Making a universal connection through poetryMonday 6 October 2014
Since publishing his internationally-acclaimed biography of Wilfred Owen earlier this year, Dr Guy Cuthbertson has been invited to speak around the world. He has answered questions about Owen’s life, his family and his place in the canon of First World War literature but, he observes, most of them come back to “the human, universal and sometimes personal,” connection we can make with Owen’s words.
Guy says: “At public lectures, people have come up to me to talk about their granddad or great-grandad who served in the same regiment, or who was in the same war hospital as Owen. For them, World War One and Owen’s poetry is part of a very real, shared experience.”
Students that study war poetry as part of Liverpool Hope’s BA English course are encouraged to look at the lasting impact of 1914-1918 on today’s world. They are asked to carry out their own research, which can include seeking out war memorials in the local area, or thinking more widely about the concepts of remembrance, patriotism, moral goodness and the impact of war on families – issues which are just as relevant then as they are today.
“Owen writes specifically about seeing calvaries of the crucified Christ whilst in France," says Guy. "Some of the World War One memorials in Liverpool feature this same design – going to see them can give students a sense of the sights that made a lasting impression on Owen. We encourage students to use evidence like this in essays. The focus is on becoming a good researcher to inform your ideas.”
When Guy first came to Liverpool Hope he was finishing the biography, and he says that it was good to get a sense of the places that influenced Owen: “The 'Three Graces' at the Pier Head were beginning to be built when he was a child in Birkenhead, and Liverpool must have been an exciting place. He discusses how hearing the Scouse accent in later life appealed to him. Merseyside also features in the work of other war poets - Sassoon famously threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the mouth of the River Mersey, and Robert Graves also writes about the city.”
Trips to the local museums and landmarks are encouraged, and IPads are used to explore The Times digital archives, as Owen's poetry was sometimes inspired by events described in the newspapers. Liverpool Hope is also developing a multi-disciplinary World War One research group, and students can write their third year dissertation on war poetry.
Guy has also contributed to a Wilfred Owen app that combines images, recited poems and academic analysis of the war poetry - placing history and poetry in the palms of people’s hands. Guy now plans to develop a new app within the English department at Liverpool Hope.
Moving beyond the received opinion about a writer or work of literature is also a key part of studying English literature at degree level, says Guy, whose own work offers up a challenging, more complex portrait of Wilfred Owen than the popular perception.
“Looking again at the evidence, Wilfred Owen could also be described as something of a snob, and even a conservative. He never openly protested against the war, and he went back to the front, where he fought bravely and won the Military Cross. He was not straightforwardly a radical. We encourage our students to look beyond Owen and others’ designation as anti-war writers, and instead explore the complexities of their reactions to war. We want them to question what they have been previously taught. We encourage our students to take received opinion and turn it on its head – unpick it and then use evidence to piece it back together in a new way. We aim to develop students that have the courage to disagree.”
English graduates from Liverpool Hope have gone on to careers in PR, the law, advertising, marketing and management – which, Guy points out, require skills that are at the heart of an English degree.
“Literature is always about people – their motivations, and how they exist in the world. A degree in English is also a degree in ‘people studies’. It is about working out how people and society work and express themselves. Studying English is about acquiring factual knowledge, but it is also about enquiring into what makes people tick.”
Rowan Williams reviews Guy's Biography of Wilfred Owen for The New Statesman