Happy Birthday, Wilfred Owen

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Wilfred Owen (now known as one of the best “war poets” of World War I) was born on this day in 1893. He was killed in battle in 1918 just seven days before the Armistice. He was 25 years old.

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Owen was unpublished during his lifetime. Along with Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, he is one of those rare poets who can express the horror of war not from an abstract point of view but from first-hand participation. (Yeats disagreed. He did not include Owen, or any of the WWI “war poets”, in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. Yeats wrote that Owen’s poems were “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper”.)

One of the most amazing things about these poems is the specific dates jotted on them, noting when they were written: September-October, 1917 / January 1918, etc. Those dates alone tell you everything. Mud. Trenches. Trenches since 1914. Horror. Horror horizontally horror from above. Those dates mean that Owen was crouching in a trench scribbling out these poems. There was nowhere else anyone was going at that point. Everyone saw the slaughter. Everyone experienced the unremitting terror. Owen was not unique. What made him unique was his ability to put it into words, words that still have reverb today. His main burst of creativity was from August 1917 to September 1918.

Owen wrote a poem criticizing Jessie Pope, a poet who wrote motivational patriotic poems urging young men to enlist. Owen’s poems are Romantic, full of grief at the waste. His sounds and rhythm are filled with his influences: Shakespeare, Shelley, the Bible, Keats. He wrote in older forms (one of the reasons why his poems feel so timeless). World War I was shattering, psychologically, in some ways more so than World War II, due to the newness of technologically advanced warfare, the newness of horror coming from the skies, and the intractability of those trenches. The shattering of the confidence of a generation was one of the driving forces of Modernism, as we know it, with poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and Yeats struggling to find language that would be able to HANDLE the new universe. James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Owen was involved in the first “modern” war, but his poetic forms were archaic: those forms give his poems the sound of an elegy to a lost world.

Some of Owen’s earlier poems deal with having sexual urges towards other men; it’s hard to predict what would have happened to him should he have survived World War I.

He grew up in a small town in England near the Welsh border. He drifted a bit. His schooling was intermittent due to his family’s financial constraints. He considered becoming a priest, but had disturbing feelings about God’s inability to deal with human problems. He was a tutor for a while. When World War I broke out, he enlisted. In January, 1917, he was sent to the front. He found war glorious and exciting, similar to George Washington’s famous remark in a letter to his brother after his first experience with a battle in the French and Indian War: “I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

Wilfred Owen wrote home to his parents from the front:

This morning I was hit! We were bombing and a fragment from somewhere hit my thumb knuckle. I coaxed out 1 drop of blood. Alas! No more!

The following June, he was moved to a hospital because he was suffering from shell-shock. (His heartwrenching poem “Mental Cases” is about shell-shock). He was transported back to England and then Edinburgh. It was in the hospital in Edinburgh that he met Siegfried Sassoon, and this was the event that would change his short life. Sassoon was a captain in the army as well as a well-known poet. Sassoon encouraged Owen.

Owen wrote to Sassoon in November 1917:

I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me.

Thus began Owen’s poetic output. He returned to the war in France in August 1918. He would be dead by November.

In 1920, Sassoon brought out a volume of all of Owen’s poems posthumously.

Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother on December 31, 1917:

I go out of this year a poet, my dear mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet. I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Owen said, in regards to his war poems:

These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

It seems to me that his lack of interest in consoling his own generation is one of the reasons why his poems have lasted, are anthologized. They rise up out of their own time into the universal. They continue to stand as warnings.

Here are some of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

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 good-byes.
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.

Futility

Move him into the sun–
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,–
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved– still warm,– too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

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19 Responses to Happy Birthday, Wilfred Owen

  1. Kate says:

    Sheila. I’m so grateful to you for doing all the legwork. I had read about this young man but how wonderful to wake up and read his poems. Thank you so much for your curiosity, research, analysis. You’re a gift.

  2. george says:

    Another of the driving forces of Modernism at the time was the new “culture of therapy”. I suppose it’s inherent in such new ways to encapsulate as much of everything it can to make it as legitimate as can be. So when Owen was in hospital for shell shock and he met Siegfried Sassoon, Sassoon was in hospital for having thrown the medal he was awarded into the River Mersey, a sure sign of instability it seems.

    Also recall having read of Sassoon looking down at some of his fellow soldiers as they would go on and on, and write home, about how they had never felt so noble and had never before felt so great a purpose to their lives. What balderdash he thought, until he came to his first action and admitted the same feeling had welled up in him, overwhelmingly, so much so it felt like a religious experience.

    Okay, that’s all.

