How Oxford University academic solved a war poet puzzle

Professor John Stallworthy

Professor John Stallworthy Buy this photo

First published in News

HE PENNED his first poem as a seven-year-old pupil at Oxford’s The Dragon School.

In the decades since, Jon Stallworthy has won many awards for his poetry, books and editing skills.

Now Professor Emeritus of English at Oxford University, his portrait of First World War poet Wilfred Owen was described by author Graham Greene as “surely one of the finest biographies of our time”.

Next month, The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, which the 79-year-old edited, will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

His interest in war was sparked during his early days at The Dragon in the 1940s, against the backdrop of the Second World War.

A number of his teachers had been injured during the conflict, including one with a steel plate in his head, and there was a school plaque commemorating the dead.

It was The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935, a collection of poems edited by Irish poet WB Yeats, that led him to write about Wilfred Owen. A long introduction by Yeats includes an explanation why he left out the war poets, such as Wilfred Owen.

Prof Stallworthy said: “I was interested in why Yeats so disliked and disapproved of Owen.

“I realised it was all about ancient versus modern and how the world had changed.”

While working as an editor at Oxford University Press in the early 1970s, he was introduced to Owen’s brother Harold, who asked if he would write a biography and edit the poems.

There was limited material for the biography, since Owen was just 25 when he died, but OUP gave him a year off to write it.

The biography proved a fairly straightforward task but editing the poems took 10 years. Owen wrote most of them during 1917-18, before being killed in action in November 1918, and although he saw five in print, he left a mass of unpublished work.

Prof Stallworthy said: “There were three or four hundred pieces of paper with fragments of poems but we couldn’t date anything, so it was hard to know which he had intended to be his final versions.”

It suddenly struck him that Owen had dated all letters he wrote to family and friends.

“Although he was a poor boy, I noticed the paper on which he wrote his poems was very good quality and was the same as he used when he letter-wrote.”

By matching the paper, pencil, ink and 24 watermarks of the undated manuscripts with those of the poet’s letters, he slowly but surely solved the riddle.

The final result was the publication of the double-volume Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments.

  • Our top stories

Escaped prisoner arrested in Oxford

Oxford Mail:

2:25pm Wednesday 17th September 2014

An escaped prisoner was arrested in Oxford this morning along with a man and a woman.

New: Get Oxford Mail news alerts sent direct to your phone via Whatsapp

Oxford Mail: Whats App logo

11:50am Tuesday 3rd June 2014

OXFORD Mail readers can now sign up to get major breaking news alerts sent direct to their mobile phones with a new service using Whatsapp.

Set for a battle of Blenheim over 1,500 homes plan

Oxford Mail:

9:00am Tuesday 9th September 2014

RESIDENTS in Woodstock have vowed to “fight until the bitter end” against plans to build up to 1,500 homes east of the town.

Delays of up to 40 minutes on bus services across the county

Oxford Mail: Traffic Alert general

9:00am Tuesday 9th September 2014

STAGECOACH Oxfordshire has warned that passengers face delays of up to 40 minutes this morning.

Harassment cop sacked for gross misconduct

Oxford Mail: Thames Valley Police logo

8:30am Tuesday 9th September 2014

A DETECTIVE has been sacked after harassing a member of police staff, the force said yesterday.

Fears as boat owners’ group claims new area of riverbank

Oxford Mail:

8:00am Tuesday 9th September 2014

RESIDENTS say they are worried about another attempt by boat owners to grab land alongside waterways in the city.

Mum cleared of breaking baby daughter’s leg

Oxford Mail: The Horton General Hospital, Banbury

6:30am Tuesday 9th September 2014

A TEENAGER accused of breaking her baby daughter’s leg broke down in tears as she was cleared yesterday.

Oh baby! Royal fans pass on best to Kate

Oxford Mail:

6:30am Tuesday 9th September 2014

THE NEWS that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant with her second child was met with joy around the world.

Detective fired from Thames Valley Police after harassing member of police staff

Oxford Mail: Thames Valley Police logo

3:27pm Monday 8th September 2014

A DETECTIVE has been fired from Thames Valley Police after harassing a member of police staff.

Appleton's half-time blast does the trick for Oxford United

Oxford Mail:

9:30am Monday 8th September 2014

DANNY Hylton revealed a half-time blast from Oxford United head coach Michael Appleton was the key to a vastly-improved performance as they hit back to claim a 1-1 draw at Southend United.

Wired for fun

Oxford Mail:

8:30am Monday 8th September 2014

OXFORDSHIRE County Council leader Ian Hudspeth opened Woodstock’s new play area by hurtling down a zip wire.

Campsfield extension would create 80 new ‘local’ jobs

Oxford Mail: The proposed centre at Arncott would be a secure site like Campsfield

8:30am Monday 8th September 2014

ABOUT 80 jobs for local people will be created if an extension goes ahead at Campsfield House immigration detention centre, Kidlington, it has been revealed.

Rise in cases hits force

Oxford Mail: Police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld

8:30am Monday 8th September 2014

NEARLY 500 new domestic abuse victims came forward last year with the police warning of increased pressure on the cash-strapped force.

Pub garden brews up a music and ale festival

Oxford Mail:

7:10am Monday 8th September 2014

BEER and cider was flowing all weekend at an Oxford pub festival.

 

Comments

Comments are closed on this article.

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree