Dominic Hibberd on Wilfred Owen
Dominic Hibberd has taught at universities in Britain, the United States and China and written extensively about the poets and poetry of the First World War. His most recent book is the much-acclaimed Wilfred Owen, A New Biography. The conversation below is excerpted from Hibberd’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime. This portion of the interview talks about the lives of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
The Life of Wilfred Owen
What sort of background did Owen come from?
Wilfred Owen came from a lower middle class background. His father was a railway official, a stationmaster for awhile, and then monsignor. He never earned very much money, but he earned as much as, say, a schoolteacher. He made a manageable wage, but they were never wealthy. He had four children to be brought up, so there was never any spare cash around.
Wilfred Owen's mother was a very pious evangelical, and I think the father was probably also more religious than is generally believed. So Wilfred had a strong religious background. He went to some quite decent schools, not outstanding ones, but he received a reasonable education. Some of the teachers took a great interest in him and helped him. He wanted very much to go to university, but I don’t think he ever would have done that because the parents couldn't have afforded it, and he wasn’t quite clever enough to get a scholarship.
This is an interesting point. Was Owen comfortable in his skin and in his class, or did he find his background lacking?
I think that neither Owen nor anybody else born into the lower middle class in England at that time was entirely comfortable in their skin. They all had learned at a very early age that you had to climb the ladder and do better. Certainly Owen would have loved to go to a public school if he could have done so. He was very envious of people who had, and he was very pleased when he finally made friends with people from that kind of class, like Sassoon and others. But he made do with what he had, and made it work for him. He used what he knew as well as he could.
Everything in his life adds up to his poetry, it all reappears in the poetry somehow. You have to remember that he was not only a poet and a soldier, but also a qualified teacher. He wrote teaching poems. I think he wanted us to understand, to know, to learn. He was also an evangelical who spent over a year as an assistant in an evangelical parish, so he was a preacher, and he knew how to talk to people with a message and get across what he wanted people to learn. He was quite effective at that, I think, and that comes through in the poetry, of course. He’s preaching poetry and teaching poetry. And it’s a soldier’s poetry. He’s no kind of pacifist. He is committed to being the three things that he is: poet, teacher, soldier.
What happened when the war started?
As the war went on, he returned to England and began to feel the pressure of the recruiting campaign, and he realized that he really ought to have joined the army like everybody else. He finally did so in October 1915, which was quite late, really. By that stage, many of the volunteers had already volunteered. This was a last burst before conscription was introduced. He was, in the end, quite enthusiastic to join, but for a long time, perhaps almost a year, he was content to stay in France and keep his own life alive and not feel that he had to go and get himself killed.
Did he join the war as an officer or an enlisted man?
So he went into the Artists' Rifles, which was a training regiment that produced enormous numbers of officers for the army during the war. He had a very high-powered, very efficient training. By the time he emerged, he was a very capable young officer. He then joined the Manchester Regiment in the summer of 1916 as a fully trained officer, a second lieutenant. Six months later, he was sent to France, into the trenches.
Do you think that the army, in some ironic way, became a vehicle for him to make the social transition that he longed for?
Becoming an officer put him in the right rank, and he joined early enough for him not to be seen as what came to be known as a temporary gentleman. Later in the war, so many people came up from the ranks to be officers that they quite clearly weren’t in the same social class, but Owen got in just early enough to avoid that. The sort of people he was joining up with at the time were people who had been stockbrokers, and industrialists, and the sons of industrialists—at any rate, those sorts of folk. They weren’t from the upper classes or even the upper middle classes, most of them.
What happened to Owen in his first visit to the front? Did he come through unscathed?
Owen had had a rather good time in England as a trainee officer. He had done well, he was highly regarded, and he had, I wouldn’t say, a comfortable time—it was far from it—but he certainly didn’t have to suffer any particular discomforts. He was sent out to France at the beginning of 1917, and within three weeks he was in one of the most appalling circumstances one could possibly imagine. He was sent into a German dugout in no man’s land that had recently been captured as a British outpost. He had to keep his platoon there for 50 hours, he says, under constant shellfire, expecting at any minute to be buried alive. The place was slowly flooding with rainwater. The water was rising above their knees so that at any moment they might have been buried, or drowned, or just died of shock.
