Sunday, 8 February 2009

Dan Todman's Wilfred Owen

Spot the difference?

Whatever its title ought to be, this excellent book's author is definitely Dan Todman, an historian whose blog, 'Trench Fever', sets a trap in its subtitle: 'War --- what is it good for?' Fans of Edwin Starr might think that they know the answer ('Absolutely nothing!'), but Todman's revisionist attitudes to the Great War produce a long list of benefits. Todman, like many of his fellow historians, thinks that we the general public have been duped. We have been reading Owen and Sassoon, and watching Oh What a Lovely War, when we should have been studying our history books. As The Great War's dust-jacket states: 'The generals were often highly professional and indeed won the war in 1918.... Dan Todman shows how views of the war changed over the last ninety years, and how a distorted image of it emerged and became dominant.' We might note the concession in the word 'often', and the begging of questions in 'distorted', but the book's job is to detail the case which the blurb can only summarise. It does that very well; yet, perhaps necessarily, it overstates in order to state at all. Todman calls Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory 'a work of polemic rather than analysis'; that is true of Fussell's book --- in the same way, and to the same extent, that it is true of Todman's.

Although chapter 5 of Todman's study is titled 'Poets', he has only one poet in his crosshairs: Wilfred Owen. Todman tracks Owen's growth in popularity from its hesitant beginnings in the early 1920s to his near ubiquity on school syllabi over the last several decades. He does not quite say that Owen is overrated, but the poet evidently annoys him. There are serious points to make about Owen's reception at the expense of other Great War poets, and about the reasons why certain of Owen's poems push out his others --- and Todman makes those points brilliantly. But he does not offer a reading of a single Owen poem. Instead, he dwells on the extreme and occasionally foolish uses to which Owen's work has been put, and he often treats those uses as justified by the poems themselves. Even so, it is not Owen's fault that history teachers encourage their students to write reductive Owenite pastiche about the futility of war. It is the fault of the history teachers.

'The continuing British relationship with the literature of the First World War deserves a massive study in its own right', Todman concludes, 'far more so than the works of the soldier poets themselves, which have been studied to death.' The first half of his sentence is undeniable --- and Todman is an ideal candidate for such a study: learned, fluent, wide-ranging, provocative. But the second half exposes the flaw in his impressive book. As Todman himself has (perhaps inadvertently) shown, the war's poets have fallen foul of historical arguments, not vice versa. Owen is not so much studied as exploited, his contemporaries ignored. Far from having been 'studied to death', Great War poetry continues to live and sing. Meanwhile, we can barely hear that music against the ceaseless din of historians clashing over what they assume to be its bones.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of readers have emailed to say that word verification on Blogger is playing up. Dan Todman is one of them, and has sent me this reply, which I happily add on his behalf.

    Dan Todman:
    Wilfred Owen's poetry is over-rated. There, I've said it. Thanks for the review Tim, and for the very justified criticisms. I would note in fairness that, as with most authors, I wasn't responsible for the blurb. On the other hand, it's fair to say that I probably over-stated my case - partly because I was younger and more foolish when I wrote the book, partly because as you suspect, I thought it needed to
    make a case in order to get past the weight of preconception that exists around the remembrance of the First World War. I'd probably be less strident now, particularly in defence of the generals. But I'd still enjoy having some fun at the expense of the blessed Wilfred - i.e. at the construct of Owen that has become established through various media over time.

    Whether that should have included some different readings of Owen's poems I'm less sure. It would have made it a different book. Equally, I do point out that there were lots of poets other than Owen, although I'll take the criticism that I should have phrased the sentence you quote with more care. But there are a lot of books that describe the huge range of literary responses to the war, and I don't think I could have added much to them, given everything else I wanted to fit in. In a way, perhaps, you highlight the problem with any form of academic writing which seeks to engage with an area of popular interest - do you accept the prevailing discourse, either by reinforcing it or kicking against it, or do you try to re-write it? The latter might be more intellectually honest, but it is also less likely to have an impact.