Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen plate from Poems (1920).jpg
Born 18 March 1893
Oswestry, Shropshire, England
Died 4 November 1918(1918-11-04) (aged 25)
Sambre–Oise Canal, France
Nationality British
Period World War I
Genre War poem

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier, 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 and mentor Siegfried Sassoon, and stood in stark contrast both to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are "Dulce et Decorum est", "Insensibility", "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility" and "Strange Meeting".

Early life

Wilfred Owen was born on 18 March 1893 at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane, near Oswestry in Shropshire. He was of mixed English and Welsh ancestry and the eldest of Thomas and Harriet Susan (née Shaw)'s four children; his siblings were Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen. When he was born, Wilfred's parents lived in a comfortable house owned by Wilfred's grandfather, Edward Shaw, but after the latter's death in January 1897, and the house's sale in March,[1] the family lodged in back streets of Birkenhead while Thomas temporarily worked in the town with the railway company employing him. In April, Thomas later transferred to Shrewsbury, where the family lived with Thomas' parents in Canon Street.[2]

In 1898, Thomas transferred to Birkenhead again when he became stationmaster at Woodside station,[2] and the family lived with him at three successive homes in the Tranmere district,[3] before moving back to Shrewsbury in 1907.[4] Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute [5] and at Shrewsbury Technical School (later known as the Wakeman School).

He discovered his poetic 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 lasted throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the "big six" of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats.

Owen's last two years of formal education saw him as a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury.[6] In 1911, he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship, which in his family's circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.

In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam (this has been questioned[citation needed]) Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading.[7] During this time he 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, took free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the Church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.

From 1912 he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France, and later with a family. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French.[8] When war broke out, Owen did not rush to enlist - and even considered the French army - but eventually returned to England.[7]

War service

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.[9] Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as "expressionless lumps".[10] However, his imaginative existence was to be changed dramatically by a number of traumatic experiences. He fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out on an embankment in Savy Wood amongst (or so he thought) the remains of a fellow officer. Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or 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.

Whilst at Craiglockhart, he made friends in Edinburgh's artistic and literary circles, and did some teaching at the Tynecastle High School, in a poor area of the city. In November he was discharged from Craiglockhart, judged fit for light regimental duties. He spent a contented and fruitful winter in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and in March 1918 was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon.[11] While in Ripon he composed or revised a number of poems, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly at Ripon Cathedral, which is dedicated to his namesake, St. Wilfrid of Hexham.

In July 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, although he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. His decision was probably the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England, after being shot in the head in an apparent "friendly fire" incident, and put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his duty to add his voice to that of Sassoon, 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.

At the very end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line - perhaps imitating the example of his admired friend Sassoon. On 1 October 1918 Owen led units of the Second Manchesters to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. 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.[12] 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.[13]


Owen's grave, in Ors communal cemetery

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.[7] He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.[14]


Owen is regarded by many as the greatest poet of the First World War,[15] 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.[16] The Romantic poets Keats and Shelley influenced 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. 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 heavy reliance on assonance 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.

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 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.


His poetry itself 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.

Owen's poems had the benefit of strong patronage, and it was a combination of Sassoon's influence, support from Edith Sitwell, and the preparation of a new and fuller edition of the poems 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.[7] 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 Craiglockhart War Hospital, and "Miners", which was published in The Nation.

There were many other influences on Owen's poetry, including his mother. His letters to her provide an insight into Owen's life at the front, and 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 re-enacted not in a church, but on the battlefield itself, and "At a Calvary near the Ancre", which comments on the Crucifixion of Christ. Owen's experiences in war led him further to challenge his religious beliefs, claiming in his poem "Exposure" that "love of God seems dying".

Only five of Owen's poems were published before his death, one in fragmentary form. His best known poems include "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Futility", "Dulce Et Decorum Est", "The Parable of the Old Men and the Young" and "Strange Meeting".

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 Owen'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 Owen's family correspondence.

An important turning point in Owen scholarship occurred in 1987 when the New Statesman published a stinging polemic 'The Truth Untold' by Jonathan Cutbill,[18] the literary executor of Edward Carpenter, which attacked the academic suppression of Owen as a poet of homosexual experience.[19] Amongst the points it made was that the poem "Shadwell Stair", previously alleged to be mysterious, was a straightforward elegy to homosexual soliciting in an area of the London docks once renowned for it.

