Wilfred Owen 1893–1918
(Full name Wilfred Edward Salter Owen) English poet.
Considered the leading English poet of the First World War, Owen is remembered for realistic poems depicting the horrors of war, which were inspired by his experiences at the Western Front in 1916 and 1917. Owen considered the true subject of his poems to be "the pity of war," and sought to present the grim realities of battle and its effects on the human spirit. His unique voice—less passionate and idealistic than those of other war poets—is complemented by his unusual and experimental technical style. He is recognized as the first English poet to fully achieve pararhyme, in which the rhyme is made through altered vowel sounds. This distinctive technique and the prominent note of social protest in his works influenced many poets of the 1920s and 1930s, most notably W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender.
Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, the eldest son of a minor railroad official. A thoughtful, imaginative youth, he was greatly influenced by his Calvinist mother and developed an early interest in Romantic poets and poetry, especially in John Keats, whose influence can be seen in many of Owen's poems. Owen was a serious student, attending schools in Birkenhead and Shrews-bury. After failing to win a university scholarship in 1911, he became a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. Failing again to win a scholarship in 1913, Owen accepted a position teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France. There he was befriended by the Symbolist poet and pacifist Laurent Tailhade, whose encouragement affirmed Owen's determination to become a poet. In 1915, a year after the onset of the Great War, Owen returned to England and enlisted in the Artist's Rifles. While training in London, he frequented Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop, where he became acquainted with Monro and regularly attended public poetry readings. At the end of his training, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment; in late 1916 he was posted to the Western Front where he participated in the Battle of the Somme and was injured and hospitalized. Later sent to Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital for treatment of shell-shock, he met fellow patient and poet, Siegfried Sassoon, an outspoken critic of the war, who encouraged Owen to use his battle experiences as subjects for poetry. Owen wrote most of his critically acclaimed poems in the fifteen months following this meeting. After being
discharged from the hospital, Owen rejoined his regiment in Scarborough. He returned to the front in early September 1918 and shortly afterwards was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He was killed in action at the Sambre Canal in northeast France on November 4, 1918—one week before the Armistice. He is buried in Ors, France.
Owen's early poetry is considered to be derivative and undistinguished, influenced by his interest in romantic themes, particularly beauty, much as Keats had been. The emergence of war shattered his idealistic vision of life and caused Owen to rethink his philosophy. He came to believe that war could not be described in an heroic, idealized manner, but should be treated with a realism that could describe the impact warfare has on human lives. The maturation of his poetic style can be traced to his encounter with Sassoon, from whom he learned to adapt his technique to non traditional war subjects, allowing him to express more fully his emotions and his experiences. Owen strove to give voice to the feelings of the common foot soldier, whose experiences were not represented in the conventional war poems that spoke of heroism and patriotism instead of fears and death. As he stated in the introduction to the collection of poems he began to assemble for publication before his death, Owen's goal was not to glorify conflict or soldiers dying for their country, but to express the "pity of war," and to offer a more complex emotional response to fighting, one that allows for a greater understanding of war itself.
At the time of Owen's death, only a handful of his poems had been published. Among his best-known poems are "Dulce et Decorum Est," "Anthem for Doomed Youth," and "Strange Meeting," an uncompleted elegy that is considered by many critics to be the finest poem written about the First World War. "Strange Meeting" presents historical, humanistic, and mystical themes, while considering the conflict between ego and conscience in war. In a dreamlike vision, the narrator of the poem encounters a soldier whom he has killed, and the ensuing dialogue presents Owen's protests on the futility of war. By not specifying the nationalities of the two soldiers in the poem, Owen achieved an ambiguity that allows the verses to be viewed as both a commentary on World War I and on the universal nature of war and suggests analogies between the soldier and Christ and between the enemy and oneself. In this and other poems, the Christian ethical principle of "greater love," based on the New Testament teaching "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13), is considered highly significant. Many critics have noted that while Owen rebelled against the strict institutional religion of his mother, he retained a deep love of Christ, who often appeared in his poems as a symbol for the young men sacrificed on the battlefields.