It was an unspeakably horrific experience, and it colored everything that happened to him thereafter. But in a strange kind of way, he had already written about aspects of this experience in his poetry. He’d had nightmares of this kind before. I can’t begin to explain that, but it is so. There are earlier poems with lines that pretty accurately describe what he was in.
What caused the shell shock that he had later?
First, he was in that dugout. They were then taken out for a short period, and put back in again in a quite different situation, on the top of a hill in very hard frost. So it had been heavy rain and mud, but now it was bitter frost, and they were out on the snow exposed, unable to move. One man in his platoon froze to death. They all might have died of thirst because the water froze in their water bottles.
That was his second experience. He was then taken out of that for awhile. By the time he was sent back into action again, his battalion had moved farther south into a fresh sector of the line where there hadn’t been much fighting before. They hadn’t dug any trenches, so they were very vulnerable to shellfire. Owen was eventually almost killed by a shell that dropped near his head while he was asleep, and he was blown into the air. That finally broke his nerve, but his nerve had been going for some time under the strain of it all. After all, it was an utterly alien experience for a man of his background. He’d worked in a parish, he’d been a teacher, but he’d never been anywhere near fighting or gunfire or shell explosions—that kind of thing. That was unimaginable for him, as it was, of course, for the great majority of soldiers.
Finally, in April 1917, his nerve broke, and he had to be sent back to England. That was considered to be a disgrace by a lot of people in the army. They still didn’t really understand shell shock. The doctors understood it, but the average senior officer didn’t. There is some evidence that Owen was accused of cowardice by his temporary commanding officer. That would have been a terrible blow and the final straw that broke him.
What happened to him back in England?
I have heard it said that Owen was very lucky not to have been court-martialed, but I think that’s absolute nonsense. The army was actually very sensible with him and sent him to a good hospital just outside Edinburgh, Craiglockhart Hospital, which was a place for treating shell-shocked officers. Not very, very serious cases, but pretty serious cases. There, he was put under the care of the ideal doctor, exactly the man he needed, someone who understood him. A strange man with odd, highly unusual ideas. Owen was put through a kind of a sociological training. He was made to reconnect with his environment by studying the locality. It worked. It was marvelously successful. Within a few months, he was very nearly right again.
What was the effect of Owen meeting Siegfried Sassoon?
Now that Owen was almost well from shell shock, he had another enormous piece of luck. He was a lucky man even though he was killed at the age of 25. I know it sounds awful to say so, but he was—he had extraordinary bits of luck in his life. The biggest piece of luck he ever had was that Siegfried Sassoon was sent to the same hospital, supposedly as a patient, though really just to shut him up, because Sassoon had protested against the war. The authorities didn’t want to court-martial him, so they pretended that he was shell shocked even though he wasn’t.
So suddenly Sassoon and Owen were in the same hospital together. Owen plucked up his courage, went to introduce himself to the senior man, and they became good friends. Owen very rapidly discovered how Sassoon had been writing and what Sassoon’s political attitude to the war was. He picked it up and began writing himself.
Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart
Tell me a little bit about Siegfried Sassoon. What was his background?
Sassoon came from a nearly upper class background, not really upper class I suppose, but certainly upper middle class. He’d been to public school; he’d been to Cambridge. He had money. He had influential friends. He belonged to an entirely different sort of world from Owen, but he was like Owen—bookish and dedicated to poetry—so that gave them something immediately in common.
In 1916, Sassoon had begun to protest against the war with some encouragement from friends at home. Finally, he decided that he would make a serious public protest and get it publicized. He composed it with the help of civilian pacifists. His soldier friends, most of them anyway, thought he was mad. It was the civilians who persuaded him that he should act as he did. He made a very strong public statement against the war that got read in the House of Commons. The authorities had to do something, and so they decided that the best thing to do was to put him away in a shell-shock hospital until he behaved properly.
How did Sassoon enlist? Didn’t he lead a relatively hedonistic and irresponsible life before the war?