Relationship with Sassoon

Owen held Siegfried Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother that he was "not worthy to light [Sassoon's] pipe". The relationship clearly had a profound impact on Owen, who wrote in his first letter to Sassoon after leaving Craiglockhart "You have fixed my life-however short". Owen, writing that he took "an instinctive liking to him",[20] and recalled their time together "with affection."[21] On the evening of 3 November 1917, they parted, Owen having been discharged from Craiglockhart. He 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 Robbie 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[22] and Sacheverell Sitwell[23] (who also personally knew him) stated that Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry.[24][25][26][27] 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 Marcel Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work.[28][29] 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.",[30] but Owen never responded.[31]

Throughout Owen's lifetime and for decades after, homosexual activity between men was a punishable offence in British law and 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.[32] Andrew Motion wrote of Owen's relationship with Sassoon: "On the one hand, Sassoon's wealth, posh connections and aristocratic manner appealed to the snob in Owen: on the other, Sassoon's homosexuality admitted Owen to a style of living and thinking that he found naturally sympathetic." [33]

Sassoon and Owen kept in touch through correspondence, and after Sassoon was shot in the head in July 1918 and sent back to England to recover, they met in August and spent what Sassoon described as "the whole of a hot cloudless afternoon together." [34] They never saw each other again. Around three weeks later, Owen wrote to bid Sassoon farewell, as he was on the way back to France, and they continued to communicate. After the Armistice, Sassoon waited in vain for word from Owen, only to be told of his death several months later. The loss grieved Sassoon greatly, and he was never "able to accept that disappearance philosophically." [35]


There are memorials to Owen at Gailly,[36] Ors,[37] Oswestry,[38] Birkenhead (Central Library) and Shrewsbury.[39]

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.[40] 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."[41] There is also a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building.

The forester's house in Ors where Owen spent his last night, Maison forestière de l'Ermitage, has been transformed by Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson into an art installation and permanent memorial to Owen and his poetry, which opened to the public on 1 October 2011.[42]

Susan Owen's letter to Tagore marked, Shrewsbury, 1 August 1920, reads: "I have been trying to find courage to write to you ever since I heard that you were in London ~ but the desire to tell you something is finding its way into this letter today. The letter may never reach you, for I do not know how to address it, tho’ I feel sure your name upon the envelope will be sufficient. It is nearly two years ago, that my dear eldest son went out to the War for the last time and the day he said goodbye to me ~ we were looking together across the sun-glorified sea ~ looking towards France, with breaking hearts ~ when he, my poet son, said those wonderful words of yours ~ beginning at ‘When I go from hence, let this be my parting word’ ~ and when his pocket book came back to me ~ I found these words written in his dear writing ~ with your name beneath." [43]

Depictions in popular culture

In print and film

Stephen MacDonald's play Not About Heroes (first performed in 1982) takes as its subject matter the friendship between Owen and Sassoon, and begins with their meeting at Craiglockhart during World War I.[44]

Pat Barker's historical novel Regeneration (1991) also describes the meeting and relationship between Sassoon and Owen,[45] 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 (1995).[46] In the 1997 film Regeneration, Stuart Bunce played Owen.[47]

Owen is the subject of the BBC docudrama Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale (2007), in which he is played by Samuel Barnett.[48]

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 (2008), by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.[49]

In music

His poetry has been reworked into various formats. For example, Benjamin Britten incorporated nine of Owen's poems into his War Requiem, 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.[50] Derek Jarman adapted it to the screen in 1988, with the 1963 recording as the soundtrack.[51]

The Ravishing Beauties recorded Owen's poem "Futility" in an April 1982 John Peel session.[52]

Also in 1982, 10,000 Maniacs recorded a song titled "Anthem for Doomed Youth", loosely based on the poem, in Fredonia, New York. The recording appeared on their first EP release Human Conflict Number Five and later on the compilation Hope Chest. Also appearing on the Hope Chest album was the song "The Latin One", a reference to the title of Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" on which the song is based.

Additionally in 1982, singer Virginia Astley set the poem "Futility" to music she had composed.[53]

In 2010, local Wirral musician Dean Johnson created the musical Bullets and Daffodils, based on music set to Owen's poetry.[54]


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  22. Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That: An Autobiography, NY, 1929 ("Owen was an idealistic homosexual"); 1st edn only: quote subsequently excised. See: Cohen, Joseph Conspiracy of Silence, New York Review of Books, Vol. 22, No. 19.
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External links