The Poetry of Owen Critical Essays

Wilfred Owen

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

For Wilfred Owen, born and brought up in the Housman country of Shropshire and Shrewsbury, reader of Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne, a young poet devoted to boyish “loneliness” and the aesthetic cult of Beauty, wounded March 19, 1917, again on May 1, and killed in action November 4, 1918, Beauty was no escape. The horrors of war, in Owen’s hands, were transfigured in poems into a terrible beauty.

The war itself did not make Owen a poet, but it did mature his poems, as if overnight; too, the war never completely dissolved his early yearning for a misty, aesthetic Beauty. But the war transformed that Beauty from a literary dream to a stark necessity, held to in the face of the horrors recorded so bluntly, spat out, the devastating “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Owen, who published only three poems during his short lifetime, could find cause for elation, within two months of his death, at being accepted “as a peer” by the generally innocuous Georgian poets, those purveyors of sentiment and pictures of the English countryside. But his poetry had before them moved sharply away from both the literary aestheticism of his youth and the either jingoistic or merely homesick poesy which had been the first two reactions to the war which, begun in August, 1914, was to be “over by Christmas.”

Just before the outbreak of war, Owen could write in his diary poems about wind murmuring in the leaves and birds singing. Such evidence of a boy’s experiments with sound and celebration of youth and a pastoral setting is obviously a young man’s conception of poetry, based not on any real experience but probably on an immature reading of Keats, Tennyson, and Swinburne. His last known poem, “Smile, Smile, Smile,” starkly illustrates how daydreams have turned into nightmares, the disingenuous into the ironic, aestheticism into social protest, beauty and truth into a deeply-felt pity which, while expressed with mature artistic detachment, is nonetheless a product of personal pain, fear, and moral outrage. The soldiers read the home-town paper and think of buying homes after the war. The poem also describes the stupid, callous, mawkish sentiment and blindness of the Home Front.

Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenburg, and Owen were the first poets to take another look at the war which had at first been regarded as a kind of sacred crusade. In his study of Owen, D. S. R. Welland writes of how, by about 1915, the emphasis in the anthologies of “war poetry” had shifted righteous nature of the crusade to the knightly crusader. The latter response merely replaced national glorification with self-pity, or, at best, evocations of better times in England. Obviously, neither reaction produced much in the way of an honest, fully human poetry. The old ways died hard.

The third reaction was one of protest, and Sassoon, perhaps, or Rosenburg, was most biting in satirical attack. Sassoon met Owen in a hospital in England, and Owen’s mature war poetry dates, roughly, from their long...

(The entire section is 1247 words.)