Wilfred Owen Insensibility Essay Scholarships
For the politician, see Wilfrid Owen.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, and stood in stark contrast both to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are "Dulce et Decorum est", "Insensibility", "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility", "Spring Offensive" and "Strange Meeting".
Owen was born on 18 March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane, near Oswestry in Shropshire. He was the eldest of Thomas and Harriet Susan (née Shaw)'s four children; his siblings were Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen. When Wilfred was born, his parents lived in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather, Edward Shaw.
After Edward's death in January 1897, and the house's sale in March, the family lodged in the back streets of Birkenhead. There Thomas Owen temporarily worked in the town employed by a railway company. Thomas transferred to Shrewsbury in April 1897 where the family lived with Thomas' parents in Canon Street.
Thomas Owen transferred back to Birkenhead again in 1898 when he became stationmaster at Woodside station. The family lived with him at three successive homes in the Tranmere district, They then moved back to Shrewsbury in 1907. Wilfred Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School (later known as the Wakeman School).
Owen discovered his poetic vocation in about 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. He was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical type, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which lasted throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the "big six" of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats.
Owen's last two years of formal education saw him as a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury. In 1911 he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship, which in his family's circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam (this has been questioned) Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading. During this time he attended classes at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading), in botany and later, at the urging of the head of the English Department, took free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the Church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.
From 1912 he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France, and later with a family. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French. When war broke out, Owen did not rush to enlist - and even considered the French army - but eventually returned to England.
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists RiflesOfficers' Training Corps. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4 June 1916, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. Initially Owen held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as "expressionless lumps". However, his imaginative existence was to be changed dramatically by a number of traumatic experiences. He fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious on an embankment lying amongst the remains of one of his fellow officers. Soon afterward, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was while recuperating at Craiglockhart that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter that was to transform Owen's life.
Whilst at Craiglockhart he made friends in Edinburgh's artistic and literary circles, and did some teaching at the Tynecastle High School, in a poor area of the city. In November he was discharged from Craiglockhart, judged fit for light regimental duties. He spent a contented and fruitful winter in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and in March 1918 was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. While in Ripon he composed or revised a number of poems, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly at Ripon Cathedral, which is dedicated to his namesake, St. Wilfrid of Hexham.
Owen returned in July 1918, to active service in France, although he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. His decision to return was probably the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England, after being shot in the head in an apparent "friendly fire" incident, and put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his duty to add his voice to that of Sassoon, that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. Sassoon was violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to "stab [him] in the leg" if he tried it. Aware of his attitude, Owen did not inform him of his action until he was once again in France.
At the very end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line - perhaps imitating Sassoon's example. On 1 October 1918 Owen led units of the Second Manchesters to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was awarded the Military Cross, an award he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet, but the award was not gazetted until 15 February 1919. The citation followed on 30 July 1919:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration. Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, in northern France. The inscription on his gravestone, chosen by his mother Susan, is based on a quote from his poetry: "SHALL LIFE RENEW THESE BODIES? OF A TRUTH ALL DEATH WILL HE ANNUL" W.O..
Owen is regarded by many as the greatest poet of the First World War, known for his verse about the horrors of trench and gas warfare. He had been writing poetry for some years before the war, himself dating his poetic beginnings to a stay at Broxton by the Hill when he was ten years old. The Romantic poets Keats and Shelley influenced much of his early writing and poetry. His great friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, later had a profound effect on his poetic voice, and Owen's most famous poems ("Dulce et Decorum est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth") show direct results of Sassoon's influence. Manuscript copies of the poems survive, annotated in Sassoon's handwriting. Owen's poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. While his use of pararhyme with heavy reliance on assonance was innovative, he was not the only poet at the time to use these particular techniques. He was, however, one of the first to experiment with it extensively.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
His poetry itself underwent significant changes in 1917. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, Owen's doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry. Sassoon, who was becoming influenced by Freudianpsychoanalysis, aided him here, showing Owen through example what poetry could do. Sassoon's use of satire influenced Owen, who tried his hand at writing "in Sassoon's style". Further, the content of Owen's verse was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon. Sassoon's emphasis on realism and "writing from experience" was contrary to Owen's hitherto romantic-influenced style, as seen in his earlier sonnets. Owen was to take both Sassoon's gritty realism and his own romantic notions and create a poetic synthesis that was both potent and sympathetic, as summarised by his famous phrase "the pity of war". In this way, Owen's poetry is quite distinctive, and he is, by many, considered a greater poet than Sassoon. Nonetheless, Sassoon contributed to Owen's popularity by his strong promotion of his poetry, both before and after Owen's death, and his editing was instrumental in the making of Owen as a poet.
Owen's poems had the benefit of strong patronage, and it was a combination of Sassoon's influence, support from Edith Sitwell, and the preparation of a new and fuller edition of the poems in 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured his popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960s which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye. Though he had plans for a volume of verse, for which he had written a "Preface", he never saw his own work published apart from those poems he included in The Hydra, the magazine he edited at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and "Miners", which was published in The Nation.
There were many other influences on Owen's poetry, including his mother. His letters to her provide an insight into Owen's life at the front, and the development of his philosophy regarding the war. Graphic details of the horror Owen witnessed were never spared. Owen's experiences with religion also heavily influenced his poetry, notably in poems such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth", in which the ceremony of a funeral is re-enacted not in a church, but on the battlefield itself, and "At a Calvary near the Ancre", which comments on the Crucifixion of Christ. Owen's experiences in war led him further to challenge his religious beliefs, claiming in his poem "Exposure" that "love of God seems dying".
Only five of Owen's poems were published before his death, one in fragmentary form. His best known poems include "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility", "Dulce Et Decorum Est", "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young" and "Strange Meeting". However, most of them were published posthumously: Poems (1920),The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931),The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (1963),The Complete Poems and Fragments (1983); fundamental in this last collection is the poem Soldier's Dream, that deals with Owen's conception of war.
Owen's full unexpurgated opus is in the academic two-volume work The Complete Poems and Fragments (1994) by Jon Stallworthy. Many of his poems have never been published in popular form.
In 1975 Mrs. Harold Owen, Wilfred's sister-in-law, donated all of the manuscripts, photographs and letters which her late husband had owned to the University of Oxford's English Faculty Library. As well as the personal artifacts, this also includes all of Owen's personal library and an almost complete set of The Hydra – the magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital. These can be accessed by any member of the public on application in advance to the English Faculty librarian.
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds a large collection of Owen's family correspondence.
An important turning point in Owen scholarship occurred in 1987 when the New Statesman published a stinging polemic 'The Truth Untold' by Jonathan Cutbill, the literary executor of Edward Carpenter, which attacked the academic suppression of Owen as a poet of homosexual experience. Amongst the points it made was that the poem "Shadwell Stair", previously alleged to be mysterious, was a straightforward elegy to homosexual soliciting in an area of the London docks once renowned for it.
Relationship with Sassoon
Owen held Siegfried Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother that he was "not worthy to light [Sassoon's] pipe". The relationship clearly had a profound impact on Owen, who wrote in his first letter to Sassoon after leaving Craiglockhart "You have fixed my life – however short". Sassoon wrote that he took "an instinctive liking to him", and recalled their time together "with affection". On the evening of 3 November 1917 they parted, Owen having been discharged from Craiglockhart. He was stationed on home-duty in Scarborough for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, which included Robbie Ross and Robert Graves. He also met H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and it was during this period he developed the stylistic voice for which he is now recognised. Many of his early poems were penned while stationed at the Clarence Garden Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel in Scarborough's North Bay. A blue tourist plaque on the hotel marks its association with Owen.
Robert Graves and Sacheverell Sitwell (who also personally knew him) stated that Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry. Through Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which included Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, writer and poet Osbert Sitwell, and Scottish writer C. K. Scott Moncrieff, the translator of Marcel Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work. Historians have debated whether Owen had an affair with Scott Moncrieff in May 1918; he had dedicated various works to a "Mr W.O.", but Owen never responded.
Throughout Owen's lifetime and for decades after, homosexual activity between men was a punishable offence in British law, and the account of Owen's sexual development has been somewhat obscured because his brother Harold removed what he considered discreditable passages in Owen's letters and diaries after the death of their mother.Andrew Motion wrote of Owen's relationship with Sassoon: "On the one hand, Sassoon's wealth, posh connections and aristocratic manner appealed to the snob in Owen: on the other, Sassoon's homosexuality admitted Owen to a style of living and thinking that he found naturally sympathetic."  Sassoon, by his own account, was not actively homosexual at this time.
Sassoon and Owen kept in touch through correspondence, and after Sassoon was shot in the head in July 1918 and sent back to England to recover, they met in August and spent what Sassoon described as "the whole of a hot cloudless afternoon together." They never saw each other again. About three weeks later, Owen wrote to bid Sassoon farewell, as he was on the way back to France, and they continued to communicate. After the Armistice, Sassoon waited in vain for word from Owen, only to be told of his death several months later. The loss grieved Sassoon greatly, and he was never "able to accept that disappearance philosophically."
There are memorials to Owen at Gailly, Ors,Oswestry, Birkenhead (Central Library) and Shrewsbury.
On 11 November 1985, Owen was one of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone is taken from Owen's "Preface" to his poems: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." There is also a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building.
The forester's house in Ors where Owen spent his last night, Maison forestière de l'Ermitage, has been transformed by Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson into an art installation and permanent memorial to Owen and his poetry, which opened to the public on 1 October 2011.
Susan Owen's letter to Rabindranath Tagore marked, Shrewsbury, 1 August 1920, reads: "I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London – but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me – we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea – looking towards France, with breaking hearts – when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours – beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ – and when his pocket book came back to me – I found these words written in his dear writing – with your name beneath."
Wilfred Owen Association
To commemorate Wilfred’s life and poetry, The Wilfred Owen Association was formed in 1989. Since its formation the Association has established permanent public memorials in Shrewsbury and Oswestry. In addition to readings, talks, visits and performances, it promotes and encourages exhibitions, conferences, awareness and appreciation of Owen's poetry. The Association President is Peter Owen, Wilfred Owen’s nephew. Dr Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury 2002–2012), Sir Daniel Day-Lewis and Grey Ruthven, 2nd Earl of Gowrie are Patrons. The Association presents a biennial Poetry Award to honour a poet for a sustained body of work that includes memorable war poems; previous recipients include Sir Andrew Motion (Poet Laureate 1999-2009). In November 2015, actor Jason Isaacs unveiled a tribute to Owen at the former Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where Owen was treated for shell shock during WWI.
Depictions in popular culture
In print and film
Stephen MacDonald's play Not About Heroes (first performed in 1982) takes as its subject matter the friendship between Owen and Sassoon, and begins with their meeting at Craiglockhart during World War I.
Pat Barker's historical novel Regeneration (1991) also describes the meeting and relationship between Sassoon and Owen, acknowledging that, from Sassoon's perspective, the meeting had a profoundly significant effect on Owen. Owen's treatment with his own doctor, Arthur Brock, is also touched upon briefly. Owen's death is described in the third book of Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The Ghost Road (1995). In the 1997 film Regeneration, Stuart Bunce played Owen.
Owen is the subject of the BBC docudrama Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale (2007), in which he is played by Samuel Barnett.
Owen was mentioned as a source of inspiration for one of the correspondents in the epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008), by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
Harry Turtledove's multi-novel Southern Victory Series has the title of its third volume, Walk in Hell, taken from a line in "Mental Cases". This part of the series is set during an alternate history version of World War I which sees Canada invaded and occupied by United States troops. Owen is acknowledged on the title page as the source of the quote.
A film named The Burying Party is currently in its final stages of production, which depicts Owen's final year from Craiglockhart Hospital to the Battle of the Sambre. Matthew Staite stars as Owen and Joyce Branagh as his mother Susan.
His poetry has been reworked into various formats. For example, Benjamin Britten incorporated eight of Owen's poems into his War Requiem, along with words from the Latin Mass for the Dead (Missa pro Defunctis). The Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral and first performed there on 30 May 1962.Derek Jarman adapted it for the screen in 1988, with the 1963 recording as the soundtrack.
The Ravishing Beauties recorded Owen's poem "Futility" in an April 1982 John Peel session.
Also in 1982, 10,000 Maniacs recorded a song titled "Anthem for Doomed Youth", loosely based on the poem, in Fredonia, New York. The recording appeared on their first EP release Human Conflict Number Five and later on the compilation Hope Chest. Also appearing on the Hope Chest album was the song "The Latin One", a reference to the title of Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" on which the song is based.
Additionally in 1982, singer Virginia Astley set the poem "Futility" to music she had composed.
Wirral musician Dean Johnson created the musical Bullets and Daffodils, based on music set to Owen's poetry, in 2010.
In 2015 British indie rock band The Libertines released an album entitled Anthems For Doomed Youth; this featured the track "Anthem for Doomed Youth", named after Owen’s poem.
His poetry is sampled multiple times on the 2000 Jedi Mind Tricks album Violent by Design. Producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind has been widely acclaimed for his sampling on the album, and inclusion of Owen's poetry.
- ^Stallworthy, Jon (1974). Wilfred Owen, A Biography. Oxford University Press and Chatto and Windus. p. 11. ISBN 0-19-211719X.
- ^ abWilfred Owen, A Biography. p. 13.
- ^Wilfred Owen, A Biography. pp. 13–14.
- ^Wilfred Owen, A Biography. pp. 35–36.
- ^"Wilfred Owen - Spirit of Birkenhead Institute". Retrieved 25 July 2012.
- ^Paul Farley, "Wilfred Owen: Journey to the Trenches", The Independent, November 2006
- ^Dickins, Gordon (1987). An Illustrated Literary Guide to Shropshire. Shropshire Libraries. p. 54. ISBN 0-903802-37-6.
- ^ abcdStallworthy, Jon (2004). Wilfred Owen: Poems selected by Jon Stallworthy. London: Faber and Faber. pp. vii–xix. ISBN 0-571-20725-1.
- ^McDowell, Margaret B. "Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918)." British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, vol. 20, Gale, 1983, p. 259. Dictionary of Literary Biography Main Series.
- ^ ab"History of Wilfred Owen in Dunsden researched".
- ^Sitwell, Osbert, Noble Essences, London: Macmillan, 1950, pp. 93-4.
- ^"No. 29617". The London Gazette (Supplement). 6 June 1916. p. 5726.
- ^"Ox.ac.uk". Oucs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
- ^Welcome to Ripon CathedralArchived 3 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
- ^"No. 31183". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 February 1919. p. 2378.
- ^"No. 31480". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 July 1919. p. 9761.
- ^"Armistice Touches"(PDF). The Ringing World. 13 December 1918. p. 397 (189 of online pdf). Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- ^ ab"Casualty Details: Owen, Wilfred Edward Salter". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- ^"The End". The Wilfred Owen Society. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
- ^BBC Poetry Season. Accessed 4 April 2015
- ^Sitwell, O. op. cit. p. 93.
- ^"Poetry Season – Poems – Anthem For Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen". BBC. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
- ^Cutbill, Jonathan (16 January 1987). "The Truth Untold". The New Statesman.
- ^Featherstone, Simon (1995). War Poetry: An Introductory Reader. Routledge. p. 126.
- ^Sassoon, Siegfried: "Siegfried's Journey" p. 58, Faber and Faber, first published in 1946.
- ^Sassoon, Siegfried: "Siegfried's Journey", p. 61, Faber and Faber, 1946.
- ^Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That: An Autobiography, NY, 1929 ("Owen was an idealistic homosexual"); 1st edn only: quote subsequently excised. See: Cohen, Joseph Conspiracy of Silence, New York Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 19.
- ^Hibbard, Dominic, The Truth Untold, p. 513.
- ^Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen, The Truth Untold (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2002), ISBN 0-460-87921-9, p. xxii.
- ^Fussell, Paul.The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 2000), ISBN 0-19-513331-5, p. 286.
- ^Owen, Wilfred. The Complete Poems and Fragments, by Wilfred Owen; edited by Jon Stallworthy (W. W. Norton, 1984), ISBN 0-393-01830-X
- ^Caesar, Adrian. Taking It Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets (Manchester University Press, 1993) ISBN 0-7190-3834-0, pp. 1-256.
- ^Hibberd, ibid. pp. 337, 375.
- ^Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: decadence, conspiracy, and the most outrageous trial of the century(Arcade Publishing, 1998), ISBN 1-55970-423-3, p. 24.
- ^Hibberd, p. 155.
- ^Hipp, Daniel W. (2005). The Poetry of Shell Shock. McFarland. pp. 88–89. ISBN 0-7864-2174-6.
- ^Hibberd (2002), p. 20.
- ^Motion, Andrew (2008). Ways of Life: On Places, Painters and Poets. Faber and Faber. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-5712-2365-7.
- ^Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey from the Trenches : a Biography (1918-1967). Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415967139. p 19. Accessed 25 January 2016
- ^Sassoon, Siegfried: "Siegfried's Journey", p. 71, Faber and Faber, 1946.
- ^Sassoon, Siegfried: "Siegfried's Journey", p. 72, Faber and Faber, 1946.
- ^Memorial at Gailly, www.1914–18.co.uk. Accessed 5 December 2008.
- ^Memorial at Ors, www.1914–18.co.uk. Accessed 5 December 2008
- ^Memorial at Oswestry, www.1914–18.co.uk. Accessed 5 December 2008.
- ^Memorial at Shrewsbury, www.1914–18.co.uk. Accessed 5 December 2008.
- ^Writers and Literature of The Great War, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Accessed 5 December 2008.
- ^"Wilfred Owen: Preface to Edition". Poets of the Great War. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
- ^"Simon Patterson / La Maison Forestière". artconnexion.
- ^New Statesman letter
- ^Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2005). Biographical Plays About Famous Artists. Cambridge Scholars Press. pp. 24–29. ISBN 978-1-904303-47-3.
- ^"The War Poets at Craiglockhart". Craiglockhart. Retrieved 5 December 2008.
- ^Brown, Dennis (2005). Monteith, Sharon, ed. Critical Perspectives on Pat Barker. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 187–202. ISBN 978-1-57003-570-8.
- ^Regeneration on IMDb
- ^Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale on IMDb
- ^Shaffer, Mary Ann (2008). The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Dial Press. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-385-34099-1.
- ^"The Burying Party". The Burying Party.
- ^Jones, Lauren. "New Wilfred Owen film 'The Burying Party' on the hunt for filming locations". Wirral Globe. Wirral Globe.
- ^Behroozi, Cyrus; Niday, Thomas. "the War Requiem". Benjamin Britten Page, Caltech. Retrieved 5 December 2008.
- ^Cooke, Mervyn (1996). Britten: "War Requiem". Cambridge Music Handbook. ISBN 0-521-44089-0.
- ^"Peel Sessions: The Ravishing Beauties". BBC Radio 1. 14 April 1982. Retrieved 5 December 2008.
- ^"Virginia Astley Discography | Compilations". Virginiaastley.com. Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
- ^Welsh Daily Post (17 February 2012). "Bullet Points"(PDF). Retrieved 23 July 2012.
- ^"Jedi Mind Tricks – Muerte".
- ^"Jedi Mind Tricks - Violent by Design (album review ) - Sputnikmusic". www.sputnikmusic.com.
- Profile and poems at Poets.org
- The Wilfred Owen Collection, in The First World War Poetry Digital Archive by Oxford University
- The Wilfred Owen resource page at warpoetry.co.uk
- Works by Wilfred Owen at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Wilfred Owen at Internet Archive
- Works by Wilfred Owen at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Wilfred Owen at BBC Poetry Season
- Selected Poetry of Wilfred Owen – Biography and 7 poems (Anthem for Doomed Youth, Arms and the Boy, Dulce et Decorum Est, Exposure, Futility, Spring Offensive, Strange Meeting)
- Wilfred Owen Association
- the Dunsden Owen Association, including a trail app
- Anthems For Doomed Youth radio
- Wilfred Owen at the British Library
- Roy, Pinaki. Wilfred Owen: The Man, the Soldier, the Poet. Kolkata: Books Way, 2013 (ISBN 978-93-81672-59-4)
Wilfred Owen, who wrote some of the best British poetry on World War I, composed nearly all of his poems in slightly over a year, from August 1917 to September 1918. In November 1918 he was killed in action at the age of twenty-five, one week before the Armistice. Only five poems were published in his lifetime—three in the Nation and two that appeared anonymously in the Hydra, a journal he edited in 1917 when he was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Shortly after his death, seven more of his poems appeared in the 1919 volume of Edith Sitwell's annual anthology, Wheels, a volume dedicated to his memory, and in 1919 and 1920 seven other poems appeared in periodicals. Almost all of Owen’s poems, therefore, appeared posthumously: Poems (1920), edited by Siegfried Sassoon with the assistance of Edith Sitwell, contains twenty-three poems; The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931), edited by Edmund Blunden, adds nineteen poems to this number; and The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (1963), edited by C. Day Lewis, contains eighty poems, adding some juvenilia, minor poems, and fragments but omitting a few of the poems from Blunden’s edition.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born on 18 March 1893, in Oswestry, on the Welsh border of Shropshire, in the beautiful and spacious home of his maternal grandfather. Wilfred’s father, Thomas, a former seaman, had returned from India to marry Susan Shaw; throughout the rest of his life Thomas felt constrained by his somewhat dull and low-paid position as a railway station master. Owen’s mother felt that her marriage limited her intellectual, musical, and economic ambitions. Both parents seem to have been of Welsh descent, and Susan’s family had been relatively affluent during her childhood but had lost ground economically. As the oldest of four children born in rapid succession, Wilfred developed a protective attitude toward the others and an especially close relationship with his mother. After he turned four, the family moved from the grandfather’s home to a modest house in Birkenhead, where Owen attended Birkenhead Institute from 1900 to 1907. The family then moved to another modest house, in Shrewsbury, where Owen attended Shrewsbury Technical School and graduated in 1911 at the age of 18. Having attempted unsuccessfully to win a scholarship to attend London University, he tried to measure his aptitude for a religious vocation by becoming an unpaid lay assistant to the Reverend Herbert Wigan, a vicar of evangelical inclinations in the Church of England, at Dunsden, Oxfordshire. In return for the tutorial instruction he was to receive, but which did not significantly materialize, Owen agreed to assist with the care of the poor and sick in the parish and to decide within two years whether he should commit himself to further training as a clergyman. At Dunsden he achieved a fuller understanding of social and economic issues and developed his humanitarian propensities, but as a consequence of this heightened sensitivity, he became disillusioned with the inadequate response of the Church of England to the sufferings of the underprivileged and the dispossessed. In his spare time, he read widely and began to write poetry. In his initial verses he wrote on the conventional subjects of the time, but his work also manifested some stylistic qualities that even then tended to set him apart, especially his keen ear for sound and his instinct for the modulating of rhythm, talents related perhaps to the musical ability that he shared with both of his parents.
In 1913 he returned home, seriously ill with a respiratory infection that his living in a damp, unheated room at the vicarage had exacerbated. He talked of poetry, music, or graphic art as possible vocational choices, but his father urged him to seek employment that would result in a steady income. After eight months of convalescence at home, Owen taught for one year in Bordeaux at the Berlitz School of Languages, and he spent a second year in France with a Catholic family, tutoring their two boys. As a result of these experiences, he became a Francophile. Later these years undoubtedly heightened his sense of the degree to which the war disrupted the life of the French populace and caused widespread suffering among civilians as the Allies pursued the retreating Germans through French villages in the summer and fall of 1918.
In September 1915, nearly a year after the United Kingdom and Germany had gone to war, Owen returned to England, uncertain as to whether he should enlist. By October he had enlisted and was at first in the Artists’ Rifles. In June 1916 he received a commission as lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, and on 29 December 1916 he left for France with the Lancashire Fusiliers.
