Monday, 27 August 2012
As a biographer, editor and literary critic, Hibberd made an immense contribution to the public and scholarly understanding of the First World War. He began his career as a scholar of Wilfred Owen, and his collection of publications on Owen—a biography, a book-length study, and many essays—sets him apart as that poet’s most perceptive literary critic. Between them, Hibberd and Jon Stallworthy have ensured Owen's pre-eminence in discussions of modern war poetry, but as his biographers, at times they have seemed like rivals. The main area of contention was spelt out by Hibberd in the introduction to his biography: ‘One claim often made about Owen is undoubtedly true, although there are still people who prefer not to believe it. He was gay'. Hibberd's claim about Owen's sexuality is now established beyond reasonable doubt, and his biography amounts to an astonishing piece of scholarship—lucid, thorough, fluent, and extremely well researched—but its weakest point is an understandable desire to overstate what could have been more calmly asserted. Stallworthy had written his authorised biography under the watchful eye of Owen’s family, and had left gaps where exposure had been impossible. Once or twice, Hibberd is slightly too noisy (and speculative) in filling the silences. Yet Hibberd's is still the definitive Life, and I would group it among the finest biographies that I have read. Quite rightly, it pays meticulous attention to Owen’s wartime experiences, but it also gives a convincing account of Owen’s early years.
The biography seems to have represented the culmination of Hibberd’s research on Owen, and it draws extensively on much of his previous scholarship. Yet his earlier work was not entirely superseded. Hibberd's article on Owen’s pararhyme (1978) remains the most perceptive treatment of that subject. He was never anything less than an accomplished close reader, always alive to poetry’s figures and patternings; and at his best he wrote an historically-informed formalist criticism which was deeply attentive to textual variants and complications. It is not least because of Hibberd's detailed editorial work that we are able to feel confident of the chronology of Owen’s development as a poet.
From the start, Hibberd explored the work of other writers in Owen’s circle, most obviously Sassoon, Graves and Harold Monro. The impression given by his writing on the first two of those poets is that his attention is prompted more by their relationship to Owen than by any intrinsic interest. His contribution to a collection of essays on Robert Graves and his contemporaries was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a piece assessing the influence of Graves on Owen, although another essay in Gravesiana (2010) does suggest that Graves might have become significant for Hibberd’s scholarship in his own right. Sassoon remained less of a presence in Hibberd’s writings: he is studied only where he plays a role in Owen’s life and poetry.
The work on Harold Monro is altogether more important. Until Hibberd took up his case, Monro was a man often cited but never studied. A poet himself, he was better known as an editor and bookseller, whose support encouraged many young poets especially during the war years. Hibberd’s biography of Monro manages the task of bringing its subject to life while recognising that many readers will be more concerned with the pen-portraits of the company he kept: not just Owen but Charlotte Mew, T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Robert Frost, and many others. Monro was active at the time when the schism between Modernism and Georgianism occurred, and since then, poetry in English has never quite managed to heal the breach. Hibberd shows Monro to be a fascinating character for his close links with rival parties, but he also makes claims for him as a poet worthy of study. All the strengths apparent in Hibberd’s biography of Owen—its painstaking scholarship, its fluency, its ability to illuminate the work as well as the life—are repeated here. Hibberd has also done Monro the great service of making his poems readily available, first in Strange Meetings: Poems by Harold Monro (2003), and then in Harold Monro and Wilfrid Gibson: The Pioneers (2006).
Apart from his work on Owen, it is as an anthologist that Hibberd is best known. Hibberd’s work here couples his impressive textual scholarship with a desire to expand the canon of First World War poetry. His first anthology, Poetry of the Great War (edited with John Onions in 1986) was the first anthology to represent women satisfactorily alongside the more celebrated poetry of the soldier-poets. Hibberd described his next anthology, The Winter of the World (also with John Onions, 2007) as a further assault on ‘the 1960s myth’ of the War. Organised chronologically year by year, and with a final section covering the decade after the Armistice, this anthology is the most learned and inclusive to date. It exposes the shoddy scholarship of many of its predecessors, and challenges many of the common preconceptions about contemporary attitudes to the war and its poetry: for example, Hibberd and Onions rightly argue that it can be ‘misleading to assume that the Somme campaign... was a turning point for poetry by soldiers’, and their selection of poems proves their case.
Hibberd has left us with substantial and groundbreaking biographies of Wilfred Owen and Harold Monro; his editorial work has helped to clarify Owen’s texts and to provide a confident chronology of that poet’s development; his literary criticism proved him to be a leading scholar of modern poetry; and the anthologies, particularly The Winter of the World, have brought to readers a new and expanded canon of First World War verse. It is an exemplary achievement, for which all of us who read war poetry must be grateful.
Posted by Tim Kendall at 13:30