Friday, November 7, 2014

Jane Potter’s “Wilfred Owen: An Illustrated Life”

We’ve visited London for vacation each of the last three years, and each year, some major event was happening in the city.

In 2012, we caught the very end of the Olympics and Paralympics, and waved our British flags during the parade to honor the athletes decreed by the Queen.

In 2013, it was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

And this year, it was the 100th anniversary of World War I. The city was filled with commemorations – the fantastic display of ceramic red poppies at the Tower of London and the
sobering World War I exhibition at the Imperial War Museum were just two of many. And there were books, books about the war, the poets and poetry of the war, the art of the war, and memoirs of the war.

As my wife will tell you, I like books.

In September, the Bodleian Library, Oxford published Wilfred Owen: An Illustrated Life by Jane Potter. Owen (1893-1918) has been the subject of `six recent biographies (not to mention others less recent). With Rupert Brooke, Owen is at the front of the line of the groups known collectively as the “World War I poets.” He is one of 16 World War I poets commemorated with a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey.

Potter’s illustrated history of his life is deceptively simple looking, almost like the kind of biography you might find in a middle school library. But it is carefully crafted, extraordinarily well researched, and engagingly written, drawing upon the extensive correspondence he maintained with his mother, his poetry, and a considerable number of sources and photographs from the English Language Faculty at Oxford.

The oldest of four children, he was the son of a railway clerk who had dreamed of settling in India and a mother who was decidedly evangelical. As he matured, he was undecided (or indecisive) about a profession or line of work, until the war intervened. He also had been writing poetry.

Owen didn’t enlist in the British Army until 1915. In 1917, suffering from what was then called shell shock (and what we today call Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, or PTSD), he was sent to Craiglockhart, a hospital in Scotland specializing in shell shock cases. There he met Siegfried Sassoon, who had been sent to the hospital for a very different reason – to avoid a court-martial for a letter he wrote opposing the war (I posted an article on Sassoon’s The War Poems this week at Tweetspeak Poetry).

The friendship with Sassoon was pivotal for Owen’s poetry. Manuscripts of his poems with Sassoon’s emendations still exist (one is on display at the Imperial War Museum). His poetry changed and grew. It began to be noticed, and published.

Potter walks us through each phase of Owen’s short life, using pictures of childhood, family, friends and the military. Each section includes his poems at the end, adding a poignancy to the text. You look at the pictures of the young, the hope and expectancy in his face, and read his poems, and in a few short pages see a life of promise cut short.

One of his best known poems is this one:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Owen almost survived the war. On Nov. 4, 1918, he was shot and killed by enemy fire alongside a canal.  A week later, on Armistice Day, his parents were informed of his death.

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

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