Judging by his first letters to his mother from France, one might have anticipated that Owen would write poetry in the idealistic vein of Rupert Brooke: “There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France....” But by 6 January 1917 he wrote of the marching, “The awful state of the roads, and the enormous weight carried was too much for scores of men.” Outfitted in hip-length rubber waders, on 8 January he had waded through two and a half miles of trenches with “a mean depth of two feet of water.” By 9 January he was housed in a hut where only seventy yards away a howitzer fired every minute day and night. On 12 January occurred the march and attack of poison gas he later reported in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” They marched three miles over a shelled road and three more along a flooded trench, where those who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders, as well as some clothing and equipment, and move ahead on bleeding and freezing feet. They were under machine-gun fire, shelled by heavy explosives throughout the cold march, and were almost unconscious from fatigue when the poison-gas attack occurred. Another incident that month, in which one of Owen’s men was blown from a ladder in their trench and blinded, forms the basis of “The Sentry.” In February Owen attended an infantry school at Amiens. On 19 March he was hospitalized for a brain concussion suffered six nights earlier, when he fell into a fifteen-foot-deep shell hole while searching in the dark for a soldier overcome by fatigue. Blunden dates the writing of Owen’s sonnet “To A Friend (With an Identity Disc)” to these few days in the hospital. Throughout April the battalion suffered incredible physical privations caused by the record-breaking cold and snow and by the heavy shelling. For four days and nights Owen and his men remained in an open field in the snow, with no support forces arriving to relieve them and with no chance to change wet, frozen clothes or to sleep: “I kept alive on brandy, the fear of death, and the glorious prospect of the cathedral town just below us, glittering with the morning.” Three weeks later on 25 April he continued to write his mother of the intense shelling: “For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out.” One wet night during this time he was blown into the air while he slept. For the next several days he hid in a hole too small for his body, with the body of a friend, now dead, huddled in a similar hole opposite him, and less than six feet away. In these letters to his mother he directed his bitterness not at the enemy but at the people back in England “who might relieve us and will not.”
Having endured such experiences in January, March, and April, Owen was sent to a series of hospitals between 1 May and 26 June 1917 because of severe headaches. He thought them related to his brain concussion, but they were eventually diagnosed as symptoms of shell shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to become a patient of Dr. A. Brock, the associate of Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, the noted neurologist and psychologist to whom Siegfried Sassoon was assigned when he arrived six weeks later.
Owen’s annus mirabilis as a poet apparently began in the summer of 1917, but he had, in fact, been preparing himself haphazardly but determinedly for a career as poet throughout the preceding five or six years. He had worshipped Keats and later Shelley during adolescence; during his two years at Dunsden he had read and written poetry in the isolated evenings at the vicarage; in Bordeaux, the elderly symbolist poet and pacifist writer Laurent Tailhade had encouraged him in his ambition to become a poet. Also in France in 1913 and 1914 he probably read and studied the works of novelist and poet Jules Romains, who was experimenting with pararhyme and assonance, although Romains’s treatise on half-rhyme or accords (Petit Traite de Versification, written with G. Chenneviere) which describes several devices that Owen himself used, was not published until after Owen’s death. While he was stationed in London in 1915 and 1916, he found stimulation in discussions with another older poet, Harold Monro, who ran the Poetry Bookshop, a meeting place for poets; and in 1916, he read Rupert Brooke, William Butler Yeats, and A.E. Housman. In the fall and winter of 1916, Owen, his cousin Leslie Gunston, and a friend of Gunston’s engaged in an extended literary game in which the three decided upon a topic and then mailed to one another the verses they wrote on that topic. Owen was developing his skill in versification, his technique as a poet, and his appreciation for the poetry of others, especially that of his more important contemporaries, but until 1917 he was not expressing his own significant experiences and convictions except in letters to his mother and brother. This preparation, the three bitter months of suffering, the warmth of the people of Edinburgh who “adopted” the patients, the insight of Dr. Brock, and the coincidental arrival of Siegfried Sassoon brought forth the poet and the creative outpouring of his single year of maturity.
Before Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart in mid-August, Dr. Brock encouraged Owen to edit the hospital journal, the Hydra, which went through twelve issues before Owen left. Later in Owen’s stay Brock also arranged for him to play in a community orchestra, to renew his interests in biology and archaeology, to participate in a debating society, to give lectures at Tynecastle School, and to do historical research at the Edinburgh Advocates Library.
It seems likely that this sensitive psychologist and enthusiastic friend assisted Owen in confronting the furthermost ramifications of his violent experiences in France so that he could write of the terrifying experiences in poems such as “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “The Sentry,” and “The Show.” He may also have helped him confront his shyness; his apparently excessive involvement with his mother and his attempt, at the same time, to become more independent; his resentment of his father’s disapproval of his ambition for a career as a poet; his ambivalence about Christianity and his disillusionment with Christian religion in the practices of the contemporary church; his expressed annoyance with all women except his mother and his attraction to other men; and his decision to return to his comrades in the trenches rather than to stay in England to protest the continuation of the war.
When Sassoon arrived, it took Owen two weeks to get the courage to knock on his door and identify himself as a poet. At that time Owen, like many others in the hospital, was speaking with a stammer. By autumn he was not only articulate with his new friends and lecturing in the community but was able to use his terrifying experiences in France, and his conflicts about returning, as the subject of poems expressing his own deepest feelings. He experienced an astonishing period of creative energy that lasted through several months, until he returned to France and the heavy fighting in the fall of 1918.
By the time they met, Owen and Sassoon shared the conviction that the war ought to be ended, since the total defeat of the Central Powers would entail additional destruction, casualties, and suffering of staggering magnitude. In 1917 and 1918 both found their creative stimulus in a compassionate identification with soldiers in combat and in the hospital. In spite of their strong desire to remain in England to protest the continuation of the war, both finally returned to their comrades in the trenches. Whatever the exact causes of Owen’s sudden emergence as “true poet” in the summer of 1917, he himself thought that Sassoon had “fixed” him in place as poet. By the time Sassoon arrived, his first volume of poetry, The Old Huntsman (1917), which includes some war poems, had gained wide attention, and he was already preparing Counter-Attack (1918), which was to have an even stronger impact on the English public. In the weeks immediately before he was sent to Craiglockhart under military orders, Sassoon had been the center of public attention for risking the possibility of court martial by mailing a formal protest against the war to the War Department. Further publicity resulted when he dramatized his protest by throwing his Military Cross into the River Mersey and when a member of the House of Commons read the letter of protest before the hostile members of the House, an incident instigated by Bertrand Russell in order to further the pacifist cause. Sassoon came from a wealthy and famous family. He had been to Cambridge, he was seven years older than Owen, and he had many friends among the London literati. Both pride and humility in having acquired Sassoon as friend characterized Owen’s report to his mother of his visits to Sassoon’s room in September. He remarked that he had not yet told his new friend “that I am not worthy to light his pipe. I simply sit tight and tell him where I think he goes wrong.”
