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William Butler Yeats had little respect for the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Not only did Yeats exclude the verse of Owen (and other World War I poets) from an influential anthology he edited, but he also dismissed Owen’s poems with a good deal of contempt in a letter to a friend:
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 & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem 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 & sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber's Anthology-- he calls poets 'bards,' a girl a 'maid,' & talks about 'Titanic wars'). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . .
Yeats’s references to “blood” and “dirt” are easy to understand: Owen wrote some of the grimmest and most darkly realistic poems about war ever composed. But what is one to make of Yeats’s reference to a “sucked sugar stick”? As the parenthetical phrase in the quoted passage suggests, Yeats seems to have felt that Owen often used diction that was too saccharine and soft, and this is indeed true of some of Owen’s earliest poems (poems he wrote before he went to war).
If there is one common word to use for all the charges Yeats hurls against Owen, perhaps that common term is “sentimental.” Yeats objected to the fact that Owen pitied the suffering soldiers he commanded and described. Thus, Yeats’s dislike of the “blood” and “dirt” of Owen’s poems is rooted in a dislike of Owen’s tendency to feel what Yeats considered sentimental sympathy for men who were not tragic heroes but mere passive victims. In the introduction to the anthology that Yeats edited and from which Owen is excluded, Yeats defends his decision as follows when he describes Owen and the other “war poets”:
In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering [that is, the suffering of their men] their own. . . . [But] passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced . . . .
Thus the common thread that runs through Owen’s poetry (at least for Yeats) is a maudlin sentimentality. (Many other readers will strongly disagree.)
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