Wilfred Owen’s poetry profoundly affected the public’s memory of World War I (then known as the Great War), turning it from a glorious conflict to a meaningless slaughter. Unfortunately, Owen was around to see the impact his words had. As a British soldier on the front, he died during the last week of the war in November 1918 as the final armistice was being negotiated.
Owen was born in 1893, the son a railway worker who moved to several different location when Wilfred was a boy. Wilfred was especially close to his mother, a relationship that lasted all his life and resulted in a large cache of letters to and from her written when he was a soldier at the front.
Early in his life Owen discovered a love of poetry, especially that of John Keats. He was also passionately Anglican and religious, and his reading of the Bible had a great effect on the poetic forms that he produced. In his early adulthood, he worked as an assistant for a vicar near Reading and became disillusioned with the Church of England and its failures to help those in need.
Owen enlisted in the British Army in 1915, more than a year after the war began, and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was sent to the Western front and soon saw firsthand many of the horrors that the war produced. He was wounded by a mortar shell and spent several days unconscious on an embankment along with the bodies fellow soldiers. Finally discovered, he was invalided back to a hospital in Edinburgh and treated for shell shock. There, he composed a great deal of poetry and met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow poet whose work Owen revered.
Sassoon and Owen spent a great deal of time together, and Sassoon had a great influence on Owen’s developing poetic voice. Despite Sassoon’s urgings to the contrary, Owen returned to the front in August 1918. He was killed three months later. His posthumous citation reads as follows:
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.
Owen should not be classified as an anti-war poet, but the images and concepts of his poetry have given anti-war activists plenty of ammunition.
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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.
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