If their views on the war and their motivations in writing about it were similar, significant differences appear when one compares their work. In the poems written after he went to France in 1916 Sassoon consistently used a direct style with regular and exact rhyme, pronounced rhythms, colloquial language, a strongly satiric mode; and he also tended to present men and women in a stereotypical manner. After meeting Sassoon, Owen wrote several poems in Sassoon’s drily satirical mode, but he soon rejected Sassoon’s terseness or epigrammatic concision. Consequently, Owen created soldier figures who often express a fuller humanity and emotional range than those in Sassoon’s more cryptic poems. In his war poems, whether ideological, meditative, or lyrical, Owen achieved greater breadth than Sassoon did in his war poetry. Even in some of the works that Owen wrote before he left Craiglockhart in the fall of 1917, he revealed a technical versatility and a mastery of sound through complex patterns of assonance, alliteration, dissonance, consonance, and various other kinds of slant rhyme—an experimental method of composition which went beyond any innovative versification that Sassoon achieved during his long career.
While Owen wrote to Sassoon of his gratitude for his help in attaining a new birth as poet, Sassoon did not believe he had influenced Owen as radically and as dramatically as Owen maintained. Sassoon regarded his “touch of guidance” and his encouragement as fortunately coming at the moment when Owen most needed them, and he later maintained in Siegfried’s Journey, 1916-1920 that his “only claimable influence was that I stimulated him towards writing with compassionate and challenging realism.... My encouragement was opportune, and can claim to have given him a lively incentive during his rapid advance to self-revelation.” Sassoon also saw what Owen may never have recognized—that Sassoon’s technique “was almost elementary compared with his [Owen’s] innovating experiments.” Sassoon thought it important, however, that he had given Owen a copy of Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu, from which he planned to quote in his introduction to Counter-Attack, and he appreciated the benefits of their “eager discussion of contemporary poets and the technical dodges which we were ourselves devising.” Perhaps Sassoon’s statement in late 1945 summarizes best the reciprocal influence the two poets had exerted upon one another: “imperceptible effects are obtained by people mingling their minds at a favorable moment.”
Sassoon helped Owen by arranging for him, upon his discharge from the hospital, to meet Robert Ross, a London editor who was Sassoon’s friend and the former publishing agent of Oscar Wilde. Ross, in turn, introduced Owen—then and in May 1918—to other literary figures, such as Robert Graves, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, and Captain Charles Scott Moncrieff, who later translated Proust. Knowing these important writers made Owen feel part of a community of literary people—one of the initiated. Accordingly, on New Year’s Eve 1917, Owen wrote exuberantly to his mother of his poetic ambitions: “I am started. The tugs have left me. I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.” At the same time, association with other writers made him feel a sense of urgency—a sense that he must make up for lost time in his development as a poet. In May 1918, on leave in London, he wrote his mother: I am old already for a poet, and so little is yet achieved.” But he added with his wry humor, “celebrity is the last infirmity I desire.”
By May 1918 Owen regarded his poems not only as individual expressions of intense experience but also as part of a book that would give the reader a wide perspective on World War I. In spring 1918 it appeared that William Heinemann (in spite of the paper shortage that his publishing company faced) would assign Robert Ross to read Owen’s manuscript when he submitted it to them. In a table of contents compiled before the end of July 1918 Owen followed a loosely thematic arrangement. Next to each title he wrote a brief description of the poem, and he also prepared in rough draft a brief, but eloquent, preface, in which he expresses his belief in the cathartic function of poetry. For a man who had written sentimental or decorative verse before his war poems of 1917 and 1918, Owen’s preface reveals an unexpected strength of commitment and purpose as a writer, a commitment understandable enough in view of the overwhelming effects of the war upon him. In this preface Owen said the poetry in his book would express “the pity of War,” rather than the “glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power,” which war had acquired in the popular mind. He distinguished also between the pity he sought to awaken by his poems (“The Poetry is in the Pity”) and that conventionally expressed by writers who felt less intensely opposed to war by this time than he did. As they wrote their historically oriented laments or elegies for those fallen in wars, they sought to comfort and inspire readers by placing the deaths and war itself in the context of sacrifice for a significant cause. But Owen’s message for his generation, he said, must be one of warning rather than of consolation. In his last declaration he appears to have heeded Sassoon’s advice to him that he begin to use an unmitigated realism in his description of events: “the true poet must be truthful.”
Owen’s identification of himself as a poet, affirmed by his new literary friends, must have been especially important in the last few months of his life. Even the officer with whom he led the remnant of the company to safety on a night in October 1918 and with whom he won the Military Cross for his action later wrote to Blunden that neither he nor the rest of the men ever dreamed that Owen wrote poems.
When Owen first returned to the battlefields of France on 1 September 1918, after several months of limited service in England, he seemed confident about his decision: “I shall be better able to cry my outcry, playing my part.” Once overseas, however, he wrote to Sassoon chiding him for having urged him to return to France, for having alleged that further exposure to combat would provide him with experience that he could transmute into poetry: “That is my consolation for feeling a fool,” he wrote on 22 September 1918. He was bitterly angry at Clemenceau for expecting the war to be continued and for disregarding casualties even among children in the villages as the Allied troops pursued the German forces. He did not live long enough for this indignation or the war experiences of September and October to become part of his poetry, although both are vividly expressed in his letters.