Owen's reputation was established posthumously with the 1920 publication of a collection of his poems edited by Sassoon. His poetry subsequently gained a wide audience as a result of collections compiled by Edmund Blunden and C. Day Lewis; however, critical attention developed more slowly, due to a lack of biographical information, which led to confusion over the dates of various poems and the progress of Owen's development as a poet. Generally, critics have come to agree that Owen's verses represent a unique emotional response to war and a masterful technical achievement. This consensus was challenged by W. B. Yeats, who omitted Owen's poetry from his anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1937), commenting that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry." However, the exclusion of Owen's verses was itself challenged by numerous commentators, who questioned Yeats's selection criteria. Perhaps the greatest indicator of Owen's importance lies in the influence he had on poets of the next generation, including Day Lewis, who noted that Owen created "poems that will remain momentous long after the circumstances that prompted them have become just another war in the history books."
SOURCE: "The Poet of War," in Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XXVIII, No. 21, February 19, 1921, pp. 705–07.
[In the following excerpt, Murry lauds Owen's Poems and argues that the author was the greatest poet of World War I.]
The name and the genius of Wilfred Owen were first revealed by the publication of his finest poem, "Strange Meeting," in the anthology Wheels a year ago. I still remember the incredible shock of that encounter, the sudden, profound stirring by the utterance of a true poet. Since that time other fragments of Owen's work have been made known, and if none so evidently bore the impress of poetic mastery as "Strange Meeting," they were...
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SOURCE: "The Poems of Wilfred Owen," in The Criterion, Vol. X, No. 41, July 1931, pp. 658–69.
[In the following excerpt, Parsons praises Owen's fine sensibility and rich imagination as a realist poet.]
Only two poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, attempted in any wholehearted sense the realist method … and endeavoured to interpret their reactions to War primarily in terms of objective experience. Of the former Owen's is unquestionably the more compelling voice, not only because the twenty-four poems which comprised, till the recent appearance of [Edmund] Blunden's enlarged edition, his one published book of verse, constitute a complete and altogether unique...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen," in Quite Early One Morning, New Directions, 1954, pp. 117-33.
[In the following excerpt from an essay that was written in 1946, Thomas hails Owen as "a poet of all times, all places and all wars."]
[In a volume of his poems, Wilfred Owen] was to show, to England, and the intolerant world, the foolishness, unnaturalness, horror, inhumanity, and insupportability of War, and to expose, so that all could suffer and see, the heroic lies, the willingness of the old to sacrifice the young, indifference, grief, the Souls of Soldiers.
The volume, as Wilfred Owen visualised it in trench and shell hole and hospital, in the lunatic centre...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen's Greatest Love," in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. VI, 1956, pp. 105-17.
[In the following excerpt, Cohen explores the spiritual source of Owen's poetry.]
Here in thirty-three brief pages is the evidence that Wilfred Owen was the greatest poet of the war. There have been war-poets, but he was a poet of another kind." Thus wrote John Middleton Murry in reviewing the 1920 edition of Wilfred Owen's Poems. Between Murry's pronouncement and a statement by Dylan Thomas in 1954 that Owen was "the greatest of the poets who wrote in and of the Great War, and one of the greatest poets of this century," many similar laudatory comments have appeared...
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SOURCE: "Mainly Wilfred Owen," in War Poets, 1914-1918, Longmans, Green, 1958, pp. 32-9.
[In the following excerpt, Blunden explores the influences on Owen's poetry and characterizes his poems as richly imaginative and distinguished by a "spiritual and mental dignity."]
The poems of Owen on war express many aspects, as his own attempted classification shows, but perhaps pity is the one he felt most. In "Strange Meeting" the ghost of the enemy soldier whom he has bayoneted, calling him friend in the world of shades, says that he might otherwise have made a gift to posterity. But:
It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen and Poetic Truth," in University of Kansas City Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter 1958, pp. 110-16.
[In the following excerpt, Spear explores Owen's concept of poetic truth, which she believes was arrived at through disillusion with his own earlier poetry.]
Although many writers have glanced at Wilfred Owen's ideas of poetic truth, no one has fully defined and documented them; no one has followed him through the profound mental and spiritual struggles in which he was led to reject the kind of poetry which he had once most admired; no one has succeeded in fully correlating his final concept of truth, arrived at through agony and disillusion, with the...
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SOURCE: "The Very Seared Conscience," in Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study, Chatto & Windus, 1960, pp. 84-103.
[In the following excerpt from his book-length critical study, Welland examines the conflict between patriotism and Christianity in Owen's poetry.]
