Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen, the eldest of the three sons and one daughter of Thomas Owen, a railway clerk and his wife, Susan Shaw Owen, was born at Plas Wilmot, near Oswestry, on 18th March, 1893. His father, a railway clerk, was transferred to Birkenhead in 1898, and between 1899 and 1907 Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute. In 1907 the family moved to Shrewsbury, where Thomas Owen had been appointed assistant superintendent of the Joint Railways and Wilfred attended Shrewsbury Technical School.

As his biographer, Jon Stallworthy, has pointed out: "Under the strong influence of his devout mother he read a passage from the Bible every day and, on Sundays, would rearrange her sitting-room to represent a church. Then, wearing a linen surplice and cardboard mitre she had made, he would summon the family and conduct a complete evening service with a carefully prepared sermon."

Owen left school in 1911, eager to go to university, and passed the University of London matriculation exam, though not with the first-class honours necessary to win him the scholarship he needed. His mother persuaded him to accept the offer of an unpaid position as lay assistant to the Revd Herbert Wigan, vicar of Dunsden. In return Wigan promised some tuition to prepare him for the university entrance exam. It has been claimed that this was not a success as Wigan had no interest in literature, and Owen had lost interest in theology, the only topic offered for tuition.

During this period he came under the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats and began writing poetry. In July he sat a scholarship exam for University College, but failed, and in mid-September crossed the channel to take up a part-time post teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. This was followed by becoming a tutor for a eleven-year-old French girl in her parents' villa, in the Pyrenees.

Owen continued to write poetry and became friends with the French poet and political activist, Laurent Tailhade. He became interested in Tailhade's ideas on modern poetry as well as his political views that embraced anarchism and pacifism. Tailhade, a poet of the so-called "decadent" school, also introduced him to the work of Paul Verlaine and Gustave Flaubert.

The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 created a strong wave of patriotism and even though Tailhade had written two pacifist pamphlets he joined the French Army. Owen was concerned that he would be unable to cope as a soldier. However, he was aware it would give him the opportunity to write about something very important. He wrote to his mother: "Do you know what would hold me together on a battlefield? The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!"

Owen finally returned to England, and, on 21st October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. Owen spent the next seven and a half months training for service on the front-line. While based at Hare Hall camp near Romford he met Harold Monro, the owner of the Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street and the editor of the Poetry Review, a magazine he had started in 1912. Monro read some of Owen's poems and gave him encouraging advice.

First World War

The First World War (3,250 pages - £4.95)

On 4th June 1916 Owen was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment and after further training he crossing to France on 29th December. He arrived on the Western Front at the Somme in January 1917. While at the front Owen began writing poems about his war experiences. This included being trapped for three days in a shell-hole with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer. After heavy artillery bombardment he was also blown out of his trench and on 1st May he was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to recuperate.

While in hospital he met Siegfried Sassoon, who had just published his statement Finished With War: A Soldier's Declaration, which announced that "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation." Instead of the expected court martial, the under-secretary for war declared him to be suffering from shell-shock, and he was sent to Cocklockhart.

Sassoon was also a poet and his first volume of poems, The Old Huntsman, had just been published. Sassoon introduced Owen to Robert Graves, who was also recovering from wounds received at the front. His book of poems, Fairies and Fusiliers, had also been published in 1917. Sassoon suggested that Owen should write in a more direct, colloquial style. Over the next few months Owen wrote a series of poems, including Anthem for Doomed Youth, Disabled and Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen was also supported by his doctor, Arthur J. Brock, who arranged for two of of Owen's poems to be published in the hospital's literary journal, The Hydra.

Until he met Sassoon his few war poems had been patriotic and heroic. Under the influence of Sassoon his thoughts and style changed dramatically. During this time he wrote: "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful". Jon Stallworthy has pointed out: "The older poet's advice and encouragement, showing the younger how to channel memories of battle - recurring in obsessive nightmares which were a symptom of shell-shock - into a poem such as Dulce et decorum est, complemented Dr Brock's ‘work-cure’. The final manuscript of Anthem for Doomed Youth carries suggestions (including that of the title) in Sassoon's handwriting. Owen's confidence grew, his health returned, and in October a medical board decided that he was fit for light duties."

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

Sassoon also introduced Owen to H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and they helped him get some of his poems published in The Nation. Owen also had talks with William Heinemann about the publication of a collection of his poems. Another friend he acquired through Sassoon was Robert Ross, who had enjoyed a long-term relationship with Oscar Wilde. According to Maureen Borland, the author of Wilde's Devoted Friend: Life of Robert Ross (1990): "In Ross's delightful and witty company, for a few precious hours, they could forget the horrors of trench warfare. Although these men were not among his partners, Ross was clearly homosexual and had two long-term relationships. He shared a house for fifteen years with (William) More Adey; a shorter partnership, with Frederick (Freddie) Stanley Smith, ended in 1917, when Smith took up a diplomatic appointment in Stockholm. Ross discouraged discussion of his sex life, and maintained a lifelong silence about the exact nature of his relationship with Wilde."