In October Owen wrote of his satisfaction at being nominated for the Military Cross because receiving the award would give him more credibility at home, especially in his efforts to bring the war to an end. Lieutenant J. Foulkes, who shared command with him the night in October 1918 that all other officers were killed, described to Edmund Blunden the details of Owen’s acts of “conspicuous gallantry.” His company had successfully attacked what was considered a “second Hindenburg Line” in territory that was “well-wired.” Losses were so heavy that among the commissioned officers only Foulkes and Owen survived. Owen took command and led the men to a place where he held the line for several hours from a captured German pill box, the only cover available. The pill box was, however, a potential death trap upon which the enemy concentrated its fire. By morning the few who survived were at last relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers. Foulkes told Blunden, “This is where I admired his work—in leading his remnant, in the middle of the night, back to safety.... I was content to follow him with the utmost confidence.” Early in his army career Owen wrote to his brother Harold that he knew he could not change his inward self in order to become a self-assured soldier, but that he might still be able to change his appearance and behavior so that others would get the impression he was a “good soldier.” Such determination and conscientiousness account for the trust in his leadership that Foulkes expressed. (Harold Owen in his biography of his brother gives a more heroic version of the acts of valor that night, but Foulkes’s emphasis on Owen’s efforts to get the remaining troops back to safety seems in keeping with Owen’s own account and his attitude toward the war and toward his men.) Owen was again moving among his men and offering encouragement when he was killed the next month.
In the last weeks of his life Owen seems to have coped with the stress of the heavy casualties among his battalion by “insensibility,” much like that of soldiers he forgives in his poem of the same title, but condemns among civilians: “Happy are men who yet before they are killed / Can let their veins run cold.” These men have walked “on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.” “Alive, he is not vital overmuch; / Dying, not mortal overmuch.” Owen wrote to Sassoon, after reading Counter-Attack , that Sassoon’s war poems frightened him more than the actual experience of holding a soldier shot through the head and having the man’s blood soak hot against his shoulder for a half hour. Two weeks before his death he wrote both to his mother and to Sassoon that his nerves were “in perfect order.” But in the letter to Sassoon he explained, “I cannot say I suffered anything, having let my brain grow dull.... I shall feel anger again as soon as I dare, but now I must not. I don’t take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write Deceased over their letters. But one day I will write Deceased over many books.”
After Wilfred Owen’s death his mother attempted to present him as a more pious figure than he was. For his tombstone, she selected two lines from “The End”—”Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth / All death will he annul, all tears assuage?”—but omitted the question mark at the close of the quotation. His grave thus memorializes a faith that he did not hold and ignores the doubt he expressed. In 1931 Blunden wrote Sassoon, with irritation, because Susan Owen had insisted that the collected edition of Owen’s poems celebrate her son as a majestic and tall heroic figure: “Mrs. Owen has had her way, with a purple binding and a photograph Wh makes W look like a 6 foot Major who had been in East Africa or so for several years.” (Owen was about a foot shorter than Sassoon.)
If, in October 1918, Owen coped with his anguishing experiences by imitating his mother’s refusal to see reality, the difference is notable. He clearly recognized that he was temporarily refusing to grieve—an act of carefully practiced discipline—but that in a quieter time he would recall those moments and create the “pity” in his poetry, as he had already done with the experience of January 1917 in “The Sentry” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In “Insensibility” he condemns those who, away from the field of battle, refuse to share “the eternal reciprocity of tears.”
Harold Owen succeeded in removing a reference to his brother as “an idealistic homosexual” from Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, and specifically addressed in volume three of his biography the questions that had been raised about his brother’s disinterest in women. Harold Owen insisted that his brother had been so dedicated to poetry that he had chosen, at least temporarily, the life of a celibate. He also explains, what was undoubtedly true, that Owen expressed himself impulsively and emotionally, that he was naive, and that he was given to hero worship of other men.
Owen’s presentation of “boys” and “lads”—beautiful young men with golden hair, shining eyes, strong brown hands, white teeth—has homoerotic elements. One must recognize, however, such references had become stock literary devices in war poetry. The one poem which can clearly be called a love poem, “To A Friend (With an Identity Disc),” carefully avoids the use of either specifically masculine or feminine terms in addressing the friend. Eroticism in Owen’s poems seems idealized, romantic, and platonic and is used frequently to contrast the ugly and horrible aspects of warfare. Of more consequence in considering Owen’s sexual attitudes in relation to his poetry is the harshness in reference to wives, mothers, or sweethearts of the wounded or disabled soldiers. The fullness of his insight into “the pity of war” seems incomprehensibly limited in the presentation of women in “The Dead-Beat,” “Disabled,” “The Send-Off,” and “S.I.W.”
In several of his most effective war poems, Owen suggests that the experience of war for him was surrealistic, as when the infantrymen dream, hallucinate, begin freezing to death, continue to march after several nights without sleep, lose consciousness from loss of blood, or enter a hypnotic state from fear or excessive guilt. The resulting disconnected sensory perceptions and the speaker’s confusion about his identity suggest that not only the speaker, but the whole humanity, has lost its moorings. The horror of war, then, becomes more universal, the tragedy more overwhelming, and the pity evoked more profound, because there is no rational explanation to account for the cataclysm.
In “Conscious” a wounded soldier, moving in and out of consciousness, cannot place in perspective the yellow flowers beside his hospital bed, nor can he recall blue sky. The soldiers in “Mental Cases” suffer hallucinations in which they observe everything through a haze of blood: “Sunlight becomes a blood-smear; dawn comes blood-black.” In “Exposure,” which displays Owen’s mastery of assonance and alliteration, soldiers in merciless wind and snow find themselves overwhelmed by nature’s hostility and unpredictability. They even lose hope that spring will arrive: “For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid.” Anticipating the search that night for the bodies of fallen soldiers in noman’s-land, the speaker predicts that soon all of his comrades will be found as corpses with their eyes turned to ice. Ironically, as they begin freezing to death, their pain becomes numbness and then pleasurable warmth. As the snow gently fingers their cheeks, the freezing soldiers dream of summer: “so we drowse, sun-dozed / Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.” Dreaming of warm hearths as “our ghosts drag home,” they quietly “turn back to our dying.” The speaker in “Asleep” envies the comfort of one who can sleep, even though the sleep is that of death: “He sleeps less tremulous, less cold / Than we who must awake, and waking, say Alas!” All these “dream poems” suggest that life is a nightmare in which the violence of war is an accepted norm. The cosmos seems either cruelly indifferent or else malignant, certainly incapable of being explained in any rational manner. A loving Christian God is nonexistent. The poem’s surface incoherence suggests the utter irrationality of life. Even a retreat to the comfort of the unconscious state is vulnerable to sudden invasion from the hell of waking life.