In all Owen's writing no phrase is more revelatory than his description of himself as "a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience," which occurs in the important letter where he records poignantly his realisation that "pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism." [In his earliest poetry we see] an uneasiness over religious belief finding expression in a somewhat derivative idiom that...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by C. Day Lewis, Chatto & Windus, 1964, pp. 11-29.
[In the following excerpt, Day Lewis admires the poetic maturity evident in Owen's war poems.]
Wilfred Owen must remain, in one respect at least, an enigma. His war poems, a body of work composed between January 1917, when he was first sent to the Western Front, and November 1918, when he was killed, seem to me certainly the finest written by any English poet of the First War and probably the greatest poems about war in our literature. His fame was posthumous—he had only four poems published in his lifetime. The bulk of his best work was written...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen—A Reassessment," in The Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 1977, pp. 85-100.
[In the following excerpt, Banerjee supports Yeats's controversial negative view of Owen's poetry and concludes that Owen is overrated as a poet.]
[Wilfred Owen has] received sufficient critical attention (mostly favourable) … and there have been numerous critical articles on him or about him. He can also claim to have influenced later poets (e.g. C. Day Lewis held Owen up as one of the literary ancestors of the poets of the thirties in his A Hope For Poetry (1934), and Philip Larkin has mentioned Owen as one of the poets he has, "enjoyed" and he has been...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen: World War and Family Romance," in University of Hartford Studies in Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1983, pp. 63-74.
[In the following excerpt, Butler examines Owen's unconscious personal conflicts as a source of his poetry's power.]
Wilfred Owen's poems are generally considered the finest written about the First World War in English by a participant. Yet no study I am aware of has developed an adequate synthesis of all three of the most crucial aspects of his achievement: his astonishingly sudden and complete maturation as a poet; his rapid and profound assimilation of the overwhelming experience of modern warfare; the continuity as well as the...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen and Abram," in Women's Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1986, pp. 49-61.
[In the following excerpt, Musil examines Owen's challenging of patriarchal notions of nationalism, masculinity, and sexuality in his poems.]
A week after World War I broke out, Wilfred Owen wrote to his brother, "After all my years of playing soldiers, and then of reading history, I have almost a mania to be in the East, to see fighting, and to serve." He resisted his "mania" for another sixteen months, but by January, 1917, he found himself a commissioned officer at the Front. At first his early enthusiasm for the war survived. "There is a fine heroic spirit about being in...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets," in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 40, No. 160, November, 1989, pp. 516-30.
[In the following excerpt, Norgate commends Owen's poetic need to "break out of the closed circle of meaning guarded by the Soldier Poets."]
It is …almost a critical commonplace that Wilfred Owen's poetry is full of echoes—he was, as he described himself, "a poet's poet." Innumerable allusions bear witness to his wide reading in the Romantic/Victorian tradition, and the influence of Georgian contemporaries is also evident—Monro, Gibson, and Graves, as well as (obviously and pre-eminently) Sassoon. Similar uses and transformations have been...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen's 'The Letter' and the Truth of War," in English Language Notes, March, 1994, pp. 59-66.
[In the following excerpt, Graves focuses on the issues of wartime censorship and propaganda revealed in Owen's "The Letter. "]
As an officer at the front editing soldiers' letters home, [Wilfred] Owen acted as a cog in the British propaganda machine during World War I. British propaganda, and the subsequent censorship of wartime correspondence, hoped to serve two purposes: first, to insure national security in Britain, and second, to keep up morale on the homefront by sheltering civilian sensibilities from the devastation on the Western Front. As Owen reveals...
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SOURCE: "Wilfred Owen," in Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, The University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 69-96.
[In the following excerpt, Ramazani examines Owen's challenge to received notions of elegiac conventions in his poetry.]
Much as [Thomas] Hardy instilled his personal and public elegies with the intensified skepticisms of modernity, Wilfred Owen forged a new kind of elegy upon the anvil of modern industrialized warfare. One of Hardy's most capable admirers, Owen considered entitling a projected collection of his war poems English Elegies or, in a phrase from Shelley's elegy for Keats, With Lightning and with Music. But...
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White, William. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918): A Bibliography. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1967, 41 p.
Bibliography of and about Owen and his work.
Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986, 244 p.
Critical biography of Owen with bibliography.
Owen, Harold. Journey from Obscurity: Wilfred Owen 1893-1918. Memoirs of the Owen Family. 3 Vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1963-95.
Complete biography of...
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