  3. red says:

    George – Ooh, very nice additions – I am not as familiar with Sassoon’s stuff. I like what you say about the influence of Freud – certainly felt in all the great Modernist writers – Yeats, Joyce, all those guys – trying to work on those multiple layers of consciousness.

    It’s amazing to me that Wilfred Owen could have this transcendent experience – realize he was a poet – churn out all these poems (which are now anthologized) – and then die at such a young age. Kind of remarkable.

  4. red says:

    Kate – thank you!

    Most of this information came from the introduction to him in the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry – which is a really generous volume, in that it doesn’t just give biographical information but also – cultural context – where does this dude fit in, etc.

  5. Kate says:

    Oh yes, that’s where I read it. I homeschool my kids and we read from our poetry collections each morning. When they say “read it again Mom” it gets copied into a 3 ring binder and we read those each day and they memorize them so effortlessly. Sharon Olds was read at my wedding and I couldn’t have gotten through my father’s death without her.

  6. red says:

    I met her!! She came to see a show I was in and we spoke afterwards. She’s amazing.

  7. mutecypher says:

    I may have recommended this in a different context, but Pat Barker’s novel “Regeneration” is a fictionalized account of Sassoon’s stay in the mental hospital, where he meets and mentors Wilfred Owen. The novel is excellent.

  8. Rinaldo says:

    Several of Wilfrid Owen’s poems, including all but one of the poems quoted above, are set to music in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, first performed in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962. The work sets the Latin Requiem liturgy, in grand orchestra-and-chorus style reminiscent of Verdi’s setting, but this is periodically interrupted by one or another of Wilfrid Owen’s poems, sung in English by tenor and baritone soloists with chamber orchestra, the poems questioning or challenging the liturgical words.

    It’s a very great work (admitting that I’m something of a Britten fanatic), one of the towering artistic achievements of our time.

    • sheila says:

      Rinaldo – wow, it sounds incredible. Do you have a recording of it that you recommend? Or has it been filmed? Would love to see it.

      • Rinaldo says:

        The recording conducted by Britten himself remains the classic. It has the three soloists he wrote it for: soprano from the USSR, tenor from the UK (his partner Peter Pears), baritone from Germany.

        I see that there are several live-concert videos available on YouTube. I don’t know them so I can’t say which are better. But I do recommend against a Derek Jarman film from some years back that uses the work merely as a soundtrack background for some irrelevant images he dreamed up.

    • Jessie says:

      I can’t second Britten’s War Requiem enough! If you are still interested in recommendations, I really enjoy this performance. If you feel like falling down the rabbit hole though, check this out as it contains some molecular elaboration and response to music and text and how they come together. Super interesting. And you can also read along!.

      This is a great post also — I didn’t know he had such a turn-around between his entry to and exit from war (although I suppose it’s typical). Sometimes Owen reaches a bit too far, complicates things too much for my taste (maybe it just reminds me of my own terrible teenage poetry). I prefer him direct and heartbreaking. When Mental Cases gets down to its inexorable therefores and thuses. Was it for this the clay grew tall? Bugles sang. etc.

      • sheila says:

        Jessie – so ready to go down the rabbit hole. Thank you so much for those links!!

        I like your thoughts on Owen. He is definitely young in his outlook – and can gild the lily a bit maybe, like a lot of young people do.

        His letter to his mother is amazing – it’s almost like poetry broke over his head like a wave.

  9. ted says:

    I really like your point about his role in modernity versus being a modernist. I had never really thought about it like that before. It is true, his forms are those of his ancestors, though with very modern content. I love the …piece of artillery poem – the juxtaposition of what he is observing with the classic rhyming of curse, rehearse, worse, disburse. Powerful.

    • sheila says:

      Right – he’s using archaic forms, traditional forms, to describe a totally new level of carnage – it’s just amazing!!

  10. Aslan'sOwn says:

    “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” are his two poems that seem to be anthologized most often; they’re the ones I’m most familiar with. I’d never read “Mental Cases” until now — wow: “purgatorial shadows,” “carnage incomparable and human squander,” “on their sense, Sunlight seems a bloodsmear . . . Dawn breaks open like a wound,” written a hundred years ago, expressed with alliteration and meter, yet so vividly apt in describing the horrors of war. “Those forms give his poems the sound of an elegy to a lost world” — well said. Thank you for sharing these; I in turn was able to read them aloud to my teenage daughter and we mused together about the juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy. “Pawing at us who dealt them war and madness” — such a quiet, haunting condemnation.

    • sheila says:

      Aslan’s Own – thank you for your thoughts. It’s very moving to me as well that these poems written a hundred years ago still have such resonance, feel so new.

      // I in turn was able to read them aloud to my teenage daughter and we mused together about the juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy. //

      That’s so beautiful.

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