Sassoon had a divided personality, in a way. He was a poet on the one hand, and on the other hand he was a bit of a dilettante. Before the war, he was tremendously keen on fox hunting and cricket, and his sporting self seemed to dominate. But before the war broke out, he eventually decided that he would make himself a poet and concentrate on that side. Then the war came, and for him, as for so many people, it was a resolution. It gave him the chance to set aside his own personal problems and take up a bigger cause. You get the same kind of thing with Rupert Brooke, and many others. He joined up with his horse, I believe a few days before the war broke out, in the [Sussex] Yeomanry.
For awhile, he was an ordinary rank private soldier on horseback, but that didn’t last for very long, partly because he was thrown by that horse or by another one—I forget—and broke his arm, I think, and had to recuperate from that. He then decided he would, after all, become an officer in a main regiment. And the horse was rather too good for that kind of use anyway.
What was Sassoon like in the early stages of the war?
Sassoon never had the really bad experiences that Owen had. He was in the war for longer, but he was never in those extreme front-line situations that Owen was in. Nevertheless, he came very near to shell shock, and he recognized that he was very close to a breakdown by the time he came out of the line. But he had long periods of recovery at home, and he was not under the same kind of strain in the front line. He was actually in the front line for no longer than Owen was, although he was in the army for much longer. Each of them, I think, spent about 30 days in the front line.
Didn’t he get the nickname Mad Jack because he was very brave in the front line?
Sassoon was foolhardy. I don’t think you’d call him brave. He did silly things, really, and was almost certainly regarded as unreliable by his seniors. He was held back on a number of occasions when he really ought to have been in the fighting. But, yes, he was extraordinarily reckless, and did on one occasion capture a trench single-handed. One legend has it that he sat down and read a book afterwards, but I think that’s not likely to be true. But it sounds good, and it’s the sort of story that went around. He was called Mad Jack, as a number of officers were—I think it was a not uncommon nickname. But he was certainly considered to have done some extraordinary, daring acts.
Didn’t his daring acts come after someone close to him had been killed?
Sassoon did go through a period of being frenziedly anti-German—a very short period when his closest friend in the army was killed. Sassoon attended the burial, and then felt he ought to take revenge. For awhile, he was ferocious and did what he could to kill Germans, although, of course, the Germans are out of sight in the trenches, so you never really knew whether you’d killed one or not. Maybe he didn’t. But it didn’t last very long. It was a sort of battle frenzy that soldiers in history have sometimes. So even Sassoon got it, but then he was ashamed of himself and calmed down.
Was Sassoon’s publishing poetry during the early stages of the war?
Sassoon started publishing poetry at his own expense well before the war. He produced a number of little volumes of rather effete, aesthetic verse, I dare to say, of no great value. But he had published quite a bit by the time he met Owen. He was relatively well known. His book The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, which was the first book of his that Owen read, contained a number of very powerful war poems and satires against the war. These were unlike anything that anybody else had written at that stage, or at any rate, that anybody had published. They shook Owen considerably. He was deeply moved by them.
Why were these poems different?
Sassoon’s poems were regarded by reviewers at the time as being more like epigrams than poems. And they’re certainly more like epigrams than Owen's poems are—they’re short, punchy, satirical. They were designed to be put at the foot of a column in a magazine so that they kicked you in the stomach instantly. His aim was to shock civilians into realizing what the war was really like, so he described or tried to describe actual incidents at the front in simple, raw, vivid language, with the ultimate hope that the civilians who read them would then bring pressure to bear on the politicians.
The politicians would then negotiate a diplomatic solution to the war, and actually do it through talking instead of fighting. Civilians at the time believed that was a possibility in 1917, but I think historians would now say that actually it wasn’t a possibility, that it was a hopeless hope.
Were these poems bitter?
The tone of Sassoon’s poems certainly is bitter, some of them more so than others. His essential skill, he felt, was actually in writing in a lyrical, elegiac way rather than a satirical way. As the pressure of war experience slackened in him, his poems lost their satirical edge, but for awhile he was deeply anxious that people at home should know what it was like to be stuck in those trenches being shot at day after day, what it was like to die slowly of agonizing wounds. In one of his first trench poems, he describes the ordinary soldier as a Christ figure dying for the sake of others. This was an image that both he and Owen—well certainly Owen, I think—later rejected. But at the center of Sassoon’s poetry is actually a lyrical impulse, I think, which is rather at odds with his political view of the war. It keeps breaking through, and you get rather lush lyrical descriptions in the middle of some of the longer poems, which I think Owen then cleared out for his own poetry and made more straightforward.
