‘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
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