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A Poet of the Great War: Wilfred Owen


Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier. He is regarded by many as the leading poet of "the Great War". His work is shocking and realistic with its focus upon the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks. He was heavily influenced by his friend Siegried Sassoon. His poems had nothing to do with the public perception of war at the time or the patriotic verse written by earlier "war poets". Most of his best-known work was published posthumously (Dulce Et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility, Strange Meeting...). It was stated that Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism indeed is a central element in much of Owen's poetry. He was killed in action on 4 November at the Battle of the Sambre, just a week before the war ended. The news of his death reached home as the town's church bells declared peace...

Owen started the war as a cheerful man, but traumatic experiences soon changed him forever. Leading his platoon into battle, for instance, he got trapped for three days in a shell-hole. Owen suffered from shell shock and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. There he met his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The poetry of Wilfred Owen underwent significant changes in 1917. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, his doctor encouraged him to translate his experiences into poetry, and specifically the events he relived in his dreams. Siegried Sassoon, influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, showed him through example what poetry could do. His use of satire fascinated Owen, who tried writing in Sassoon's style. Sassoon became one of Owen's first editors.

In the summer of 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, although he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. But his friend Sassoon, who had been shot in the head, was put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war and Owen saw it as his duty to take the place of his friend at the front, so that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. Sassoon was opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to stab him in the leg. So Owen did not inform him until he was once again in France.

In October 1918, after returning to the front, second lieutenant Wilfred Owen led units of the Second Manchesters to storm some enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. For his courage and leadership, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. Wilfred Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. There are memorials to him at Gailly, Ors, Oswestry and Shrewsbury and there is a small museum dedicated to Owen and his friend Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, that is now a Napier University building.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

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 good-byes.

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.

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Wilfred Owen's life and works commemorated after Remembrance Day (Armistice / Veterans Day)

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Strange Meeting

Written in 1918. Version presented here is that found in the 1920 edition of "Poems" by Wilfred Owen.

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;

Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

"Strange friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."

"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world,

Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,

But mocks the steady running of the hour,

And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something has been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery;

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;

To miss the march of this retreating world

Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,

Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

I would have poured my spirit without stint

But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.

Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now . . ."

(This poem was found among the author's papers. It ends on this strange note)

Another Version

Earth's wheels run oiled with blood. Forget we that.

Let us lie down and dig ourselves in thought.

Beauty is yours and you have mastery,

Wisdom is mine and I have mystery.

We two will stay behind and keep our troth.

Let us forego men's minds that are brute's natures,

Be we not swift with swiftness of the tigrees.

Let us break ranks from those who trek from progress.

Miss we the march of this retreating world

Into old citadels that are not walled.

Let us lie out and hold the open truth.

Then when their blood hath clogged the chariot wheels

We will go up and wash them from deep wells.

What though we sink from men as pitchers falling

Many shall raise us up to be their filling

Even from wells we sunk too deep for war

And filled by brows that bled where no wounds were.

Alternative Line--

Even as One who bled where no wounds were.

Futility - music: Virginia Astley


Move him into the sun -

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, -

Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,

Full-nerved, - still warm, - too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth's sleep at all?

First World War


hana' khalief ghani on October 03, 2012:

i am writing a paper about Owen's poetry from a psychoanalytic approach, please if you have suggestions as to how tackle this theme, let me know

Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on May 03, 2010:

Thanks for this interesting hub...I came across Wilfred Owen last year while I was researching for an assignment. His poetry is a very powerful voice against war I think.


C. Jordan on April 06, 2009:

An excellent article about one of my favourite poets.

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