Who Is Wilfred Owen?

Who is Wilfred Owen? This article will examine the life and poetic works of one of the best War Poets the world has ever known.

Acclaimed as one of the great World War I poets, Wilfred Owen has undoubtedly had more impact on the public conscience of the tragedy of war than any other writer of his generation. Posthumously, the poetry of Owen continues to sell in the hundreds of thousands. The First World War produced many literary works, but while many of his colleagues were writing poetry filled with sarcasm and cynicism at the injustices of war, Owen wrote in a more permanent, meaningful way, depicting the futility of the fighting, the terrible conditions the soldiers had to contend with in the trenches, in a powerful, sometimes understated but always compassionate and disturbing fashion.

His poetry has stood the test of time, and this article will examine the life and works of this poet who had tremendous impact on changing the public perceptions of war and on how poetry was subsequently written.

He was born on the 18th March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK, the first-born son to Tom and Susan Owen, who went on to have three more children. The family was relatively well off, and at the time of Wilfred's birth were living with his grandfather. When the old man died in 1897, the family moved to Birkenhead near Liverpool and for the next ten years they struggled financially living in the poorest districts of Birkenhead. Moving to Shrewsbury in 1907 was a turning point for the family and especially for young Wilfred. He loved the countryside, enjoying many afternoons exploring the hills and valleys close by. These early images of his childhood in Shrewsbury would feature heavily in his later poetry.

Owen was a serious, shy child who spent much of his time submerged in his books. His father struggled to understand him and indeed they never did have a close bond. Wilfred was closest to his mother, a domineering yet piously religious woman. Her dream was for Wilfred to enter the Church as an Anglican priest. Owen had other ideas.

On leaving school, he first took a job as a junior teacher, and in October of 1911, at the age of 18 he sat the qualifying exam for London University. He succeeded in passing, but only just. This immediately created a problem for his parents - they could not afford the fees and Wilfred failed to obtain a scholarship. His ambition to get a university education was thus thwarted.

Instead, he followed the wishes of his mother, accepting a non-paying job as the lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden, Oxfordshire. For his work he received board, food and tuition. It was while at Dunsden that he began to write poetry, including 'Happiness' and 'The End'.

His interests at this time were many and varied, including archaeology, geology, botany, astronomy and the arts. He enjoyed writing sonnets with his cousin and friends. During his time at Dunsden he also became aware of wider, world issues, most particularly, the abject poverty many of the parishoners contended with on a daily basis. He grew increasingly discouraged by the fact that the Church appeared to do nothing to relieve the suffering, preferring to ignore the sickness and abysmal conditions Owen observed when he visited the slums. Many of his later poems would reflect the compassion he felt for the human suffering he witnessed in Dunsden slums.

His disgust at the inactivity of the Church led him to renounce his faith and ultimately leave Dunsden for a teaching post at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France. There he taught English for long hours at low pay. France would, however, repeatedly draw Owen (he had visited Brittany with his father as a child).

In the summer of 1914, Owen met Laurent Tailhade, a published poet, who encouraged him to write more poetry. When the First World War erupted in Europe in August 1914, Owen was relatively indifferent to it. The following year he became the private tutor to a wealthy family in the Pyrenees, and he began to visit casualties of war in a Bordeaux Hospital. Watching the suffering of the War-wounded opened his eyes to what was happening in Europe, and he felt that he could no longer remain detached from it.

Returning to England in September of 1915 he enlisted on the 21st of October into the Artist's Rifles, and training began, continuing for fourteen months. He was then commissioned in 1916 as the 2nd Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, and by the winter of 1916-1917 had been drafted to the trenches in France. Nothing could have prepared Owen, or indeed any young soldier, for the conditions that met them in the trenches in France. Muddy, cold, wet, rat-infested troughs stretching across the ugly landscape of the Western Front. The constant shelling and use of gas, the filth and squalor, men lying blown to pieces - all of these horrendous sights met Owen during the worst winter of the war.

