March 18, 1893
Oswestry, Shropshire, England
November 4, 1918
Sambre Canal, France
Soldier and poet
Some of the most powerful descriptions of war were written during World War I by the so-called war poets, mostly British soldiers in their twenties who wrote while fighting in France. Wilfred Owen is one of the most important war poets. He wrote eloquently about his service as an officer during the Battle of the Somme, which forced him to wrestle with the conflicts he saw between his duty as a soldier and his deep religious and pacifist beliefs. (Pacifists object to war as a means of settling disputes.) Owen strongly criticized the tragedy of war in his writings, but he fulfilled his military duty out of loyalty to his fellow soldiers. Helping lead his men across a canal in northern France exactly a week before the end of World War I, Owen was killed.
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, England, on March 18, 1893. He was the oldest of the four children born to Thomas Owen, a railroad stationmaster, and Susan Shaw Owen, the daughter of a prosperous family. Owen and his parents lived with his maternal grandfather until Wilfred was four; then his family moved to Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Owen attended Birkenhead Institute until he was fourteen, when the family moved back to Shropshire, settling in the county seat at Shrewsbury. There, he attended Shrewsbury Technical School but failed in his efforts to win a scholarship to the University of London. He felt inclined toward religious work and accepted a position in which he received room and board in exchange for work with the vicar (a minister in charge of a church) of Dunsden in Oxford. He left this position partly for health reasons and partly because he came to believe that the established church was failing in its duty to the poor. He returned to his family's home briefly, then accepted a position teaching at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France. During this period, Owen started writing poetry. He admired the writings of the Romantic poets, like John Keats, and he became friends with the poet Laurent Tailhade, who was a fellow pacifist.
After World War I broke out, Owen returned to England and enlisted in the Artist's Rifles, a special air service regiment. Commissioned a lieutenant in 1916, he was sent to fight in France with the Lancashire Fusiliers. It was while he was serving that he began to write his finest poetry, which described in graphic detail the agonies of his fellow soldiers. His most famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," was inspired by Owen's disgust at the use of mustard gas (a poisonous gas that has irritating effects to the body) against his fellow soldiers; the poem's ironic title is part of a Latin motto that means "Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." In Owen's judgment, no one who had experienced the horrors of battle would proclaim such patriotic sentiments. In this excerpt from the poem, Owen addresses those who believe in the glory and heroism of war: "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace /Behind the wagon that we flung him in /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 [Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country]."
Learning from Other Poets
As his time in the service dragged on, Owen became increasingly bitter about the harsh and brutal conditions of the battlefield. In letters to his mother and in poems, he expressed a deep pessimism about the war, and he began to criticize the political leaders who were, in his mind, responsible for the carnage (killing). In June 1917, suffering from shell shock (a nervous breakdown due to combat conditions), Owen was admitted to Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders near Edinburgh, Scotland. He became editor of the hospital's magazine, The Hydra, in which he published some of his poems as well as those of Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), another British soldier at the hospital, who went on to become a well-known poet. Owen also taught at a local school and played in an amateur orchestra. This helped him recover from his nervous disorder, and he began to write some of his best poetry.
Through Sassoon's influence, Owen met many of the other prominent poets of the time. Among the literary figures who became his friends and mentors were Robert Graves (1895–1985), Robert Ross (1869–1918), and Charles Scott-Moncrieff (1889–1930). Owen felt that his association with these men gave him the tools he needed to succeed as a poet. He wrote a letter to his mother, quoted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, in which he compared himself to a ship able to sail on its own, without the assistance of tugboats: "I am a poet's poet. I am started. The tugs have left me. I feel a great swelling of the opening sea taking my galleon [large sailing ship]."
Return to the Battlefield
Despite his pacifist inclinations, Owen resolved to go back to the battlefield out of loyalty to his comrades and in order to write more authentically about the experiences of battle. On December 31, 1917, he wrote in his journal (quoted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature) about the terror he had once seen in his comrades' faces: "It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them."
By August 1918, Owen had recovered from his illness well enough to return to France. He won a Military Cross for
bravery when he helped lead his company to safety during a battle. On November 4, while leading a group of soldiers across the Sambre Canal, Owen was killed in a hail of machinegun fire. He died four months short of his twenty-sixth birthday—and exactly one week before the armistice (peace treaty) of November 11 brought World War I to an end. . A few months before his death, Owen had written a preface for an edition of his poetry that he hoped to have published. In 1985, an excerpt from this preface—"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity…"—was carved into a monument that memorializes sixteen World War I poets in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.
