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I first fell in love with Wilfred Owen's poetry when I read "Dulce et Decorum est." I found his imagery real and terrifying as it spoke to the true brutality and horrors of "modern" warfare. (The poem is a description of a soldier dying in a gas attack.) Throughout the years I have read much on WWI and on the soldier-poets, but nothing has come as close to so vividly portraying the life of one of them as Hibberd's new biography.
Hibberd begins his very thorough telling of Owen's life, starting with his familial background and youth, and working his way through Owen's years as a parish assistant and his numerous attempts to gain a university education. It seems a long time before we are to encounter Wilfred as a soldier, but Hibberd builds a solid base that explains Wilfred's personality and his attitude towards poetry. Owen's devoutly Evangelical mother had wished her son to enter the service of the church, but after his time in Dunsden, Owen found it increasingly hard to reconcile his Christian faith with his love of literature, finding the two to oppose each other. His one desire in life was to be a poet, and upon entering the English army, he probably had no idea that his voice would come through war. Only a few of Owen's poems (five) were published in his lifetime and after his untimely death, his poetry was collected and published in the 20s and 30s. Afterwards, he seems to disappear entirely from the literary map until a renewed interest in his work arose in the 1960s; an appropriate time since another "war to end all wars" was being fought in Vietnam.
The one area of dicord I take with this biography concerns Owen's sexuality. In the book jacket, and several times throughout the book, Hibberd states that Owen was a homosexual. This is evidently shown through his connections with various personages who were homosexuals, including his friend and mentor, fellow soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. While I don't doubt that this was the truth regarding Owen's sexuality, Hibberd seems a little over-insistent with too little to back it up. Yet perhaps this is due to the inconsistencies that exist in the mystery surrounding Wilfred Owen. Hibberd makes it known that much was done by Owen's brother Harold to paint his brother (as well as himself and the family name) in a better light. As curator of his brother's letters, Harold took great pains to destroy any references that could be suspicious, which must include references to Owen's sexual preferences. As seemingly complete as this biography is, Hibberd himself points out in his epilogue that there are facts about Owen's life that we may never know.
This book is an engaging read for any fan of World War I or any fan of poetry. The literary world is much indebted to Owen, whose poetry spoke the truth in a time or darkness, and whose innovations with style and technique were revered by the very poets he once emulated. If only the literary world was aware of this. Perhaps Dominic Hibberd's book will finally grant Owen his distinguished place and well-deserved fame in modern literature.Wilfred Owen: A New Biography OverviewMr. Hibberd's new biography of the Great War's greatest poet, based on more than thirty years of wide-ranging research, brings new information and reinterpretation to virtually every phase of Owen's life--carefully guarded by family and friends after his death. Although Dominic Hibberd modestly says that his book 'is not, of course, definitive,' it is hard to see how it could be improved upon. --Times Literary Supplement
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