Wilfred Owen Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

ph_0111201668-Owen.jpg Wilfred Owen Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Like many of the poets and artists of his time, Wilfred Owen professed a strong interest in the theater and supposedly drafted a play while recovering from shell shock in Craiglockhart military hospital in 1917, although no manuscript has appeared. Owen’s letters, which have been collected, deserve mention for two reasons. First, the style reflects both the poetic temper of the man and the adherence to detail reflective of an age of correspondence that will probably never return. Second, and perhaps more important, Owen’s letters record the transitions typical of most British soldiers who survived on the front for a long time: from resolve to do the soldier’s duty, to disgust, fear, and depression, to the solemn acceptance of fate that extended service produced. One is fascinated by Owen’s attempt to depict his life on the front for his naïve family and friends, as well as his ability to do so in spite of censorship.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Many commentators have emphasized that Wilfred Owen exhibited more potential to continue and enlarge the craft of poetry than any of the soldier-poets of World War I. He was a technician, an innovator, a “poet’s poet” long before he was a proud soldier, a horrified combatant, and a victim. The kinds of criticisms applied to Rupert Brooke (immature, too much style, and too little substance) or Siegfried Sassoon (limited, more propaganda than art) have little validity when it comes to Owen. Indeed, in spite of his early death and limited canon, several twentieth century poets (among them W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender) have publicly stated their admiration for Owen’s work or have used or expanded his methods. A notable dissenting voice is that of William Butler Yeats, who shocked many writers and critics by excluding Owen’s work from his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). Yeats defended his decision in a famous venomous blast, writing to Dorothy Wellesley that Owen was “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper. He is all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick . . . (he calls poets, ’bards,’ a girl a ’maid,’ and talks about ’Titanic wars’). There is every excuse for him, but none for those who like him.”

Owen’s champions, however, far outnumber his detractors. It is true that all his work, from earliest to latest, is characterized by a kind of romantic embellishment, an intensity that borders on parody. This was more of a problem early in his career; as he matured, he assimilated the devices of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron (among others), creating effective juxtapositions and dramatic tensions. This...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Which idea does Wilfred Owen’s poetry convey better: that people can and must overcome the tendency to go to war, or that, given human nature, war is inevitable?

Are the disabled soldiers you have heard about like the one in Owen’s “Disabled,” or are they more positive—or is it impossible for other people to know?

Discuss Owen’s use of sonnets as forms to describe war experiences (including “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which is very much like two sonnets wrapped together).

Does Owen’s war experience assist or damage his poem “Miners”?

Had Owen not died a few days before the armistice, would he have been maligned as a bitter opponent of a heroic military endeavor?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Breen, Jennifer. Wilfred Owen: Selected Poetry and Prose. London: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1988. Breen does an excellent job of giving a brief analysis of Owen’s major poems and supports her opinions by subjectively looking at his personal correspondence to gain insight for her analysis. Contains a limited bibliography.

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: A New Biography. Chicago: I. R. Dee, 2003. A fine biography, well-documented and engaging. Hibberd’s detailed look at Owen’s life discusses previously unexplored territory.

Hipp, Daniel. The Poetry of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, and Siegfried Sassoon. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Contains a chapter on Owen, focusing on the topic of shell shock in his poetry.

Owen, Wilfred. Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters. Edited by Harold Owen and John Bell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Follows the life of Owen from the time he was five until his death at the age of twenty-five, through his letters to his family and friends. Includes an index.

Purkis, John. A Preface to Wilfred Owen. London: Longman, 1999. A brief biographical and critical introduction to Owen and his work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Simcox, Kenneth. Wilfred Owen: Anthem for a Doomed Youth. London: Woburn, 1987. Begins with Owen’s interaction with his family, focusing on his influential mother. His religious background is highlighted as Simcox reviews the major issues in Owen’s poetry, amply augmented with examples from his primary works. Includes an index.

Stallworthy, Jon, ed. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. An intensive study into the chronological sequence of 103 poems and 12 fragments by Owen. Factual footnotes allow readers a concise foundation from which to formulate their own explications.

_______. Wilfred Owen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A full and sensitive illustrated biography of the short-lived poet and war hero. Appendixes offer genealogies, fragments of previously unpublished poems, a bibliography of Owen’s library, and an index.

White, Gertrude. Wilfred Owen. New York: Twayne, 1969. Traces Owen’s maturation as a poet from dreamy, romantic imagery to the harsh realities of World War I. Includes a bibliography and an index.