Siegfried Sassoon knew the quality of Owen's verses and arranged to have twenty-three of Owen's poems published. The collection, titled Poems, appeared in 1920; it was edited by Edith Sitwell, a member of a prominent literary family in England. Her brother, Osbert Sitwell, had been a friend of Owen and Sassoon. In 1931, an expanded edition with twenty-nine poems was published, together with an introduction by Edmund Blunden, another notable British poet who had served in World War I. Owen's work has continued to inspire later generations of poets, such as Cecil Day Lewis who in 1964 edited The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, which included seventy-nine poems.
For More Information
Abrams, M.H., et al, editors. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume 2; 7th edition. New York: Norton, 2000.
Owen, Wilfred. Collected Letters. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Owen, Wilfred. War Poems and Others. London: Chatto and Windus, 1973.
Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Britten, Benjamin. War Requiem (op. 66), 1962; recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, Hamburg, 1993.
War Requiem. Directed by Derek Jerman. Mystic Fire Video, 1988. Videocassette.
"The Poems of Wilfred Owen." [Online] http://www.pitt.edu/~novosel/owen.html (accessed April 2001).
"The War Poets Collection." [Online] http://www.napier.ac.uk/depts/library/craigcon/warpoets/warphome.htm (accessed April 2001).
"The Wilfred Owen Association." [Online] http://www.191418.co.uk/owen (accessed April 2001).
"WOMDA: The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive." [Online] http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/jtap/ (accessed April 2001).
The Poets of World War I
Since ancient times, poets of every culture have made war and soldiering important subjects of their work, in epic poems (long poems) that celebrate heroic exploits, in lyrics and odes that honor the courage of the warrior, or in pacifist works that criticize the brutality and horror of war. Some of the finest verses in the history of English literature were written by poets who served in World War I, many of whom died in combat while still in their twenties.
The following men are among the most prominent of the British war poets:
Rupert Brooke (1887–1915): After brief noncombat duty in Belgium, he died of an infection caused by a mosquito bite; he was serving in the Greek islands at the time. A sequence of sonnets (poems with fourteen lines and a definite rhyme pattern) titled 1914 contains his most famous lines: "If I should die, think only this of me: /That there's some corner of a foreign field /That is for ever England…." Biographer Paul Delany calls Brooke "the most famous British hero of the war."
Robert Graves (1895–1985): Though he was severely wounded in combat in 1916, Graves lived to be ninety. He served as a captain with the Royal Welch Fusiliers during World War I and befriended another member of the regiment, poet Siegfried Sassoon. Graves's collection of war poems, Fairies and Fusiliers, helped establish his reputation as a literary figure after the war. The novel I, Claudius (1934) and the mythological study The White Goddess (1948) are his bestknown works. One of his sons was killed in World War II.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918): The son of Russian Lithuanian immigrants to England, Rosenberg enlisted in the British army in 1915, and because he was rather short, he was assigned to the Bantam Battalion, a regiment made up of volunteers who were below the regulation minimum height of 5 feet 2 inches. In the last two years of his brief life, Rosenberg wrote several important versedramas about Old Testament subjects, including Moses and The Unicorn (about King Saul and his wife). Two important poems that he wrote while in military service are titled "Marching" and "Break of Day in the Trenches." Critics regard Rosenberg's "Dead Man's Dump" (1917) as his finest "war" poem. Rosenberg was shot to death while on patrol duty during the Battle of the Somme on April 1, 1918.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967): One of the poets who survived long after World War I, Sassoon befriended and encouraged such poets as Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen. Although he enlisted in the army and received awards for heroism, Sassoon became a pacifist and wrote an antiwar letter, "A Soldier's Declaration," that led some politicians to call for his courtmartial. With Robert Graves's help, Sassoon was committed to a mental hospital instead, but he decided to return to combat so as not to betray his fellow soldiers. In 1919 The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon was published. The final poem celebrates the armistice of 1918 in these words: "…O, but Everyone /Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done."
