Book Review: Wilfred Owen

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by Guy Cuthbertson

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. vi, 346. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $40.00. ISBN: 0300153007

Britain's Most Notable Great War Soldier-Poet

Cuthbertson (Liverpool Hope University), takes a look at one of the premier English soldier-poets of the Great War, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). He had a good education, and although unable to take a university degree due to strained financial circumstances, and early demonstrated a talent for poetry. In France, teaching English, on the out beak of the Great War, he briefly thought about joining the French Army, but in 1915 joined the Artists’ Rifles, a volunteer regiment that served as an officer training unit, in which many other later prominent authors, actors, and scholars served. In June of 1916 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.

Owen spent several tours at the front, and was several times wounded. While recovering from one wound, he met Siegfried Sassoon, and through him a number of other poets and authors, including Robert Graves and H. G. Wells. Although suffering from “shell shock” after a wound in the head in June of 1918, Owen arranged to return to his unit, and was killed on November 4, 1918, literally days before the Armistice; although he had been awarded the Military Cross, surprisingly he was still only a second lieutenant.

The primary focus of the book is Owen’s poetry, regarded as among the best to come out of the war, including such notable works as “Dulce et Decorum Est” and "Anthem for Doomed Youth," dealing with the futility of war. Cuthbertson offers a very sensitive and nuanced analysis of Owen’s works, but for the purposes of our readers, rather misses the man. To be sure, there’s a great deal about Owen’s military service, including how his war experiences shaped his poetry, and some discussion of “shell shock”, but there’s very little about Owen the soldier. For example, we see are no comments from his military records about his performance at the Front, nor anecdotes from his men or his superiors.

Wilfred Owen is primarily of interest to students of war poetry, at which it is quite good.

Note: Wilfred Owen is also available in paperback, $27.00 ISBN 978-0-3002-1615-8, and e-editions.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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