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Expert Comment: The role of poetry in remembrance

Guy Cuthbertson - 150 Monday 11 August 2014

Dr Guy Cuthbertson, Senior Lecturer in English at Liverpool Hope and biographer of Wilfred Owen, discusses the role that poetry plays in remembrance.  

Last Monday the country remembered Britain’s entry into the war on 4th August 1914, and we saw that poetry still plays a central role in our attempts to understand and commemorate the conflict. A number of poems were read out in Westminster Abbey’s televised 10pm ‘solemn commemoration’ and at other churches across the country on Monday. Television and radio stations turned to poetry in order to convey the significance of the war and especially that watershed moment of 4th August. And, above all, people turned to the poetry of Wilfred Owen (a poet who had lived near Liverpool). I was involved with the BBC’s short film about Owen that was included in the coverage of the Westminster Abbey service, and the BBC pointed out that Owen’s name is in the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner (one of his sonnets talks about how he once wanted his ‘dead name’ to end up there). 

Owen’s poem ‘1914’ was given a prominent position in the Abbey service, where it was read out by the actor David Morrissey; and poems such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ were included in many other commemoration events. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ even appeared on a London Underground service information board on Monday. Owen was also a poet frequently used in media coverage abroad – for example, The New Yorker covered the centenary with an article entitled ‘Remembering 1914: Dulce et Decorum Est’, which discussed Owen’s life (‘the most memorable war poet, to my mind, was Wilfred Owen, a middle-class Shropshire lad, whose family fell on hard times and moved to Birkenhead, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool’). On Twitter, Owen and his poetry was tweeted and retweeted again and again on Monday.  Owen was everywhere.

During the war, Owen was not a famous poet, but by the 1960s he had become the quintessential war poet. Benjamin Britten placed Owen’s poetry at the heart of his War Requiem, which was premiered in 1962 and will be performed this month at both the BBC Proms and the Edinburgh International Festival. Britten’s work helped to promote Owen’s poetry, as had the earlier efforts of people like Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. Even by the 1930s the Irish poet W. B. Yeats was complaining about the status that Owen had achieved, with ‘his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum’. Yeats excluded Owen from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse but Owen was regularly appearing in anthologies and in books about the war. Owen became a staple of school and university curricula (and I teach his poetry here at Hope at undergraduate and postgraduate level).  Many people first encounter his poetry in a school classroom and never forget it. It is hard to think about the outbreak of war without remembering Owen.

 Yet Owen was not one of those who enthusiastically rushed off to fight in the sunshine of August 1914. Owen’s own summer of 1914 was mostly happy and beautiful, even after the war began – he was living in France and spent August with a cultured well-to-do family in the Pyrenees near Lourdes, a long way from the Western Front. He didn’t join the army until more than a year later. But ‘1914’ describes how ‘War broke: and now the Winter of the world / With perishing great darkness closes in’. He didn’t live to see the end of this winter, and his post-war fame was posthumous. Wilfred Owen was killed one week before the Armistice. His parents heard the news on the day the war ended. If he has been central to the commemoration of the start of the war, he will also be remembered in 2018.

Guy Cuthbertson is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department and his biography of Wilfred Owen was recently published by Yale University Press


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