"Greater Love": Wilfred Owen, Keats, and a Tradition of Desire

Article excerpt

Wilfred Owen is still, to some extent, a prisoner of his saintly reputation. Though the most recent biography of Owen, by Helen McPhail, adds helpful maps that delineate Owen's precise movements in battle, the book is thoroughly in the hagiographic tradition. As Samuel Hynes notes, Edmund Blunden's 1931 "Memoir" assembled the saintly, doomed Owen. The memoir is, in Hynes's words, "a classic myth-making text." "It created," Hynes writes, "what Owen himself never had--a poetic character of his own" (437).

Blunden beatifies Owen by deploying Keats. "Memoir" is a misnomer; Blunden never actually met Owen. Blunden's text self-consciously creates an Owen myth to match the myth of Rupert Brooke. If Brooke could be the early twentieth century's Byron, dying conveniently in the Mediterranean, Blunden establishes Owen as its Keats, both because Owen's lushness derived from Keats's lushness and because Owen's fate seemed similar to Keats's fate. "It is impossible to be deeply acquainted with Owen's work," Blunden writes, "and not to be haunted by the comparison between his genius and his premature death and the wonder and tragedy of his beloved Keats" (3). Owen's early death fascinates Blunden, and Blunden intuits a circular explanation for it: because Owen died young he was like Keats, and because Owen was like Keats he died young. And why did Keats and Owen die young? Blunden uses a figure common in Keats biography and exploited during Keats's lifetime to explain his illness. This story places responsibility for Keat s's death on his unresolved desire for Fanny Brawne. Keats's friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown introduced this notion in their letters even as the poet was still living. "But you and I well know," wrote Brown to Severn, "that Keats's disease is in the mind, he is dying broken-hearted" (Rollins 1:201). In addition, both Severn in his recollections and Milnes in his biography elided the object of Keats's desire, never mentioning Fanny by name. She survived until 1865, and Severn and Milnes were anxious to preserve her from embarrassment or blame. As a result, Keats in their texts is laden with a desire that can never be satisfied and whose object-Fanny--cannot be named. Blunden, then, is dropping enticing hints about Owen s sexuality in literary terms. The men who were beginning to recognize their attraction to other men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and who faced legal prosecution for the practice of this sexuality after 1885) identified with this received version of Keats even though he was heterosexual. Keats's sexuality was figured in the terms with which their sexual practice actually was restricted.

Blunden's memoir creates two Owens: an outward and an inward. The hidden or inward part of Owen is the Keatsian poet, the outward a kind, practical man. Because Owen contains this hidden Keatsian poet he is marked out for suffering and an early death. A quality located inside Owen--figured as a gift or spark--dooms him. Blunden quotes a letter of Mary Gray, who knew Owen while he was recovering from shell shock at Craiglockhart hospital: "Throughout his trial he kept alight the spark of divine fire--the steadfast belief that through suffering do we attain to the only true spiritual beauty" (30). That "spark of divine fire" conflates a poetic gift with physical illness; one cannot help but hear the suggestion of that spark's consuming the self, as in "consumption' Keats's tuberculosis. Because it emphasizes suffering--and mental rather than physical suffering--that figuration suggests another hidden burning: unresolved sexual desire. The suffering of Blunden's Owen/Keats suggests the suffering of the closeted gay male. [1]

The connection between Keats and Owen's reading of his own sexuality has been suggested by the most perceptive of Owen's critics but not yet fully explored. Dominic Hibberd notices that Owen's response to William Michael Rossetti's account of Keats's death seems "partly sexual" (9). …