Edward Thomas (1878–1917): Killed on Easter Sunday, 1917, during the Battle of Arras, the thirty-nine-year-old Thomas was older than most of the other World War I poets, and he had already established his literary career before the war. He was strongly influenced by the American poet Robert Frost (1874–1963). "Rain," one of Thomas's most important "war" poems, written in 1916, includes these lines: "Rain, midnight rain, and nothing but wild rain /On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me /Remembering again that I shall die…" His wife, Helen Thomas, also was a noted poet.
Although he lived only 25 years, the British poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) became one of the most well known of the War Poets, a school of English lyricists who wrote of their experiences and impressions during World War I. Four months at war was all that he needed to grasp his subject, which was not the heroism of war, but the pity of it.
Born in Oswestry, England, on March 18, 1893, Owen was the eldest of four children raised by parents of modest means. His father held a job with the railway. His mother was strict in her religious beliefs yet generous in her affections for her children. In their evangelical Anglican household, Owen and his siblings were well versed in biblical themes and teachings. Although by his twentieth year Owen would renounce his evangelist faith, Christian imagery remained strong in his imagination and often registered prominently in his poetry.
Owen's family moved to Birkenhead in 1897, and from 1900 to 1907 he attended the Birkenhead Institute. A subsequent move to Shrewsbury prompted his transfer to the Shrewsbury Technical School at the age of 14. By this time, Owen had already felt the pull toward poetry, and his mother warmly encouraged these ambitions. Desiring a higher education, he studied botany at University College, Reading, before matriculating at the University of London. A shortage of money for tuition fees eventually forced Owen to withdraw, however, and in 1911 he sought work at a vicarage in Dunsden, a town near Reading. There he lived for 18 months as a pupil and lay assistant to Reverend Herbert Wigan. At the parish he worked with the sick and the elderly, the illiterate and the destitute, developing a compassion that would inform his later work as both a soldier and a poet. While he was sensitive to the hardships of the parishioners, Owen struggled with his own belief in the redemptive power of Christianity.
During a bout with depression, Owen suffered a physical and emotional collapse that put an end to his stay at Dunsden. In February 1913 he recuperated at home in Shrewsbury, where he remained for six months. By September he had taken a position teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France. After a year of working at the school, Owen stayed on in France to serve as a tutor for young boys. In the summer of 1914, he worked for a family at Bagneres de Bigorre in the Pyrenees, where he met the French poet Laurent Tailhade. By December, he had returned to Bordeaux to tutor for an expatriate British family. During his time abroad he had gone home only to visit, but talk of war eventually drew him back to England. It was with plans to enlist in his country's armed forces that Owen took leave of France in the late summer of 1915.
Joined the War
By autumn, Owen had begun his training with the 3/ 28th London Regiment, later known as the 2nd Artists Rifles Officers Training Corps. After serving in this capacity for eight months, he was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment at Milford Camp, near Witley. There he demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity: With a fellow officer, he designed an improvement to the gas mask. More than a year later, in October 1917, he would write the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," in which an episode with lethal gas sends soldiers into "[a]n ecstasy of fumbling,/ Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time." Although the poem describes the senseless horrors of war, its title ironically evokes a Latin quotation from Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," or "Sweet and decorous it is to die for one's country."
Months would pass before Owen began to acquire the intimate knowledge of war that he would bring to his poetry. In total, he completed 14 months of training, including a musketry course that he took at Mychett Camp in Farnborough in July 1916. Classified as 1st-Class Shot at the end of the course, he rejoined the Manchesters at Witley Camp later in the summer. It was not until January 1917 that his regiment was drafted to the Infantry Base Depot at Etaples, France. Within days, they joined the front line at Serre, where Owen was put in charge of "A" company. Though Owen did not remain on the front line, he and his men embarked on a risky mission to occupy a former German bunker in No Man's Land. An incident there, in which a sentry that he had posted was blinded during a bombardment, later became the subject of his poem "The Sentry." He and his men endured the extreme cold of those winter days; many suffered from frostbite and one soldier froze to death before he could be evacuated to safety. Owen was beginning to amass the difficult experiences that he would write about so compellingly.
