Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, England, on March 18, 1893, the first child of Tom and Susan Owen. Owen’s mother was a devout and cautious woman; his father was an active, rough-hewn, hardworking sort who was nostalgically attracted to the sea and those who sailed it. The early years of their marriage and Owen’s childhood were sometimes difficult, characterized by several moves, frequent if not severe financial difficulties, and tensions produced by his parents’ conflicting characters. Their union produced four children. Owen’s younger brother Harold became a successful artist and devoted much of his adult life to chronicling the life of his more famous war-poet brother.

Owen was sent to Birkenhead Institute for his first years of schooling; his father approved of the discipline for which the school was noted, but Owen probably profited most from an adoring teacher and early exposure to the pleasures of literature. He also showed a great interest in religious matters, much to the delight of his mother. In 1907, the family moved to Shrewsbury, where Owen enrolled in the technical school. There he read diligently and began to compose serious essays (some on politics, some on art theory) and put down his first attempts at verse.

Somewhat confused about his future after his matriculation examination at London University in 1911, Owen accepted an opportunity to become a lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden. His activities were many-faceted, from the intellectual (extensive reading and attending lectures) to the practical affairs of the parish (playing with children and assisting the poor). His poetry began to mature, not so much in its subject matter as in its increasing flexibility of language. For reasons that remain unclear, Owen became disenchanted with his commitment to the vicarage and left Dunsden. After a period of contemplation, during which he struggled with his health, he was offered, and he accepted, a post to teach English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. He enjoyed the experience and the climate was beneficial, even as the clouds of war gathered over Europe.

Because Owen was in France during the “exhilarating” first part of the war, a time when nationalism and enthusiasm for battle possessed young men like him in England, his wavering emotions regarding the conflict are understandable. He had left his job in late 1915 to assume a position as a private tutor to a well-to-do family in Merignac, France. His correspondence reveals a confused but honor-bound attitude toward his own responsibilities: appalled at the destruction and suffering so near by, confident and proud of his ability to serve, excited at the prospect of taking his gift for poetry into battle. He briefly investigated business opportunities, flirted with but rejected the idea of joining either the French army or the Italian cavalry, and in September, 1915, returned to England, where he enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles.

During his training, he sought not only to become a fine soldier but also to become familiar with many people active in the literary circles of London. He met Harold Monro of the Poetry Review and lived briefly in a flat adjacent to the magazine’s offices. Owen performed admirably as a soldier and claimed to enjoy his work, though he appeared uncomfortable, out of place with his peers. He was well liked, however, and in June, 1916, Second Lieutenant Owen was attached to the Fifth Battalion of the Manchester Regiment.

After a few months of polishing, Owen was sent with thousands of his fellows to the front. The Somme offensive, begun in July, 1916, had been stalled tragically for several months, and...

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war planners had determined to begin another push as the new year began. Immediately, Owen was struck by the difference between the grotesque reality of the war zone and the appallingly inaccurate depictions of the war at home. These sentiments, together with supportive vivid details, were relayed home regularly. Still, he took comfort in his devotion to duty and in writing, criticizing, and discussing poetry, pleasures that he never neglected.

Writing and fighting with distinction for six months, Owen showed signs of suffering from the strain and was finally sent to Craiglockhart military hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia, or shell shock. His stay there was to be crucial, not only for his health but for his poetic and intellectual development as well. Owen participated in many of the therapeutic activities offered by the hospital. Also at Craiglockhart was Siegfried Sassoon, the distinguished soldier, poet, and most recently a virulent antiwar spokesperson. The two became friends and eventually Sassoon became audience and critic for the work that began to reveal Owen’s growing artistry. Robert Graves, a friend of Sassoon and a regular visitor to the hospital, also encouraged Owen to continue his work. In December, Owen was dismissed and returned to London, where he pursued other contacts in the literary establishment. (Later, in 1920, Sassoon became responsible for collecting and publishing selections of Owen’s poetry.)

In spite of his increasing disgust at the carnage of battle, amply evident in his poems of this time, Owen was compelled to return to the war, and during the summer of 1918, he was granted permission to cross to France. Participating in the heavy fighting preceding and during the armistice talks, Owen became a respected and competent soldier, winning the military cross. Invigorated artistically by his friendship with prominent writers during his recuperation, he sent poems and lively letters back to England. On November 4, 1918, one week before the armistice, Owen was killed while leading his troops across the Sambre Canal.


