Owen, Wilfred (1893–1918)

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OWEN, WILFRED (1893–1918)


English war poet.

Wilfred Owen was a war poet of World War I, whose verse has become an iconic element in the language of remembrance of the 1914–1918 conflict. Owen was born in 1893 in the west of England. A staunchly Christian upbringing led him to serve as lay assistant to the vicar of an Oxfordshire parish. There he began to write poetry. Failing the entrance examination to the University of London, he went to Bordeaux, France, to teach English at a Berlitz school.

In 1915 he volunteered for military service, training at an officer's school in Essex, England, in March 1916 before joining the Manchester Regiment. His application to join the Royal Flying Corps was rejected, and on 12 January 1917 he arrived on the western front, on the Somme in northern France, near Beaumont Hamel, the site of murderous fighting the previous summer. He endured heavy artillery barrages, intense cold, and concussion in the following weeks. In May 1917 he was diagnosed as having shell shock and sent back to Britain.

He was treated in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. There he was able to rest and to write. He edited a soldier's journal or informal newspaper there entitled The Hydra, in which he published some of his finest poems. These were written in the company of another inmate, Siegfried Sassoon, who criticized and improved his verse. Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" emerged at this time, with its exhortation that young men not repeat the "old lie" that it is noble and fitting to die for one's country. Here was a liminal message: the writings of a soldier pacifist, a man who chose to take up arms and would return to the front, but without the lies and delusions of armchair patriots. He took the same message from Henri Barbusse's trench novel Under Fire, and in later 1917 and early 1918 continued to write the verse that made him the carrier of the message of the pity of war.

Owen returned to the front in September 1918, this time as company commander. He was awarded the Military Cross for leading his company against a machine-gun position on the Beaurevoi-Fonsomme line. In later October and early November he was with British units pushing back the German army along the Oise-Sambre Canal. On 4 November 1918 he was killed while attempting to cross the canal.

His family received the news of his death on the day of the Armistice (11 November 1918). In the following years a number of collections of his poems were published. Their rhythms and tones have molded British understanding of the Great War ever since. Owen had the music of the King James Version of the Bible in his ears but could not reconcile its majesty with the ugliness of artillery fire, gas warfare, and the brutality of trench fighting. He did not reject the sacred; he reconfigured it in his poetry as the language of pity and suffering for men who died like cattle. For this reason, he was condemned by some critics, including W. B. Yeats, on the ground that passive suffering was not a fit subject for poetry. Others saw his work as so antiwar that it could not possibly stand as the voice of the British army that withstood fifty months of combat and won the war. But these are minority views, which have faded over the years. Instead Owen has become the voice of the British army, and through it the British nation, enduring the torture of the Great War. All schoolchildren in Britain read Owen's poems as part of the required curriculum for the study of the English language. Because he died in the war, his verse has carried a particularly enduring stamp. He never lived to see the shabbiness of the interwar years or the return of war in the late 1930s and after. He captured the pose of the six million British men in uniform who entered the twentieth century and its brutality without intending to do so in 1914. Owen speaks for them still.

See alsoSassoon, Siegfried; World War I.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed
    through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green
As under a green sea, I see him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores in innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: "Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."


Bäckman, Sven. Tradition Transformed: Studies in the Poetry of Wilfred Owen. Lund, Sweden, 1979.

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: The Last Year, 1917–1918. London, 1992.

——. Wilfred Owen: A New Biography. London, 2002.

Kerr, Douglas. Wilfred Owen's Voices: Language and Community. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

McPhail, Helen, and Philip Guest. Wilfred Owen. London, 1998.

Stallworthy, John. Wilfred Owen. London, 1974.

Jay Winter