Wilfred Owen: A New Biography by Dominic Hibberd - review by Thomas Hodgkinson

Thomas Hodgkinson

He Was Not a Coward

Wilfred Owen: A New Biography


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 411pp £20 order from our bookshop

It seems amazing that this is the first major biography for almost thirty years of the man who gave definitive expression to the English experience of the First World War. It is, in fact, only the second ever. Yet now, if you ask someone to name a war poet, they will probably mention Wilfred Owen before Sassoon or Brooke, let alone Blunden or Gurney. Although Owen only saw five of his poems published in his lifetime, and posthumous recognition came unbelievably slowly (because of his relative social obscurity, his family’s guardedness, and, above all, the uncompromising message of his work), with the Sixties and the era of Vietnam his coruscating, pitch-perfect attacks on the waste and degradation of war at last hit home.

A poet, if he is good enough, lives on after his death (that’s part of the point of what he does), and the posthumous progress of his work in the affections of the public and the pages of the critic is, in my opinion, just as interesting and relevant a part of his biography as, say, his early childhood. Dominic Hibberd deals with the reception of Owen’s poetry in an epilogue that – to make one of the few possible criticisms of this quiet, authoritative life- could have done with being twice as long.

Beyond narrating the facts, and identifying those areas in which we can only speculate, the author’s agenda seems to consist of two self-appointed tasks. The first is to show that it was not only the war that made Owen a poet, that his talent had begun fermenting long before he

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