Biographies of two World War One Poets

Discussion in 'Reviews' started by 5.10 leader, Jan 13, 2004.

  1. 5.10 leader

    5.10 leader Guest

    I have just finished reading the following two books in parallel:-

    Wilfred Owen by Dominic Hibberd, and
    Rupert Brooke, Life Death and Myth by Nigel Jones

    The subjects of the books were both poets, victims of the First World War, but from very different social spheres in Edwardian England. Owen was from an ordinary upper working/lower middle class background whilst Brooke had a priviledged upbringing; public school and Cambridge University education, social connections and advantages.

    Wilfred Owen

    In 1974 Jon Stallworthy wrote a biography of Wilfred Owen which became the authoritative text of Owen's life, until now. Hibberd's work surpasses its predecessor in every way in presenting Owen as a man with aspirations, desires, faults and weeknesses.

    Owen has typically been viewed as a war poet whose work is admired and revered. Little is generall known about his life, however, beyond his friendship with Siegfried Sassoon and his death one week before the Armistice came into effect.

    Throughout the book, Hibberd has portrayed Owen as a real person rather than a deified myth. The generalisations and tentative coverage of sensitive issues contained within Stallworthy's biography have been replaced by frank and open discussion of Owen's sexual orientation, his tendencies towards hypochondria and self-doubt, his hero worship..... all the idiosyncrasies and foibles which together contributed to the psche of such an outstanding poet.

    With comprehensive details of his life in the trenches together with his earlier life before becoming a soldier, every aspect of Owen's being that remains in human memory or surviving documents is considered. I have long admired Owen's work but have found much that is new in the book. I would recommend the book to anyone with an appreciation for poetry or who wishes to learn more about the life of a comparatively ordinary man who became, in my opinion, the greatest poet of his age.

    Hibberd's style of writing is open and accessible but at the same time objective and with a unwillingness to moralise or pass judgement. The level of research is astounding and there is very little to fault in the book. Occasional points could have been clarified but one cannot help but feeling assured that Hibberd really knows what he is talking about.

    Rupert Brooke

    The traditional image presented of Brooke is that of a man with stunning good looks and charm, described by Churchill as "one of England's noblest sons". In reality, Brooke was a person haunted by private fears and terrors that took him to the brink of madness and suicide.

    Earlier biographers were forced to be discrete, almost to the point of dishonesty, about Brooke's private life and loves by the weight of the British Establishment being brought to bear. This produced a very distorted picture of Brooke.

    Geoffrey Keynes, Brooke's friend, literary executor and the editor of his "Collected Letters" wished to preserve a portrait of him that made no mention of the major facts that shaped his path through life. In the intervening period following the death of Keynes several writers have drawn attention to one or more of the aspects of brooke's rather troubled life but none as comprehensively as Nigel Jones. This book seems to present the complete picture of the man; complex, moody, changeable, extreme, unstable but at the same time gifted and brilliant too.

    The book draws heavily on Brooke's correspondence and presents a picture of Brooke that is less hero-worshipping and altogether more human. For the first time the more controversial aspects of his life are included; his early homosexuality, his many heterosexual love affairs, his mental and physical breakdown leading him to the brink of madness and suicide, his extreme anti-Semitism and his illegitimate child.

    At a time when the notions of patriotism, media hype and war are very much to the fore, this book purport to present the full story behind one of England's enduring legends and probably the 20thy century's first literary star. I was left, however, that details of Brooke's private life are still being held back and that there is more to come.

    Of the two books, Hibberds is most definitely a "must read" for anyone with an interest in this genre. It is easy to read and the facts are easily accesible.

    By contrast, Jones's book will, I think, only appeal to one who has a definite interest in Brooke's life and death; it is not for the casual reader.

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