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."
The Poems of Wilfred Owen 1931
Thirteen Poems 1956
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen 1963
Wilfred Owen: War Poems and Others 1973
The Complete Poems and Fragments 1983
Other Major Works
Collected Letters (letters) 1967
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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 a part of that achievement. We could be sure that when the promised volume of his poetry appeared it would be single, coherent, and unique.
And so it is. Here in thirty-three brief pages [Poems] 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. He was not a poet who seized upon the opportunity of war, but one whose being was saturated by a strange experience, who bowed himself to the horror of war until his soul was penetrated by it, and there was no mean or personal element remaining unsubdued in him. In the fragmentary preface which so deeply bears the mark of Owen's purity of purpose, he wrote: "Above all this book is not concerned...
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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 corpus of war poetry, but because in the main his sensibility is finer and his imagination richer than Sassoon's. Sassoon, moreover, is primarily a lyric poet and a satirist: his realism is only an indirect implication of his satire. Expressing essentially the same attitude as Owen, he writes with a certain subjective bias which gives to his work a rather consciously intellectualized flavour. It is as though the poems, composed in part retrospectively, demanded a recapitulative effort of the imagination incompatible with complete spontaneity. With Owen on the other hand, whatever the actual fact may have been, the impression left on the reader certainly suggests composition while the visual image was still clear in the mind's eye. It is,...
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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 of battle, in the collapsed and apprehensive calm of sick-leave, never appeared. But many of the poems that were to have been included in the volume remain, their anguish unabated, their beauty for ever, their truth manifest, their warning unheeded….
[He] was the greatest poet of the first Great War. Perhaps, in lie future, if there are men, then, still to read—by which I mean, if there are men at all—he may be regarded as one of the great poets of all wars. But only War itself can resolve the problem of the ultimate truth of his, or of anyone else's poetry: War, or its cessation….
[The] voice of the poetry of Wilfred Owen speaks to us, down the revolving stages of thirty years, with terrible new...
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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 in print. But the commentators, however lavish in their praise, have been sparing in their criticism. Surprisingly few really perceptive studies of Owen's poetry exist, although appreciative remarks appear frequently.
Those who have sought to explain critically the phenomenal regard for Owen's work—apparently he has had no more than two detractors of international reputation among hundreds of published admirers—have suggested that he merits attention either for his aesthetic and technical accomplishments or for his political attitude toward war. At the same time they all acknowledge the presence of a distinguishing spiritual element in the poetry. It goes by various descriptions. A New York Times reviewer...
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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
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;
With a thousand fears 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 the other, 'save the undone years,
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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 concept found in his earlier poems….
Owen's early poetry appears to be far removed in spirit from his later work. As a young man he was a natural romantic. His poetic idol was Keats and his first poetic effusions reflect his idolatry. From the age of ten he believed in his vocation as a poet, and year by year he steeped his mind and thoughts in poetry, particularly romantic poetry, and especially that of Keats, although his constant references to and quotations from Shelley suggest that Shelley too had a considerable place in his affections. When he was seventeen he celebrated the memory of Keats in a sonnet; at eighteen he went on a pilgrimage to Keats' house in Teignmouth; at nineteen the sight of a lock of Keats'...
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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 detracts from its spontaneity, but of the intensity of the spiritual crisis into which his participation in the war plunged him there can be no doubt. [A] sense of guilt and of divided responsibility [can be found] in "Mental Cases," "Spring Offensive," and elsewhere…. [The writer] in every instance betraying the Christ-soldier and thus alienating himself from the mercy of Christ.
Such popularly-accepted phrases as "the supreme sacrifice" illustrate how readily the soldier came to be thought of in a role similar to that of the crucified Saviour. One of the few successful poetic versions of this identification is Sassoon's "The Redeemer," but too many poems of …"the personal phase" of Great War poetry suffer by the...
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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 or finished during a period of intense creative activity, from August 1917 (in one week of October he wrote six poems) to September 1918—a period comparable with the annus mirabilis of his admired Keats. 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, all these make me feel that Owen's war poems are mature poetry, and that in the best of them—as in a few which he wrote on other subjects—he showed himself a major poet.
