Well here we are – the big man at last. Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) is perhaps the greatest of all the war poets. His
shocking, realistic depiction of the horrors of trenches and gas warfare, heavily influenced by his friend Siegfried Sassoon, stood in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time, and to the confidently patriotic verse written earlier by war poets such as Rupert Brooke. You know the drill, what follows is mostly the work of Mr. Wikipedia.
Prior to the war, having been educated at Wakeman School and what is now the University of Reading, Owen worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France.
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4 June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. Owen started the war as a cheerful and optimistic man, but he soon changed forever. Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as “expressionless lumps”. However, Owen’s outlook on the war was to be changed dramatically after two traumatic experiences. Firstly, he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing among the remains of a fellow officer. Soon after, he became trapped for days in an old German dugout. After these two events, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was while recuperating at Craiglockhart that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter that was to transform Owen’s life… [dun dun dun! Sorry Mr. Wikipedia, you know we’re just playing around here].
After a period of convalescence in Northern Ireland, then a short spell working as a teacher in nearby Tynecastle High School, he returned to light regimental duties. In March 1918, he was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. After returning to the front, Owen led units of the Second Manchesters on 1 October 1918 to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. However, only one week before the end of the war, whilst attempting to traverse a canal, he was shot in the head and killed. The news of his death, on 4 November 1918, was given to his mother on Armistice Day. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was awarded the Military Cross, an award he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet, but the award was not gazetted until 15 February 1919. The citation followed on 30 July 1919:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
As our dear friend at Wikipedia oh so subtly implied earlier, Owen’s meeting with Sassoon at Craiglockhart had a profound effect on the former’s poetic voice, and his most famous poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth (both below) show direct results of Sassoon’s influence. Manuscript copies of the poems survive, annotated in Sassoon’s handwriting. Owen’s poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. While his use of pararhyme, with its heavy reliance on assonance, was innovative [apparently – who knows what that means] he was not the only poet at the time to use these particular techniques. He was, however, one of the first to experiment with it extensively. As a part of his therapy, Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry. Sassoon, who was becoming influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, aided him here, showing Owen through example what poetry could do. Sassoon’s use of satire influenced Owen, who tried his hand at writing “in Sassoon’s style”. Further, the content of Owen’s verse was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon. Sassoon’s emphasis on realism and “writing from experience” was contrary to Owen’s hitherto romantic-influenced style, as seen in his earlier sonnets. Owen was to take both Sassoon’s gritty realism and his own romantic notions and create a poetic synthesis that was both potent and sympathetic, as summarised by his famous phrase “the pity of war”. In this way, Owen’s poetry is quite distinctive, and he is, by many, considered a greater poet than Sassoon. Nonetheless, Sassoon contributed to Owen’s popularity by his strong promotion of his poetry, both before and after Owen’s death, and his editing was instrumental in the making of Owen as a poet. [Anyone else sensing some strong love for the S. man?]
Thousands of poems were published during the war, but very few of them had the benefit of such strong patronage, and it is as a result of Sassoon’s influence [surprise surprise], as well as support from Edith Sitwell and the editing of his poems into a new anthology in 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured Owen’s popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960s which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye.
Now for the tricky part… Every one of Owen’s poems deserves a mention. After great deliberation I have selected three, the last of which is typically considered to be the best poem of the war. I hope you enjoy them.
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. Inspection ‘You! What d’you mean by this?’ I rapped.
‘You dare come on parade like this?’
‘Please, sir, it’s -‘ ”Old yer mouth,’ the sergeant snapped.
‘I takes ‘is name, sir?’ – ‘Please, and then dismiss.’ Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,
For being ‘dirty on parade’.
He told me, afterwards, the damned spot
Was blood, his own. ‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said. ‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’ Dulce et Decorum est (sets the bar for the rest of us. See here for an analysis) Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.