One of Owen’s most moving poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which had its origins in Owen’s experiences of January 1917, describes explicitly the horror of the gas attack and the death of a wounded man who has been flung into a wagon. The horror intensifies, becoming a waking nightmare experienced by the exhausted viewer, who stares hypnotically at his comrade in the wagon ahead of him as he must continue to march.
The nightmare aspect reaches its apogee in “The Show.” As the speaker gazes upon a desolate, war-ravaged landscape, it changes gradually to the magnified portion of a dead soldier’s face, infested by thousands of caterpillars. The barbed wire of no-man’s-land becomes the scraggly beard on the face; the shell holes become pockmarked skin. Only at the end does the poet’s personal conflict become clear. Owen identifies himself as the severed head of a caterpillar and the many legs, still moving blindly, as the men of his command from whom he has been separated. The putrefying face, the sickening voraciousness of the caterpillars, and the utter desolation of the ruined landscape become symbolic of the lost hopes for humanity.
“Strange Meeting,” another poem with a dreamlike frame, differs from those just described in its meditative tone and its less—concentrated use of figurative language. Two figures—the poet and the man he killed—gradually recognize each other and their similarity when they meet in the shadows of hell. In the background one becomes aware of multitudes of huddled sleepers, slightly moaning in their “encumbered” sleep—all men killed in “titanic wars.” Because the second man speaks almost exclusively of death’s thwarting of his purpose and ambition as a poet, he probably represents Owen’s alter ego. Neither figure is differentiated by earthly association, and the “strange friend” may also represent an Everyman figure, suggesting the universality of the tragedy of war. The poem closes as the second speaker stops halfway through the last line to return to his eternal sleep. The abrupt halt drives home the point that killing a poet cuts off the promise of the one more line of poetry he might have written. The last line extends “the Pity of war” to a universal pity for all those who have been diminished through the ages by art which might have been created and was not.
Sassoon called “Strange Meeting” Owen’s masterpiece, the finest elegy by a soldier who fought in World War I. T.S. Eliot, who praised it as “one of the most moving pieces of verse inspired by the war,” recognized that its emotional power lies in Owen’s “technical achievement of great originality.” In “Strange Meeting,” Owen sustains the dreamlike quality by a complex musical pattern, which unifies the poem and leads to an overwhelming sense of war’s waste and a sense of pity that such conditions should continue to exist. John Middleton Murry in 1920 noted the extreme subtlety in Owen’s use of couplets employing assonance and dissonance. Most readers, he said, assumed the poem was in blank verse but wondered why the sound of the words produced in them a cumulative sadness and inexorable uneasiness and why such effects lingered. Owen’s use of slant-rhyme produces, in Murry’s words, a “subterranean ... forged unity, a welded, inexorable massiveness.”
Although Owen does not use the dream frame in “Futility,” this poem, like “Strange Meeting,” is also a profound meditation on the horrifying significance of war. As in “Exposure,” the elemental structure of the universe seems out of joint. Unlike the speaker in “Exposure,” however, this one does not doubt that spring will come to warm the frozen battlefield, but he wonders why it should. Even the vital force of the universe—the sun’s energy—no longer nurtures life.
One of the most perfectly structured of Owen’s poems, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” convinced Sassoon in October 1917 that Owen was not only a “promising minor poet” but a poet with “classic and imaginative serenity” who possessed “impressive affinities with Keats.” By using the fixed form of the sonnet, Owen gains compression and a close interweaving of symbols. In particular, he uses the break between octave and sestet to deepen the contrast between themes, while at the same time he minimizes that break with the use of sound patterns that continue throughout the poem and with the image of a bugle, which unifies three disparate groups of symbols. The structure depends, then, not only on the sonnet form but on a pattern of echoing sounds from the first line to the last, and upon Owen’s careful organization of groups of symbols and of two contrasting themes—in the sestet the mockery of doomed youth, “dying like cattle,” and in the octave the silent personal grief which is the acceptable response to immense tragedy. The symbols in the octave suggest cacophony; the visual images in the sestet suggest silence. The poem is unified throughout by a complex pattern of alliteration and assonance. Despite its complex structure, this sonnet achieves an effect of impressive simplicity.
Poems (1920), edited by Sassoon, established Owen as a war poet before public interest in the war had diminished in the 1920s. The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931), edited by Blunden, aroused much more critical attention, especially that of W.H. Auden and the poets in his circle, Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, Christopher Isherwood, and Louis MacNeice. Blunden thought that Auden and his group were influenced primarily by three poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Wilfred Owen. The Auden group saw in Owen’s poetry the incisiveness of political protest against injustice, but their interest in Owen was less in the content of his poems than in his artistry and technique. Though they were moved by the human experience described in Owen’s best poems and understood clearly his revulsion toward war, they were appalled by the sheer waste of a great poet dying just as he had begun to realize fully his potential. Dylan Thomas, who, like Owen, possessed a brilliant metaphorical imagination, pride in Welsh ancestry, and an ability to dramatize in poetry his psychic experience, saw in Owen “a poet of all times, all places, and all wars. There is only one war, that of men against men.”
C. Day Lewis, in the introduction to The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (1963), judiciously praised Owen’s poems for “the originality and force of their language, the passionate nature of the indignation and pity they express, their blending of harsh realism with a sensuousness unatrophied by the horrors from which they flowered.” Day Lewis’s view that Owen’s poems were “certainly the finest written by any English poet of the First War” is incontestable. With general agreement critics—J. Middleton Murry, Bonamy Dobree, Hoxie Fairchild, Ifor Evans, Kenneth Muir, and T.S. Eliot, for example—have written of his work for six decades. The best of Owen’s 1917-1918 poems are great by any standard. Day Lewis’s conclusion that they also are “probably the greatest poems about the war in our literature” may, if anything, be too tentative. His work will remain central in any discussion of war poetry or of poetry employing varied kinds of slant rhyme.