The enigma lies in this maturity. Reading through what survives of the unpublished poetry Owen wrote before 1917, I found myself...
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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 "associated with"). Indeed, it is a measure of the esteem in which Owen is held by his admirers and critics that Yeats's strictures on him have generally been taken as evidence of blind-spots in Yeats as critic rather than valid criticism of Owen as poet. That Owen wrote some remarkable poems—even a few perfect poems like "Insensibility," "Futility" and "Greater Love"—can hardly be denied. But I think he has been over-rated as a poet and a typical example of this fact is Roy Fuller's assertion in one of his Oxford Lectures, that Owen was "a major poet"—an accolade which very few poets since Yeats would seem to deserve.
Owen's critics and editors have tended to be bowled over by his compelling...
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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 differences between his juvenile and mature work. I think it was Owen's ability to perceive significant continuity between his pre-war and war-time experiences that made his remarkable achievement possible. War experience similarly galvanized his friend Siegfried Sassoon from a very minor Edwardian versifier to England's most powerful verse satirist since Byron. But while Sassoon could exploit the incongruities between war and peace brilliantly, he could not resolve or transcend them, and after the War he declined again to minor status. Owen was able to counterpose nineteenth-century Romantic thought and his war experience in such a way that each illuminated and judged the other. Furthermore, he perceived the War among the family of nations as...
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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 France," he wrote in early January and after hearing the guns for the first time reported, "It was a sound not without a certain sublimity." Two days later he wrote home, "There is nothing in all this inferno but mud and thunder," and within ten days confessed, "We were wretched beyond my previous imagination." Out of such wretchedness some of the greatest anti-war poetry in the English language was written. As Owen came to repudiate the war, he bitterly condemned with all the ferocity of a son's disillusionment the fathers who were orchestrating the meticulous slaughter. Like other modernists, Owen was not merely railing against the carnage he witnessed; he was, finally, profoundly opposed to the patriarchal culture that seemed to make war such...
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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 observed of material from classical literature and from the Bible. In Owen's war poetry, reference and allusion has almost always an ironizing function. The primary thrust of this irony is generally in one of two directions—towards the situation of war itself, or towards the source of the allusion. In the first, more frequently recognized, usage, Owen's source material is employed as it were approvingly, unequivocally: adding depth and resonance as a means of exposing the horror or futility of present circumstances. Of this kind are, for instance, the allusions to Dante in "Mental Cases" or to Shelley in "Strange Meeting."
On the other hand, the allusion itself may be deployed ironically by Owen, in order to demonstrate...
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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 in his poem "The Letter," however, wartime censorship and propaganda, and the sense of patriotism which encouraged both, accomplished neither. Instead, they distanced the soldiers witnessing the atrocities of the Western Front from civilian England, just seventy miles away, and they offered a false sense of a loved one's security to millions at home clamoring for news about the war.
Little critical attention has been focused on this gem in Owen's literary repetoire, perhaps because critics disagree on when Owen actually wrote the poem. Some critics attribute its composition to a two-month period between January through March, 1917, because the manuscript's watermark matches that of letters Owen wrote home in the period....
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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 critics have not pursued the implication that Owen's poems should be read generically as elegies. This reluctance is understandable, since Owen's poems challenge received notions of elegiac convention, structure, and psychology. In poems such as "Anthem for Doomed Youth," "Futility," "Mental Cases," and "Miners," Owen exemplifies the paradox of many modern elegies: that the best are frequently the most anti-elegiac. In his draft Preface, Owen states, "these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory." Owen's melancholic elegies, like Hardy's, make it harder to interpret the elegy solely under the aegis of the pleasure principle, harder to maintain normative explanations of the genre as psychic remedy. Resisting the traditional...
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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 Wilfred Owen and his siblings by his brother.
Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1974, 333 p.
An appreciative biography intended as a complementary volume to existing biographical sources, including Harold Owen's Journey from Obscurity and The Collected Letters.
Bäckman, Sven. Tradition Transformed: Studies in the Poetry of Wilfred Owen. Lund, Sweden: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1979, 204 p.
Examines Owen's relationship to poetic tradition and assesses his technical innovations....
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