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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry, England, on March 18, 1893, the son of Thomas and Susan Owen. A man who loved sports and male companionship, Owen’s father often had trouble understanding his son’s introspective nature and his love of books. Owen was much closer to his mother, Susan, who seemed to approve and encourage his interest in art and nature. When Owen was ten, his mother took him on a holiday excursion to Brixton by the Hill, a nature trip that Owen would later describe as his birth as a poet. Although Owen’s experiences in World War I would cause him to lose faith in his mother’s more orthodox Christianity, he still retained his love for her, writing in a letter that it was his mother and not his motherland (England) that gave him the strength to carry on during the heavy fighting.

At age eighteen, Owen found that he did not have enough money to attend the University of London. His mother, who had always wanted him to become a cleric, urged him to discover whether he might have a religious calling, and so Owen went to work as an unpaid lay assistant to a vicar in Dunsden, Oxfordshire. There, he helped with the care of the poor and sick in the parish, further developing the sympathetic nature that would speak so strongly in his later poetry. It was also as a parish worker that Owen began to believe that the Church of England did not do enough to help those in need. After leaving the parish and spending two years in France teaching languages, Owen returned to England in 1915. Believing that it was his duty to fight since his country was at war, Owen enlisted. The next time Owen journeyed to France, in January, 1917, he went as a commissioned officer to the Western Front in order to serve his country in World War I.

Like many young men of his generation, Owen went to war imagining that it would be a glorious adventure. Politicians had said that it was noble and heroic to die for one’s country; religious leaders had described the battle as a holy war and the men as Christian soldiers fighting in a just cause; poets through the ages had written war poems that made fighting sound like a romantic adventure, a chance for individuals to prove their strength in combat. Owen’s first letters from the front praised his company’s “fine heroic spirit” and romanticized the sound of its guns as having “a certain sublimity.”

Yet only two days later, after Owen had actually seen combat, the tone of his letters changed. Gone was the earlier belief in war as a heroic adventure. Now, Owen described the blasted battlefield as an “inferno” of “mud and thunder.” He admitted that his earlier visions of glory were horribly mistaken; politicians, priests, and poets were wrong about what it was like to be a soldier. On January 8, 1917, Owen and his men slogged through two and a half miles of trenches that had filled with rainwater, turning the dirt to heavy mud. Because of the constant firing, there was rarely any chance for soldiers to change their wet, frozen clothes. The shrill wail of incoming shells made it impossible for the men to get any sleep. One night, Owen was blown right out of his trench by a shell that landed only six feet away; he discovered that the officer next to him had been buried alive in the blast. On March 19, Owen was hospitalized for a brain concussion caused by an accidental fall into a fifteen-foot-deep shell hole. He seemed to recover, but after suffering from terrible headaches later diagnosed as symptoms of shell shock, Owen was sent back to a hospital in England to recuperate.

After being moved several times, Owen finally entered Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was there, in August, 1917, that he met Siegfried Sassoon, an army captain and poet who befriended Owen and encouraged him to write war poetry of his own. Sassoon’s antiwar poetry shocked the public and provoked Owen to write more realistic verse. Owen had been writing poems since his teens, but his early work was mostly sentimental nature and love poetry inspired by such English Romantic poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Under Sassoon’s influence, Owen began to write war poetry that revealed the true horrors of battle. Like other shell-shocked soldiers, Owen was accustomed to stammering when he spoke, but with Sassoon’s friendship and guidance, Owen became newly articulate, learning to speak and write poetry with confidence. Most of Owen’s best poems were written from August, 1917, to September, 1918, a short period of amazing productivity begun by his meeting with Sassoon and brought to a premature end by Owen’s death.

Owen returned to the fighting in France in August, 1918, believing that his firsthand experience of the horrors of battle would make him a more credible witness, enabling him to plead on the soldiers’ behalf for an end to the war. When Owen received the Military Cross in October, 1918, he was pleased, not for himself, but because he felt that winning this award for bravery in action would make more people believe him when he wrote poetry about the need to stop the war. Owen’s words of warning were not heard in time for his own life to be saved. At age twenty-five, trying to get his company across the Sambre Canal, north of Ors, France, Owen was killed by machine-gun fire on November 4, 1918, one week before the armistice.

Most of Owen’s poetry was published posthumously. Written by a decorated soldier who was killed in action, Owen’s poems may finally have had the extra credibility that he wanted for them. His friend and fellow soldier-poet, Sassoon, collected and published twenty-three Poems by Wilfred Owen (1920).