18th March celebrates the birth of a fine poet and soldier Wilfred Owen
March 18th celebrates the birthday of a man. Not just an ordinary man, a man who never had the opportunity to live his life to it’s fullest potential. He was killed just 1 week before Armistice Day in 1918 as the young age of 25. Born in Oswestry in the County of Shropshire in England – ‘a green and pleasant land’ in 1893 he was to become known as one of the most respected poets of World War 1.
Wilfred Owen was a remarkable young man. When he died he was just 25 years old, but his poetry has proved enduring and influential and is among the best known in the English language. He left behind a unique testament to the horrific impact of the First World War on an entire generation of young soldiers.
He did at one point in his life wish to become a Priest. His Mother, Susan, has passed on her religious beliefs but he began to question the difference between Religion and Science and was horrified when working at an unpaid post as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden, Oxfordshire, in return for board, lodgings and tuition. The slums, the near starvation and child mortality rate had a deep and lasting effect on him. C. Day Lewis noted that the powerful “indignant compassion” for suffering humanity that permeated many of his greatest poems could be traced, not to his experiences on the Western Front but to the slums of Dunsden.
In September of 1912 he had moved to the French town of Bordeaux to teach English there at the Berlitz School of Language. In the early summer of 1914 Owen met for the first time a published poet, Laurent Tailhade. Owen was very much encouraged by Tailhade’s favourable criticism of his early works, but still he was undecided as to the path he should choose in life.
August 3rd 1914 Germany declared war on France a gradual build-up of occurrences since June 28th that year when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian activist. August 4th Britain declared War on Germany and so was to begin the fierce fighting which would continue until November 11th 1918.
Throughout the next year Owen went through several jobs. He visited a Bordeaux hospital where casualties had started arriving from the front. The hospital was grossly ill-equipped to deal with such an emergency, and Owen witnessed operations being performed without anaesthetic. Confronted by the realities of war for the first time, his deep sense of shock was evident in his letters home. He felt he could no longer stand aloof from what was happening around him. He enlisted on October 15th 1915. In a letter home he quoted a remark by the French romantic writer Vigny in a letter, “If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the ranks.”
Over a 14th month period during his training in various parts of England he was to meet Harold Monro ( http://oldpoetry.com/oauthor/show/Harold_Monro ) in a book shop. Monro was “very struck” by Owen’s sonnets and went over them in great detail. Like Tailhade, Monro had written poems that decried the war. He was one of several influential writers with whom Owen came into contact, who either had reservations about the war or opposed it outright.
1916 was a very busy year for Owen. He was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment in the summer, and by the end of the year the schoolteacher had been transformed into a toughened, capable officer. His pale complexion was now more tanned and he had grown in physical stature. The worst winter of the War was that of 1916 as Owen arrived back in France. The task of his detachment was to retain positions in no-man’s land in the Beaumont Hamel area. These experiences were later set down in Exposure (http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/3340-Wilfred-Owen-Exposure ) and The Sentry (http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/6999-Wilfred-Owen-The-Sentry )
In April of 1917 he was to suffer a most horrendous experience. He was caught in a shell explosion which killed many of his friends. He was forced to spend days with their dismembered remains. When found he was diagnosed with shell-Shock, transported back to England and it was this experience which was later to be known as the beginning of his career and reputation as a poet.
He stayed for quite some time at the Craiglockhart Hospital where he was to meet Siegfried Sassoon ( http://oldpoetry.com/oauthor/show/Siegfried_Sassoon ) this was a crucial point in his career as a poet. He began to write copious poems of his experiences and those of others and the sights and sounds he had witnessed.
For a brief period he became known as a minor literary figure, even though many had still never seen his works. In January, following a colliery disaster, Owen wrote Miners (http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/11310-Wilfred-Owen-Miners ) which was published in The Nation. Around this time, Owen became acquainted with another noted poet, Osbert Sitwell,( http://oldpoetry.com/oauthor/show/Osbert_Sitwell ) who did so much after the war to promote Owen’s works. In June 1918 Owen was graded fit for general service and the following month returned to the front for the final time.
Owen was redrafted to France by the end of August, just as the Allied forces were preparing the counteroffensive. His letters of this time are all written in a very solemn tone. The record left by his brother makes clear that Owen did not expect to return from France. His final message to his mother contained a quote from Tagore’s Gitanjali: “When I go from here, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.” http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/33283-Rabindranath-Tagore-Gitanjali
Owen experienced a deep horror and disgust at the reality of war, but had to reconcile this with his sense of duty to fight along with his generation. He shared with his peers the feeling of frustration and anger at the outright indifference of the “men in power” to the suffering in the trenches, and the perceived ignorance amongst the “civilians”. He also echoed the common sentiment on the front that a whole generation of young men were being senselessly slaughtered by an older layer of politicians and generals–and that the latter were worthy of far more contempt than any German soldier.
Owen’s work leaves one with an enduring sense of the tragedy of war. He used his strong sense of indignation to create a feeling of compassion for the soldier. He would attempt to fix the scenery of the war firmly in the mind of the reader and in this way more poignantly stress the tremendous suffering that constitutes “the pity of war”.
In ‘The Parable of the Old man and the Young,’ http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/13677-Wilfred-Owen-The-Parable-Of-The-Old-Man-And-The-Young
‘The Next War’ was written as an extension of the mindset of the soldiers thoughts. http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/11311-Wilfred-Owen-The-Next-War These men had already seen so much death their language was spilling over with thoughts of death and destruction.
Owen’s best loved and the poem said to be his finest was ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/3336-Wilfred-Owen-Dulce-Et-Decorum-Est-Pro-Patria-Mori – this is a poem which describes the Gas attacks in the trenches and has a haunting, the realistic tone that cannot be denied.
t one point Wilfred Owen’s platoon was engulfed by a green cloud of poison gas, later described in the poem Dulce et Decorum Est (Latin for It is Sweet and Glorious).
One man, too slow with his gas mask, chokes to death.
Owen wrote: “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
‘Strange Meeting’: http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/3338-Wilfred-Owen-Strange-Meeting
Once again we see the phrase ‘The Pity of War’ repeated in this poem.
The manuscript of this poem(can be seen in ‘The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry – J Silkin page 191. A Strange and fascinating story of 2 men from opposing sides, realising they are now dead:
“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.”
Owen wrote a letter to his friend Siegfried Sassoon on his return to the Front in 1918:
He wrote: “And you have fixed my life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.”
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was awarded the Military Cross in October 1918 and was killed on November 4th one day before he was to receive his promotion to Lieutenant. With only 5 published poems to his credit a full volume of his poetry was later published by Siegfried Sassoon.
Written with the assistance of Encyclopaedia Britannica
13th March 2007
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