Owen's biographer, Jon Stallworthy has argued: "On leave in London, he met Robert Ross who in turn introduced him to some of his literary friends: Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and a number of less well known figures, several of whom were homosexual, as were Ross and Sassoon themselves. It is clear from Owen's writings that he shared their sexual orientation; but it is debatable whether he ever entered into a physical relationship that, if detected, could have resulted in a prison sentence like that imposed on Oscar Wilde, a relationship that would have horrified his mother, whose good opinion he valued above all others. There is no evidence that he did. What is certain, however, is that Owen and Sassoon wrote more eloquently than other poets of the tragedy of boys killed in battle because they felt that tragedy more acutely, more personally."

In November 1917 Owen rejoined the 5th Manchester Regiment in Scarborough. While there he read Under Fire, a novel about trench warfare by Henri Barbusse, who had joined the French Army in 1914 at the age of forty-one. After being wounded several times he wrote the novel while in hospital. By this time, Barbusse had become a pacifist, and his writing demonstrated his growing hatred of militarism. Owen used some of the images in this book into his poetry. Poems written during this period included Insensibility, Strange Meeting, Exposure and Futility.Owen wrote to his mother that he wanted to return to the Western Front "to help these boys - directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can".

In August 1918 Owen was declared fit to return to the Western Front. He fought at Beaurevoir-Fonsomme, where he was awarded the Military Cross. The British Gazette later recorded: "On the company commander becoming a casualty, he (Owen) 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."

Wilfred Owen was killed by machine-gun fire while leading his men across the Sambre–Oise Canal on 4th November 1918. A week later the Armistice was signed. Only five of Owen's poems were published while he was alive. After Owen's death his friend, Siegfried Sassoon, arranged for the publication of his Collected Poems (1920). Jon Stallworthy has argued: "Dying at twenty-five, he came to represent a generation of innocent young men sacrificed - as it seemed to a generation in unprecedented rebellion against its fathers - by guilty old men: generals, politicians, war profiteers. Owen has now taken his place in literary history as perhaps the first, certainly the quintessential, war poet." However, Owen only became a national figure when Benjamin Britten added music to his poems in War Requiem in 1962.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917)

What passing bells for those 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 for them from prayers or 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 the eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

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.

(2) Wilfred Owen, Disabled (1917)

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,

Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park

Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,

Voices of play and pleasure after day,

Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay

When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees

And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,

- In the old times, before he threw away his knees.

Now he will never feel again how slim

Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,

All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,

For it was younger than his youth, last year.

Now he is old; his back will never brace;

He's lost his colour very far from here,

Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,

And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,

And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,

After the matches carried shoulder-high.

It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,

He thought he'd better join. He wonders why...

Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts.

That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,

Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,

He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;

Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears

Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts

For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;

And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;

Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.

And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

Only a solemn man who brought him fruits

Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,

And do what things the rules consider wise,

And take whatever pity they may dole.

To-night he noticed how the women's eyes

Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.

How cold and late it is! Why don't they come

And put him into bed? Why don't they come?

(3) Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est (1917)

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 blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw 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 pace

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 on 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.

(4) Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting (1917)

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;

Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."

"None," said that other, "save the undone years,

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also, I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world,

Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,

But mocks the steady running of the hour,

And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something had been left,

Which must die now I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery,

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:

To miss the march of this retreating world

Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,

Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

I would have poured my spirit without stint

But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.

Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now..."

(5) Manchester Guardian (29th December, 1920)

Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, MC, an officer of the Manchester Regiment, was killed in action on the Sambre Canal a week before the Armistice, aged 25. The 23 poems of this collection are the fruit of not quite two years' active service, less than half of it in the field. But they are enough to rank him among the very few war poets whose work has more than a passing value. Others have shown the disenchantment of war, have unlegended the roselight and romance of it, but none with such compassion for the disenchanted or such sternly just and justly stem judgment on the idyllisers. To him the sight and sound of a man gassed suffice to give the lie to "duke et decorum" and the rest of it. The atrophy that he damns is not that of the men who fought - "having seen all things red,/The eyes are rid/ Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever;" - it is the atrophy of those who "by choice... made themselves immune" from "Whatever shares/The eternal reciprocity of tears." If he glorifies the soldiers - and he does, gloriously - it is as victim, not as victor; not as the hero achieving, but as one whose sacrificial love passes the love of women.

His verse, as he says in his preface, is all of the pity of war, and "except in the pity" there is no poetry. But it is a heroic exception, for the pity gets itself into poetry in phrases which are not the elegant chasing of ineffectual silver, but tile vital unbeautiful beauty of unwashed gold. It is the poetry of pain, searing and piercing to pity; it is the poetry of the Tragic Muse, whose visage, though "marred more than any man," is yet transfigured in the sorrow of song. He has revealed the soul of the soldier as no one else has revealed it, not because his vision of the externals was less vivid and cleaving, but because to that vision he added an imagination of the heart that made him sure of his values clogged their chariot wheels.

(6) W. B. Yeats, letter to a friend on omitting Wilfred Owen from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936)

When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board man of the revolution and that some body has put his worst and most famous poem (Dulce et Decorum Est) in a glass-case in the British Museum - however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt and sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber's Anthology - he calls poets 'bards', a girl a 'maid', and talks about 'Titanic wars'). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him.