Dominic Hibberd, November 3 1941, died August 12 2012
Dominic Hibberd, who has died aged 70, was an authority on the soldier poets of the First World War and author of a biography of Wilfred Owen which explored aspects of the poet’s life that were suppressed after he was killed in action in November 1918.
A true picture of Owen had been hampered by his younger brother Harold, who had control over his estate and sought to disguise the facts of his life by destroying many papers and censoring much of what remained, later publishing his own highly subjective memoir of his brother in three volumes.
Harold’s feelings about his elder brother were complex (Wilfred was very much his mother’s favourite and could be overbearing), and he was desperately anxious to shield the family from rumours that Wilfred had been homosexual. In Harold’s account, Wilfred Owen emerges as a kind of Victorian paragon of good breeding, devout Christianity, patriotic gallantry and clean living.
Hibberd probably did more than any other individual to strip away the cobwebs and myths. In preparing his biography of Owen, published in 2002, he trawled, by his own account, through “school registers, pass lists, street directories, census returns, parish magazines, newspapers, Army files, local memories… forgotten letters and poems” as well as trench maps and battalion records, to obtain a more accurate account of the facts of the poet’s life and build up a three-dimensional picture of Owen the man.
Hibberd’s biography explored Owen’s snobbish attempts to mask his lower middle-class origins (his father was a stationmaster in Birkenhead) and his gradual religious disillusionment after a devout evangelical upbringing by his mother.
The book also dealt speculatively (and more controversially) with Owen’s sexuality, concluding that he was certainly homosexual and probably actively so. In evidence, he pointed to passages in some of the lesser-known poems which take delight in male beauty, and cited Owen’s friendships with an interlinked group of homosexual writers including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Ross, Osbert Sitwell and Charles Scott Moncrieff.
Hibberd observed that, while Wilfred Owen has come to be seen as the archetypal voice of 1914-18, his experience of war was untypical. He was never wounded, and never had to endure the long attrition of trench warfare.
The incidents on which his war poems are based took place in the first five months of 1917, during which he was in action for about 30 days — a month-long series of horrors which removed any illusions he might have had concerning the “glories” of war. These days, which Hibberd chronicled in authoritative detail, and the months Owen spent convalescing from shell shock in Craiglockhart Hospital, were decisive to his development as a poet. It was in hospital that he met Arthur Brock, the doctor who treated him, and Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient, who suggested war as a suitable subject for his poetry.
Hibberd also disputed claims that Wilfred was regarded as a coward, citing evidence that he was well-regarded by his superior officers. His hospitalisation had come about after he had been blown up by a shell in France, but he returned to the Front and went on to win an MC “for conspicuous gallantry” after capturing a gun and turning it on the enemy during an attack on the Hindenburg line in 1918.
The son of a director of Coutts bank, John William Dominic Hibberd was born in Guildford on November 3 1941. From Rugby (where he was bullied) he won an exhibition to King’s College, Cambridge, and after graduating took a PhD at Exeter University.
He went on to teach English at Manchester Grammar School and Keele and Exeter universities, as well as universities in America and China. In 1973 he edited an edition of Wilfred Owen’s poems.
After retiring from teaching in the 1980s he became a full-time writer about the First World War poets. In his first book, Owen the Poet, he showed that much of the language and imagery of Owen’s most famous poems was in place long before Owen experienced the realities of the trenches. In Wilfred Owen: The Last Year (1992) he explored the importance of Owen’s time in hospital .
Other books include Diary of a Dead Officer, a study of the poet Arthur Graeme West, and Harold Monro: Poet of the New Age (2001), an absorbing biography of the poet, idealist, campaigner, alcoholic and homosexual who started Poetry Review and the Poetry Bookshop which, for more than 20 years, was, as Hibberd put it, “the most famous centre for poets in the English-speaking world”. In 2007 he edited (with John Onions) The Winter of the World: Poems of the First World War.
A quiet, courteous man and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Hibberd lived in Oxfordshire with his civil partner, Tom Coulthard, who survives him.