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."