‘There’s some­thing in­fin­itely touch­ing about Owen’s story’

Sir An­drew Mo­tion pays trib­ute to the soldier poet who doc­u­mented the hor­rors of the Great War. By Luke Mintz

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features - Li h w b im Si he be to th him wi suff thr S lau alw eas

On Novem­ber 4 1918, just one week be­fore the end of the First World War, Wil­fred Owen was s cross­ing the Sam­bre-Oise Canal in north­ern France when he was struck by a Ger­man bul­let and killed. Owen’s bit­ter, dis­il­lu­sioned poetry has since made him one of the coun­try’s all-time favourite war poets, along­side Siegfried Sas­soon and Rupert Brooke. His clas­sics, in­clud­ing Dulce et Deco­rum est and An­them for Doomed Youth, chron­i­cle the bru­tal suf­fer­ing in­side the trenches.

One per­son who has been trans­fixed by his work ever since he stud­ied O-level his­tory at Radley Col­lege in the Six­ties is for­mer poet lau­re­ate Sir An­drew Mo­tion. Now, 100 years to the day since Owen’s death, he has shared his new­est work, Armistice, which con­tains a “tip of my hat” to the man he has ad­mired since his teen years.

“I have a list of poets who I like a lot, and then there are a hand­ful of peo­ple who I feel that in some sense I’m ac­tu­ally in love with, be­cause I’m so fas­ci­nated by them and they play such an im­por­tant part in my life,” says Sir An­drew. “Ever since I first heard Owen 50 years ago, he has been one of those peo­ple for me. “There’s some­thing in­fin­itely touch­ing about his story, about the way in which he makes him­self into a poet, the friend­ship with Sas­soon, and the ap­palling suf­fer­ing he per­son­ally went through in north­ern France.”

Sir An­drew, who was poet lau­re­ate be­tween 1999 and 2009, al­ways found writ­ing about war eas­ier than, say, writ­ing about the Royal fam­ily, de­scrib­ing royal poetry in 2008 as a “hid­ing to noth­ing”. His en­chant­ment with the Great War poets meant that, when the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion asked him to write a poem for the cen­te­nary, he was cer­tain to in­clude a trib­ute to Owen.

The poem fo­cuses on Armistice morn­ing in a Bri­tish vil­lage. Even as church bells are ring­ing in cel­e­bra­tion, he writes, “long-faced tele­gram boys prop their bi­cy­cles on lamp­posts and front gates and for the last time press for­ward to de­liver their dread­ful con­do­lences”. This, Sir An­drew says, is a ref­er­ence to Wil­fred Owen’s mother, Har­riet, who was told of her son’s death on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 11 1918, while the bells in Shrews­bury rang to cel­e­brate the end of the war.

Sir An­drew’s fas­ci­na­tion with Owen was nur­tured dur­ing his 20s when he vis­ited the small ceme­tery in north­ern France where the poet is buried.

Af­ter re­tir­ing from his role as poet lau­re­ate, Sir An­drew re­turned to his grave in 2015 to “say good­bye” be­fore mov­ing to Bal­ti­more to take a pro­fes­sor­ship at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity. “It prob­a­bly sounds rather strange to say that, but he had been such an im­por­tant per­son in my life that it seemed a good thing to do. I went for a walk along the canal where he was killed. It’s re­ally quite a small grave­yard, and there are oth­ers around him who were killed in the same at­tack. The pathos of all that is that ev­ery­body knew the war was about to end, so why didn’t they just stop? There’s no way in which any­thing was go­ing to be gained by yet more peo­ple dy­ing.”

What Sir An­drew likes most about Owen’s po­ems is the “ex­tra­or­di­nary sym­pa­thy” he feels for fel­low sol­diers – friend and foe alike.

Owen did not im­me­di­ately sign up to fight in Au­gust 1914, re­main­ing as an English tu­tor in Bordeaux. When he even­tu­ally ar­rived in 1915, he was ap­palled by the loutish­ness of his fel­low sol­diers, ac­cord­ing to his fa­mous let­ters to his mother. But Owen, who was gay ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher Do­minic Hib­berd, grew to write about his fel­low men with what Sir An­drew de­scribes as a “phys­i­cal in­ti­macy” akin to an “erotic love poem, which I think is part of the rea­son why such lines brand them­selves in our minds”.

It’s this com­pli­ca­tion that in­ter­ests Sir An­drew so much; Owen does not fit neatly into any cat­e­gory. “Owen is not a paci­fist, and I think peo­ple tend to want to turn him into one, but he’s re­ally not.

“We find him say­ing things in those let­ters like ‘I fought like an an­gel’. He hates fight­ing, he hates the war, he can’t bear the phys­i­cal dis­tress that it causes to peo­ple around him, but he never says ‘I’m go­ing to put down my gun and stop fight­ing’.” The group for whom Owen re­served the most con­tempt was the blood­thirsty civil­ians back in Britain, he says, who handed out white feath­ers to “cow­ards” with­out know­ing any­thing about the true hor­rors of what sol­diers were go­ing through. “You feel those cur­rents very strongly in Owen’s po­ems.

“There is re­mark­ably lit­tle an­i­mos­ity to­wards the en­emy, but there is a good deal of re­sent­ment to­wards the peo­ple at home, ei­ther in high com­mand or those en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to go out and fight.”

Few other poets con­vey the bru­tal­ity of the trenches as well as Owen, he says. His fa­mous ac­count of a gas at­tack in Dulce et Deco­rum est, where he de­scribes his “gut­ter­ing, chok­ing, drown­ing” com­rade with “the white eyes writhing in his face”, is one ex­am­ple.

“He uses the lan­guage that we as­so­ciate with sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ro­man­tic poets, and Keats in par­tic­u­lar – this very sen­su­ous, vel­vety, rich, on-your-pulses lan­guage, which his­tor­i­cally has been used for love poetry and de­scrip­tions of land­scape,” Sir An­drew says. “But here it’s ap­plied to this com­pletely other pur­pose.”

Sir An­drew is im­pressed with how Britain is ap­proach­ing the cen­te­nary of the First World War. It high­lights how re­spect for the mil­i­tary has grown over his life, he says.

“When I left school in 1968, there were two or three peo­ple from my year who went into the Army, and the rest of us usu­ally couldn’t wait to go and smoke weed and grow our hair, and we rather curled our lip at these peo­ple. But that isn’t so now, I don’t think. Like a lot of peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion, I feel si­mul­ta­ne­ously an im­mense sense of re­lief be­cause we were al­lowed to live our lives in a way that our fa­thers and grand­fa­thers were not, but also a sort of gen­er­a­tional sur­vivor guilt.

“Grow­ing up, I re­mem­ber won­der­ing what my fa­ther [who fought in the Sec­ond World War] had seen be­fore the age of 23 that I was, with a bit of luck, never go­ing to have to see in my life­time.”

Rest­ing place: Sir An­drew, below, vis­ited Wil­fred Owen’s grave in north­ern France

Har­row­ing: Wil­fred Owen wrote of the suf­fer­ing in the trenches

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