When Sassoon met Owen at Craiglockhart, what happened on a personal and poetic level?
Sassoon was rather bored by newcomers. He didn’t really want to meet anybody else while he was at Craiglockhart. He was ashamed of being there anyway. He felt he was a failure. He felt he’d been silenced by authority, and that he shouldn’t have given in. So he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic when Owen knocked on his door. Owen, on the other hand, was immensely excited to meet a published poet who was writing a new sort of poetry. He kept up his visits, and they did eventually become close friends, very close friends, I think. They found they had a great deal in common.
Owen quickly learned Sassoon’s political view of the war, that this was a war, as civilian pacifists were arguing in 1917, which could be brought to an end by diplomatic meetings. That it wasn’t necessary to go on and on fighting until everybody was killed. That the politicians could sit around a table and actually talk to the Germans, and that the Germans had shown some interest in peace negotiations, too, though the German High Command might not have been so enthusiastic. So Owen picked that up very quickly, I think, and when you have a political basis for protesting against a war, you can start writing about it. If you think that the war is the right thing and a noble cause, as everybody did in 1914, and as Owen himself thought right up to early 1917, then you don’t protest against it. That would be ridiculous. You just want to get it finished as soon as possible. You don’t talk about its horrors because you know they’re there—you just have to put up with them and live or die with them as best you can.
But if your political view changes and you think that the war could be brought to an end by the politicians, then you start writing against it. So Owen’s poems at Craiglockhart are very much in Sassoon’s style. The influence of Sassoon is strong. Some people later thought it was too strong.
I think Graves, in the early stages, was actually more enthusiastic than Sassoon and more convinced that Owen really was a poet. The real thing, he said, and well worth encouraging. So between them, they introduced Owen to people in London who would be able to get him published, they hoped. But they also saw that he was still in the early stages, still feeling his way, that he still had a lot to do. So they, and Owen too, felt that there should be no great hurry in getting him published. He had to find his own feet first.
Did Owen start producing a lot of poetry at Craiglockhart?
Owen's Poem, "Strange Meeting
Owen's War Poetry
A lot of people say that Owen is really the greatest war poet ever. Do you agree?
I don’t think I want to say that Owen was the greatest war poet ever. After all, he’s up against some pretty stiff competition—Homer, for example. A lot of poets have written about war in one way or another. But Owen was extraordinarily powerful. The immediacy of his poetry does seem to speak to people, which is exactly what he wanted it to do. It reaches people who are otherwise unmoved by poetry. Many teachers have found, for example, that if you’ve got unruly Fifth Form students on Friday afternoon who want to go home, and you give them one of Owen’s poems, they’re stuck to their desks after all, and they want to read it and find out about it. You wouldn’t be able to do that with a Keats ode, for example, or a piece of Tennyson.
So the poetry has had a rather odd effect. I sometimes think that Owen's reputation is rather strange. I’ve seen it said, for example, that he’s one of the half dozen best known English poets, which is very odd when you think of Milton and Wordsworth, and one or two others in earlier stages. But there’s no poet I know of who has written so vividly about front-line experience, so memorably, and in such an extraordinarily literary way. I mean, he is a poet. He’s not just describing something like a journalist. He’s using a great many different literary devices to make his poetry come across and to make it last. So while the war fades into distant memory and is half forgotten, the poems are still there alive, and still speaking to people. As the years go by, I think he will become more and more immediate instead of less and less so, which is extraordinary.
Do you think it’s fair to say that many people see the war through Owen's poetry?
It is quite true that large numbers of people do imagine the First World War through what they’ve read in Wilfred Owen's poetry. The result of that maddens historians. I’ve met historians who loath the name of Wilfred Owen because he has distorted the vision of war so much. If you’re a teacher, you have to sort of un-teach it all over again if you want people to know about the history of the war. It was one man's vision, or I suppose you could say it was Sassoon’s vision, too, to some extent, but essentially it was Owen’s vision. It was peculiar to him, and it was a special way of seeing, but it was intensely real and true. That was what it was like for an individual stuck in that war. There’s no other poet, as far as I know, who has ever done that in any other war with quite the same power and lasting strength.