After a month of combat, Owen was sent to join a Transport Officers' Course at Abbeville. It was a coveted position, safely away from the front line. In Abbeville he stayed in a house that lacked heat, and his milk and other goods froze, but that did not deter him from writing such poems as "Exposure" and "Happiness." As always, he corresponded with his mother faithfully, reporting on his work as a soldier and poet. But Owen's sojourn in Abbeville was brief, and he returned to his battalion on March 1. Shortly thereafter, on March 14, he suffered a concussion from a fall and was sent home. He soon recovered and returned to the line. Yet he was again unwell by May 1917, and was diagnosed as being a victim of shell shock and trench fever. After being treated at a casualty clearing station, he returned to England for further care, first at Netley Hospital in Hampshire, and later at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.
Honed His Poetic Powers
It was while recovering at the hospital in Edinburgh that Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, an army captain and an established poet who wrote passionately of his experiences in the war. The meeting marked a turning point in Owen's career as a poet. Sassoon admired the younger writer's poetry and encouraged him to keep going, pushing him to further develop his style. He introduced Owen to the writer Robert Graves and others, welcoming him into a circle of intellectuals and validating his stature as a fellow poet. At first Sassoon's influence was perhaps too strong, and Owen began to write poetry that echoed his contemporary's style. But he soon found his own unique approach to writing about the war; his style matured, as did his characteristic use of such techniques as pararhyme, alliteration, and assonance.
Meeting Sassoon sparked a bout of creativity in Owen, who had begun penning his finest verses during his recuperation at Edinburgh. In October 1917, just prior to his discharge from Craiglockhart, he wrote "Greater Love" ("Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead") and "Anthem for Doomed Youth" ("What passing bells for those who die as cattle?/—Only the monstrous anger of the guns"). After a three-week leave, which he had been granted upon his discharge from the hospital, Owen was posted to the 5th Manchesters, a reserve battalion based in Yorkshire, England. His duties included acting as a mess secretary at Clarence Gardens Hotel (now the Clifton Hotel) in Scarborough. When he was able to take time away from his clerical duties, the poet escaped to his room to write. Here he produced "Miners," the first of his poems to be published.
Owen's reprieve from the war was further extended when he was assigned to a post at Ripon Army Camp in March 1918. Here he was able to rent a quiet cottage in the rural outskirts of Borrage Lane. This was a productive period for Owen, in which he wrote and rewrote such poems as "Strange Meeting," "Futility," and "Mental Cases." His experience with shell shock, as well as his encounters with other troubled men in the psychiatric hospital, figured prominently in many of these poems. He remained at Ripon until he was fit for service, and returned to the 5th Manchesters in June 1918. Two months later Sassoon returned from battle severely wounded, and Owen was able to visit him in the hospital. Their reunion was brief, as Owen was to go off once again to the war in France, rejoining the 2nd Manchesters as an officer reinforcement in September 1918.
Killed in Action
It did not take long for Owen to become reacquainted with the horrors of war. His battalion was to advance upon the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line, originally known as the Hindenburg Support Line. It was a German-occupied territory organized into trenches and concrete fortifications— the last such territory to be attacked by the British before open warfare ensued. When the 2nd Manchesters launched their attack on October 1, 1918, they successfully challenged the enemy's defenses. Owen was one of a number of men who captured a German gun position and resisted a harsh counter-attack, advancing to the farthest point occupied by the British along the western front. It was a victory for England as well as for Owen, who was recommended for a Military Cross for his fine leadership during the battle.
Owen was proud of his Military Cross, but he did not live long enough to fully relish his achievements. He was killed in action by the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal near the French town of Ors on November 4, 1918—just one week before the armistice. During his final battle, in which the battalion attempted to cross the canal to attack the Germans who held the opposite bank, Owen was last seen traversing the canal on a raft, in a hail of artillery fire. In his last letter to his mother, written not far from the canal, in the basement of a house in Pommereuil, Owen assured her that he was happy and, at least momentarily, safe. He wrote: "I am more oblivious than alas yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside, and the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines."
News of Owen's death did not reach his home at Shrewsbury until November 11, the day that marked the end of the Great War. The poetry was all that remained, and the poet's admirers were determined to see them published. In 1919, seven of his poems appeared in Wheels and, in the following year, Sassoon took on the task of publishing The Poems of Wilfred Owen and writing an introduction to the posthumous collection. Often paired with Sassoon as the greatest of Britain's War Poets, Owen lives on in his verse, which chronicles the experience of war without sentimentality and empty paeans to heroism. The poems remain as vivid testimony of physical and emotional struggle during one of humankind's darkest periods.
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