In April of 1917, during an attack on the village of Fayet, Owen was caught in an explosion. He spent the next few days, unhurt, beside the dismembered body of his fellow soldier, 2nd Lieutenant Gaukroger. On May 1st, Owen's Commanding Officer observed that he was behaving strangely, and Wilfred was sent to the Battalion's Medical Officer, who promptly diagnosed 'neurasthenia' or 'shell-shock', characterized by confusion, shaking, memory loss and horrendous nightmares.

He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to recover. While there he was treated by the controversial Captain Arthur Brock, a doctor who employed 'ergotherapy' or connecting shell-shocked soldiers back to reality by the use of work. Brock recommended that Owen write poetry to aid his recovery, which he did in copious amounts. In fact, most of his most famous poetry was written while at Craiglockhart. It was also here that he met another Great War poet - Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon was outspoken against the War, but he was also a good soldier. The military viewed him as a loose canon and sent him to Craiglockhart, wounded, but also in an attempt to silence him.

At the time Sassoon arrived at Craiglockhart, Owen had made contact with various literary circles in Edinburgh (through Dr. Brock's introduction) and had become the contributing editor of the hospital magazine 'The Hydra'. Owen introduced himself to Sassoon, on the pretext of being an 'aspiring poet'. Sassoon both praised and criticized Owen's poetry, but more importantly, he encouraged Owen to write about the War. Later, Sassoon admitted that he did not 'see' the depth of Owen's poetic talent at the time.

Writing about his war experiences did not come easily to Owen. He was having vivid nightmares and struggling with images and issues he found very difficult to deal with. Initially, he mimicked Sassoon's style, but quickly abandoned it for a voice of his own.

On leaving Craiglockhart, Owen met H.G. Wells and Robert Ross, who were two of Sassoon's contacts in London. He met with some publishing success when his poem 'Miners' appeared in 'The Nation' in January of 1918. It was also while in London that Owen met the poet Osbert Sitwell, who, along with Sassoon, would be later instrumental in promoting Owen's work.

By July 1918 he was sent back to the Western Front, and to widespread hysteria and mutinies among the clearly frightened Allied troops. The fears that the Allies could lose the War were mounting and anyone who objected to the fighting was labeled a 'conchie' (short for conscientious objector) and treated with tremendous suspicion.

The Allies directed a counteroffensive in August 1918, and Owen was in the thick of the fighting. He clearly believed that he would not survive the war, as indicated in his last letter home. Sure enough, he was killed on November 4th, 1918 (having recently won but never received the Military Cross for bravery), while crossing the Oise-Sambre Canal near Ors, just seven days before the War ended.

He was just one of approximately nine million fatalities. His parents received the telegram notifying them of their son's death just as the bells rang out at 11 am on the 11th November 1918, to announce the Armistice.

Owen's poetry has survived the test of time, and is often seen by literary circles as a bridge between the last (or Victorian era) and the 21st century. He had been influenced by the 'Aesthetic School' (where the 'music' and not the content of a poem was all-important), the late Victorian poets (like Tennyson, Wilde etc) and the later Romantic Poets (like Keats and Shelley). He also developed a style of his own using Para rhyme and half rhyme to create dissonance and feelings of melancholy, disorientation and despair in his poetry.

His most famous poems are probably: 'Dulce et Decorum Est" (an antipatriotic poem which highlighted that it was not, despite what Homer said, an honor to die for ones country, but rather a pitiful waste of young lives), "Strange Meeting" (depicting a scenario where two soldiers from opposite sides meet in Hell), "Anthem for Doomed Youth"(poignantly depicting the futility of War) and "Apologia pro Poemate Meo".

Buried in the small northern French village of Ors, Owen's poetry remains as some of the best known in the English language. His legacy, depicting the horrendous impact the First World War had on a whole generation of young men, continues to stir emotions in all who read his poetry today. As Owen himself said: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity". His words ring true in their poignancy for our generation and for generations to come. People who might consider War as the only option - Owen's poetry and the man himself would champion the alternatives.

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