Wilfred Owen: Poet of the Trenches

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) - who was born in Oswestry on the Welsh borders, and brought up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury - is widely recognised as one of the greatest voices of the First World War. At the time of his death he was virtually unknown - only four of his poems were published during his lifetime - but he had always been determined to be a poet, and had experimented with verse from an early age. In 1913-1915, whilst teaching at Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre in France, he worked on the rhyming patterns which became characteristic of his poetry; but it was not until the summer of 1917 that he found his true voice.

In 1915 Owen enlisted in the British Army. His first experiences of active service at Serre and St. Quentin in January-April 1917 led to shell-shock and his return to Britain. Whilst he was undergoing treatment at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, he met one of his literary heroes, Siegfried Sassoon, who provided him with guidance, and encouragement to bring his war experiences into his poetry.

When Owen returned to the Western Front, after more than a year away, he took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Joncourt (October 1918) for which he was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his courage and leadership. He was killed on 4 November 1918 during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors.

Virtually all the poems for which he is now remembered were written in a creative burst between August 1917 and September 1918. His self-appointed task was to speak for the men in his care, to show the 'Pity of War', which he also expressed in vivid letters home. His bleak realism, his energy and indignation, his compassion and his great technical skill are evident in many well-known poems, and phrases or lines from his work ("Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds" … "The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est …" ) are frequently quoted.

Wilfred Owen's reputation has grown steadily, helped over the years by Edmund Blunden's edition with a biographical memoir in 1931, and by later editions, biographies and critical analyses by C.Day Lewis, Jon Stallworthy, Dominic Hibberd and others. Modern scholarship regards Owen's work as the most significant poetry to come out of the 1914-1918 war years, and his influence on later generations of poets and readers is widely acknowledged. In 1961 several of his poems were included in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

... it is the preface, by Wilfred Owen, to a volume of his poems which was to show, to England, and the intolerant world, the foolishness, unnaturalness, horror, inhumanity, and insupportability of war, and to expose, so that all could suffer and see, the heroic lies, the willingness of the old to sacrifice the young, indifference, grief, the soul of soldiers ...  he is a poet of all times, all places, and all wars. There is only one war: that of men against men.”
Dylan Thomas