“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.
Owen was unpublished during his lifetime.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.
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?
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.