Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"Purgatorial Passions": "The Ghost" (A.K.A. Wilfred Owen) in Owen's Poetry

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

"Purgatorial Passions": "The Ghost" (A.K.A. Wilfred Owen) in Owen's Poetry

Article excerpt

For many generations now, Wilfred Owen has been held up as the archetypal war poet, a compelling protester against the inhumanity of World War One and civilian delusions about it, who at 25 was tragically cut down a week before the armistice was signed. In his famous "Preface" to his poems, Owen assigned himself the role of witness to "the pity of War," providing a warning of war's truth for the next generation; to a large extent he succeeded since our perception of World War One, and perhaps of all war, has been indelibly impressed by his truth. Owing to his success, his poems have typically been read as personal only insofar as they convey experience directly related to the battlefront.

However, Owen was a poet of protest in quite another way as well, as a gay poet whose sexual preference was considered a crime by his society. Only latterly and gradually has the Owen industry, concerned to protect the war hero poet's reputation, allowed him to emerge from the closet. In 1975 Paul Fussell broached the issue of Owen's sexuality but claimed that his was a "chaste," "temporary homosexuality" (272). Dominic Hibberd, in his early work circumspect about Owen's sexuality, has come not only to demonstrate the evidence of Owen's homosexuality, but to treat his sexual preference without prejudice. Nevertheless, in Hibberd's most recent biography of Owen, Wilfred Owen. A New Biography, he rather naively asserts that the "strong homoerotic impulse" in Owen's writing was "something that he seems to have recognized and accepted without much difficulty" (nix), and thus fails to probe the full implications for Owen's poetry. Owen's sexual orientation does matter because recognition that Owen needed to express his homosexual sensibility covertly reveals a whole 'other' dimension to his poetry, as well as a more complex truth about his response to war and about the nature of relations between men in war in general. With the United States and other nations embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East, Owen's situation and his poetry remind us of the toll war exacts on 'outsiders,' those constructed as not fitting into a threatened society's narrowing norms, most pertinently gay soldiers whose sexual orientation increases their vulnerability in an institution like the military.

Given the evidence from Owen's biography and from the poems, I would argue that his "homoerotic impulse" caused him enormous anxiety, reflected in his poetry through obsessive 'other-worldly' imagery of being haunted by ghosts and phantasms as well as in his development of pararhyme. This technique employs imperfect rhymes to create a jarring effect and, I would further argue, is indicative of anxiety-producing cognitive dissonance. Owen, nicknamed "The Ghost," engages the spectral as a means of managing anxiety in poems such as "Purgatorial Passions" and "Shadwell Stair." His poetic fragments 88 and 117 represent first attempts at pararhyme which reveal cognitive dissonance. However, Owen did not fully utilize the technique until his war experience exacerbated earlier sexual anxiety. Strangely, Owen's most famous poem, "Strange Meeting" best illustrates how recognition of the role of both pararhyme and ghosts can open up new understanding of his response to war, since the ghostly other in the poem can be read as a projection of Owen's homosexual self that could not be acknowledged openly.

British object relations theory in combination with attachment theory, can provide striking insight into how Owen negotiated relations with others, the roles poetry played for him, and his use of apparitions in that poetry. These theories apply well to Owen's situation for several reasons. Object relations differs from orthodox Freudian theory in shifting the focus from the father to the mother-infant dyad, particularly apropos in Owen's case since his mother played unusually significant roles in his life. Object relations supplies the most convincing psychoanalytic account of the origins and nature of creativity, which illuminates much about a creator like Owen. …

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