Magazine article The Spectator

Anthem for Groomed Youth

Magazine article The Spectator

Anthem for Groomed Youth

Article excerpt

Wilfred Owen's troubling obsession

This year is the centenary of the Armistice to end what Siegfried Sassoon called 'the world's worst wound': the first world war. A bare week before the conflict concluded in a grey November, another poet, Sassoon's friend and protégé Wilfred Owen, whose work now epitomises the waste and futility of that struggle, was cut down by a machine-gun as he tried to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in one of the war's last battles.

Owen's sombre verse, the 'poetry of pity' as he called it, came to represent the disillusion and despair that set in as casualties climbed into the millions and the blood of Britain's youth drained hopelessly away in the Flanders mud. For anyone educated since his work became part of the national curriculum in the 1960s, it sums up our national groupthink about the Great War: frightened boys going over the top to near-certain death; poison-gas victims coughing their lives up from 'froth corrupted lungs'; shivering, whey-faced soldiers waiting for a stray bullet to end their suffering.

Owen was seen as a stainless knight whose feelings for the agonies of the men he led in the trenches matched his own modest provincial background. Only in recent years has rigorous biographical inquiry revealed a more complex, more disturbing, less likeable -- in a word, more human -- figure.

We know now that Owen at first welcomed the war, which he thought would 'effect a little useful weeding' of Europe's multiplying lower orders. He was a social snob, despite his own background as the son of a minor railway official. Perhaps most shocking of all to his peace-loving fans, in the last weeks of his life he won a Military Cross for taking a German machine-gun, and happily mowing down the fleeing Hun: an incident eerily prefigured in his masterpiece 'Strange Meeting' when he writes: 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.'

Most troubling of all, in our paedophilia-obsessed society, are the indications of Owen's fondness for young boys. Aged 19, he enjoyed a romantic friendship with a lad of 13; as an English teacher at the Berlitz school in Bordeaux just before the war, he writes home of 'altar boys, boys in the park, and boys in the YMCA'; and recovering from shell shock at Craiglockhart officers' hospital in Edinburgh, he virtually adopted a seven-year-old, taking the boy on treats and outings to the zoo.

All of this may have been entirely innocent and, in any event, it has little relevance to the worth of his poetry. But it's interesting that Owen's admirers have made strenuous efforts down the years to suppress or deny this side of his complex and contradictory personality. His own tight-knit family of evangelical Christians would not countenance any suggestion that Owen had been gay, despite the homoerotic imagery suffusing many of his poems (25 of his published works, almost a third, reference 'boys' or 'lads'). Until the 1970s, his censorious brother Harold Owen controlled the legacy, publishing a tendentious multi-volume family memoir, Journey from Obscurity, which swept any suggestion of Wilfred's true sexual interests under the carpet, then nailed the carpet down. He also redacted the surviving letters with black ink before releasing them. Owen's beloved but puritanical mother, Susan, had already destroyed whole sackfuls of letters, including correspondence with Sassoon. …

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