexpected, if tangential, insights such as:

Britain's two great anti-war icons of modern times, Wilfred Owen and John Lennon, were lower-middle class dreamers who longed for a more glamorous elsewhere and began their artistic lives in unremarkable bedrooms in quiet semi-detached Merseyside homes, growing up about six miles and forty years apart.

One should note that their respective dates of birth were actually forty seven years apart, but the point is, I think, an interesting one.

If this volume's early chapters present a few too many 'he must have seen' and 'he would probably have witnessed' type constructions (so well beloved of the modern biographer) -then speculation of this kind probably does have its place -especially in the case of the obscurely born or the under-documented. Not that Owen would have ever felt these categorisation applied to him. A colossal snob, he appears to have attempted to pass himself off as the son of a baronet whilst teaching English in Bordeaux -this may possibly have been a kind of homage to one of his heroes, Percy Shelley.

Cuthbertson's Owen is a short biography which both could, and perhaps should, have been shorter still. Its author displays an annoying tendency to throw in references to such luminaries as St. Bernadette Soubrious (of Lourdes), George Melly (the jazz singer) and sir John Hawkwood (the medieval knight/mercenary) who bear only the most tenuous of relationships to his doomed poet. Though evidencing a well-stocked mind, these disquisitions must ultimately be recognised for what they are: padding. Only when Owen eventually 'joins up' does Cuthbertson's narrative becomes compelling. Prior to 'The Front' Owen comes across as a pretentious poseur (his early writings are largely execrable -though treated for the most part with kindness here). Now, at last, both Cuthbertson and Owen finally have something to say.

If nothing else, the Great War introduced Wilfred to the sights, sounds, experiences -and perhaps more than anything else the personalitieswhich, and who, would allow him to find both his own -and his generation's- 'voice'. The text includes some stimulating reflections concerning how Owen's (for its time) oddly itinerant quasi-Welsh, Liverpudlian, Shrewsburian upbringing would have made him look at vowel sounds in a slightly different outsiderly way. This may even, it is conjectured, have played a part in the writer's discovery of 'para-rhyme'. To this day (as in the current stage adaptation of Pat Barker's Regeneration, Owen is routinely portrayed as having a Welsh accent. Though we are not in possession of any recording of his voice, all that we know of the man makes it likely that as a self-concious son of the provinces would have affected the clipped, received pronunciation of the English ruling classes. Wilfred Owen 'discovered' para-rhyme (or half-rhyme or Slant-rhyme) and put it in his tool-kit because he listened and he read and he mimicked and because it was the right time for him (or someone else) to make that synaptic connection. And because he was -for just that one, final year- a great poet.

By the time of his death Owen's senses were, he felt, 'charred': he no longer removed the cigarette from his mouth as he wrote his condolences to the next-of-kin. Though never wholly a pacifist, he had come to abhor war. In 'Strange Meeting' he writes of 'The pity of war, the pity war distilled' and in his draft preface to the book of his poems (which he would never see printed) he famously observed 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity'. This readable, well-researched and occasionally fascinating biography somehow never quite manages to flesh out the good-looking (almost 'pretty') moustachioed face that peers back at us eternally from the black and white photos. And that, too, is a pity.

Kevin Saving © 2014