The poem is about the First World War. It’s a scene in a dugout, but at the same time it’s about myth and human experience in all ages. He sets it in some unspecified time and is very careful to avoid pinning it down to, say, 1914 or 1918. One line, for example, was "I was a German conscript, and your friend." Owen changed that to "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," because he didn't want that reference to Germany or even to conscription, and it had to go. There have been critics who thought it was a better line than the final one, but this is not a view I share at all. Owen wants to get the poem away from the history of his own time into a universal context, which you can do through literature and poetry, but you can’t perhaps do in any other medium.
Were people beginning to recognize his genius at that time?
He wrote a preface to a planned book of poems. What was his emphasis and what did he want to accomplish?
Not protest—that was a stage he went through—but the ultimate thing was to feel pity, because that meant that you were genuinely sympathizing with the ordinary soldier. You were putting yourself in the position of a soldier in the front line. That is what poetry is for, according to the great romantic tradition of Shelley and others, that a poet will enable his readers to put themselves into the position of other people, many other people, and sympathize with human predicaments. That was a supreme task of the poets, and that's what Owen is clearly trying to do.
But it was desperately important to remember that the Germans were human beings, and the vast majority of them were much like us: well-intentioned, not all-out to kill and dominate the world, and all the rest of it. Only a few top generals were like that. Owen tried to make his poetry appeal to anybody on any side and of any nationality. It's interesting that his poems have recently been translated into German, apparently very successfully. I myself lectured in Germany once or twice and found that the audiences were tremendously appreciative and interested. They can appreciate his poems just as much as we can.
Do you think Owen consciously tried to cover all the experiences of war?
What were Owen's feelings about returning to the front?
So there was a tremendous obligation for junior officers to get back there and do what they could. Owen felt that just as much as everybody else, and Sassoon felt it too, of course. I think it's fair to say that Owen put off returning to the front line as long as he could, but he knew he would have to go back. The circumstances of the war in 1918, when there was very nearly a British defeat, meant that he had to go back in. His conscience drove him.
It's possible that his superiors decided that he was going to have to go back anyway, whether he wanted to or not. It's impossible to be absolutely sure from the records how far he jumped and how far he was pushed. But after he got back, he wrote home repeatedly, saying that he felt all the better for it, his nerves were now in perfect order, and he was much happier to be in France than he had been in England. He also felt—and he was right in this—that this would give his poetry an authority that it might otherwise lack, especially to the immediate post-war generation who would have thought that poems by a shell-shocked man who had not returned to the front might be the product of cowardice. Clearly now, he was not a coward anymore. The record of his fighting in the last few months of his life is one of unremitting courage and skill. He was one of the first British soldiers to get through the last of the Hindenburg Line and break through the final German defenses, his possibly ultimate victory. He played a significant part in that.
Owen Back at the Front
I think there were probably times when Owen, perhaps like Sassoon, did feel the battle madness that apparently seizes you when you're in the midst of fighting, though it is something, of course, that I've never done. He may have taken risks that he wouldn't ordinarily have taken in calmer circumstances. But on the whole, he did what he was trained to do, and he did it extremely well. He knew what he was about.
An exact pattern of events of his action in the front lines is almost impossible to reconstruct from the fragmentary records that exist, but it's clear that he did behave with extraordinary courage and at precisely the right moment to enable his men to get through. He won the Military Cross, clearly a well-deserved honor. But of course, thousands of other officers won that medal as well—it’s not a rare award—but he proved himself, which is what he wanted to do. When Owen was on the Hindenburg Line, he said "I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can."
Do you think this was a turning point in his life?
If you're going to send young men into battle, this is what it's like, this is what happens, and it's no good pretending that it's a great crusade and a wonderful adventure, and that this is some glorious thing, and that it's sweet and decorous to die for one's country in battle. It's none of those things. It's terrible and unspeakable.
That's still true today, despite modern weapons and things. It's a dreadful thing to do, and it should be avoided if at all humanly possible. I'm not quite sure that Owen ever says that it's got to be avoided at all costs. There may be times when war is the final necessity, and there's no other way of going forward, but it should be avoided if at all possible.
