Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English and Welsh poet and soldier, regarded by many as one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his friend Siegfried Sassoon and sat 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. Some of his best-known works—most of which were published posthumously—include "Dulce et Decorum Est", "Insensibility", "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His preface intended for a book of poems to be published in 1919 contains numerous well-known phrases, especially "War, and the pity of War", and "the Poetry is in the pity".
He is perhaps just as well-known for having been killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre just a week before the war ended, causing News of his death to reach home as the town's church bells declared peace.
Early life Owen was born the eldest of four children at Plas Wilmot, a house near Oswestry in Shropshire on 18 March 1893 of mixed English and Welsh ancestry. At that time, his parents, Thomas and Susan Owen, lived in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather, but, on his death in 1897, the family was forced to move to lodgings in the back streets of Birkenhead. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School (now The Wakeman School), and discovered his vocation in 1903 or 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. Owen was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical school, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which was to last throughout his life. His early influences included the 'big six' of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats, and, as with many other writers of the time, the Bible.
Shortly after leaving school in 1911, Owen passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship (his studies suffered as Owen mourned the loss of his uncle and role model, Edgar Hilton, to a hunting accident) which in his family's circumstances were the only way he could afford to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam, Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading and as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School. He then attended classes at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading), in botany and later, at the urging of the head of the English Department free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the church, both in its ceremony and its lack of aid for those in need.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French.
War service On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. In January 1917 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with 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 wrote to his mother calling his company '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 in 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 whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart that he was to meet fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter which was to transform Owen's life.
After a period of convalescence in Scotland, 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. A number of poems were composed in Ripon, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly in Ripon Cathedral.
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 by an enemy rifle and was killed. The News of his death, on 4 November 1918, was to be given to his mother on Armistice Day. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross, an award which he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet.
Poetry Owen is regarded by historians as the leading poet of the First World War, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare. He had been writing poetry for some years before the war, himself dating his poetic beginnings to a stay at Broxton by the Hill, when he was ten years old. Early influences included Keats and Shelly who were Romantic poets of the time. They were responsible for much of Owen's early writing and poetry. His great friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon later had a profound effect on Owen's poetic voice, and Owen's most famous poems ("Dulce et Decorum Est" and "Anthem for Doomed Youth") show direct results of Sassoon's influence. The novel Regeneration by Pat Barker shows this relationship closely. 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 consonance, was innovative, 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 for his poetry itself, it underwent significant changes in 1917. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, 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.
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, as well as support from Edith Sitwell and the editing of his poems into a new anthology in 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured his 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.
Though he had plans for a volume of verse, for which he had written a "Preface", he never saw his own work published apart from those poems he included in The Hydra, the magazine he edited at the Craiglockhart War Hospital.
Owen had many other influences on his poetry, including his mother, with whom he remained close throughout his life. His letters to her provide us with insight into Owen's life at the front, as well as the development of his philosophy regarding the war. Graphic details of the horror Owen witnessed were never spared.
Owen's experiences with religion also heavily influenced his poetry, notably in poems such as Anthem for Doomed Youth, in which the ceremony of a funeral is reenacted not in a church, but on the battlefield itself. Owen's experiences in war led him to further challenge his religious beliefs, claiming in his poem Exposure that 'love of God seems dying'.
These influences built on his pre-war interest in Romantic poetry, and especially that of John Keats.
Relationship with Sassoon Owen held Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother about Sassoon that he was "not worthy to light his pipe". On being discharged from Craiglockhart, Owen was stationed on home-duty in Scarborough for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, which included Robert Ross and Robert Graves. He also met H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and it was during this period he developed the stylistic voice for which he is now recognised. Many of his early poems were penned while stationed at the Clarence Garden Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel in Scarborough's North Bay. A blue tourist plaque on the hotel marks its association with Owen.
Robert Graves and Sacheverell Sitwell (who also personally knew him) have stated Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry. Through Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which included Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, writer and poet Osbert Sitwell, and Scottish writer C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work. Historians have debated whether Owen had an affair with Scott-Moncrieff in May 1918; Scott-Moncrieff had dedicated various works to a "Mr W.O.", but Owen never responded.
The account of Owen's sexual development has been somewhat obscured because his brother, Harold Owen, removed what he considered discreditable passages in Owen's letters and diaries after the death of their mother. Owen also requested that his mother burn a sack of his personal papers in the event of his death, which she did.
Death In July 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, although he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. His decision was almost wholly the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England. Sassoon, who had been shot in the head in a so-called friendly fire incident, was put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his patriotic duty to take Sassoon's place at the front, that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. Sassoon was violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to "stab him in the leg" if he tried it. Aware of his attitude, Owen did not inform him of his action until he was once again in France.
Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. There are memorials to Wilfred Owen at Gailly, Ors, Oswestry, and Shrewsbury.
On 11 November 1985, Owen was one of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone is taken from Owen's "Preface" to his poems; "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." There is also a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building.
Literary output Only five of Owen's poems had been published before his death, one of which was in fragmentary form. His best known poems include "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Dulce Et Decorum Est", "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" and "Strange Meeting". Some of his poems feature in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
Owen's full unexpurgated opus is in the academic two-volume work The Complete Poems and Fragments (1994) by Jon Stallworthy. Many of his poems have never been published in popular form.
In 1975 Mrs. Harold Owen, Wilfred's sister-in-law, donated all of the manuscripts, photographs and letters which her late husband had owned to the University of Oxford's English Faculty Library. As well as the personal artifacts this also includes all of Wilfred's personal library and an almost complete set of The Hydra—the magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital. These can be accessed by any member of the public on application in advance to the English Faculty librarian.
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin holds a large collection of Wilfred Owen's family correspondence.
Depictions in popular culture Owen's stature as an archetypal war poet has meant references to him and his work are commonplace in popular culture.
Pat Barker's 1991 historical novel Regeneration describes the meeting and relationship between Sassoon and Owen, acknowledging that, from Sassoon's perspective, the meeting had a profoundly significant effect on Owen. Owen's treatment with his own doctor, Arthur Brock, is also touched upon briefly. Owen's death is described in the third book of Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The Ghost Road. In the 1997 film he was played by Stuart Bunce. The play Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald also takes as its subject matter the friendship between Owen and Sassoon, and begins with their meeting at Craiglockhart during World War I. Owen was mentioned as a source of inspiration for one of the correspondents in the epistolary novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
Owen himself is the subject of the 2007 BBC docudrama Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale, in which he is played by Samuel Barnett. His poetry has been reworked into various formats, such as The Ravishing Beauties' recording of Owen's poem Futility in an April 1982 John Peel session. Benjamin Britten incorporated nine Owen poems into his War Requiem, opus 66, along with words from the Latin Mass for the Dead (Missa pro Defunctis). The Requiem was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, and first performed there on 30 May 1962. A screen adaptation was made by Derek Jarman in 1988, with the 1963 recording as the soundtrack.