Was Owen gay? If so, do you think that influenced what he was doing?
I think Owen was always gay, and I think he knew he was gay from quite early on. One of the great things he learned from Sassoon was that Sassoon was also gay, and that they could talk about it. And that, I think, helped Owen enormously. There are signs that by the last year of his life he was far more confident and at ease with himself than he had been before, although he never suffered quite the same agonies of conscience that Sassoon perhaps did. Clearly, the sensibility of gay men is very relevant to writing about the sufferings of young men in war.
But in another way it's not relevant at all, because their sufferings are still sufferings, and it doesn't make a difference whether you're gay or straight. It doesn't matter. They could write about feelings for young men in a way that was, at the same time, both very public and very private. It matters, and yet it doesn't matter at all—it depends on which way you see it. But it is crucial to understanding Owen as a person that he was gay. That was part of him, and it's no good trying to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that it wasn't there, or that it's not to be mentioned, or that he was still really an adolescent and hadn't found himself. I don't think that any of that is true. He was unquestionably gay.
Tell us about Owen's death.
The last battle that Owen was in—which was also the last battle of the First World War and the final victory that persuaded Germany to drop out and give up—was a very important event and not just the ending of a squabble. It was the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France.
Engineers working for Wilfred's battalion built a bridge across the canal with enormous skill, in half an hour. Some men got across, and then it was smashed by a shell. They had to still keep on trying to reconstruct this thing and get more people to cross. It seems likely that Owen was actually on a raft when he was hit and killed, we don't know for sure, although some people think he was on the bank, but I think that's probably not the case. Rafts had certainly been constructed for this operation, to try to get men and materials out to the bridge to carry on with the repairs.
We certainly have no idea whether he was hit by shrapnel, machine gun bullets, or a rifle, and whether he died instantly or not until some hours later. Quite often people say, "the machine gun got him," or something of that sort, but no one really knows, so the ending of his life is a mystery.
How did his parents learn of his death?
The message got back to Shrewsbury, where his parents were, on the actual day of the Armistice. It is said—this is family legend, but I think it probably is true, and I've certainly never found anything to contradict it—that the bells were actually ringing to celebrate the Armistice when the telegram arrived at his parents' house. His father, of course, had been out at work and his mother, who adored him, went to open the telegram and got the terrible news. She never really recovered, I think, ever. He was her first-born and the child she loved most. And he was so nearly a survivor. The war was over. He ought to have survived.
That canal crossing was called off, perhaps only ten minutes after he was killed. It was a matter of minutes, that's all. It sounds awful to say so, but in a way he was lucky even in that, because his life makes a complete whole, and everything fits into those 25 years. His early death is part of what has kept his reputation so powerful, and people can be moved by that. If he lived to be 90, it would have been a very different story, I think. So in a way, it's hard to regret his death, desperately sad though it was and though I do regret it, of course.
John Keegan, in his book about World War I, says he never could really figure out what World War I was about. Did people really know what the war was about?
The best conversation about it that I've ever read is in Frederic Manning's great novel, Her Privates We. I think there were enough soldiers around who felt that somehow or other, Germany had to be defeated. They did have some sense of what they were doing. They had a very strong sense, of course, in the early days. Then everything got so complicated, and every country had a different motive—America wanted to make the cities safe, Britain wanted to rescue Belgium, France wanted to get their provinces back—so it was very hard to pin down a particular cause or aim. The government was very reluctant to state war aims, and never did so clearly.
After you'd been in the trenches for months, or in the war zone for months, you did begin to feel that this whole thing was utterly pointless, and it was never going to end. It was just going to drag on and on and on until you were mutilated or killed. But there was a real sense of purpose among the politicians and among the soldiers, and they did keep going until it was finished. I think we're untrue to them and untrue to history if we don't recognize that that was the case.
To say that the First World War was mainly futile is not historical. The war did have aims and it had results, though, heaven knows, not necessarily the results that people wanted. Although Owen's poem “Futility” seems to say that the war is futile, he's really asking a question of what life itself is for. Maybe life is futile, which is a larger and perhaps another question.