Wilfred Owen would not have written the war poems for which he is now famous if he had not met Siegfried Sassoon in August 1917. Until then, like the vast majority of British people, Owen believed the war was being fought for a just cause. Sassoon – who had talked to pacifists, Bertrand Russell among them – saw things differently: he thought politicians had secretly changed their aims and were now more interested in grabbing colonies and trade than in the original, honourable struggle to liberate Belgium. So Sassoon was writing furious poems of protest aimed at the civilian conscience, hoping to persuade the public of the need for immediate peace negotiations. He may have been mistaken, not only about war aims, but also about the likelihood of the German High Command agreeing to negotiations in 1917, but he convinced his new friend.
Owen had been writing verse for at least six years and had learned to use sound effects with some skill, but until he met Sassoon he lacked a subject that he could feel strongly about. Believing like Wordsworth that poetry arises from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, he sent his mind back to the experiences he had undergone at and near the front earlier in 1917. His earliest poem to show Sassoon’s influence was the first version of ‘The Dead-Beat’ (August), followed by ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (September) and ‘Dulce et decorum Est’ and ‘Disabled’ (early October). Highly effective though it is, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is an early, relatively crude work compared to the best of his 1918 poems: his talent matured with extraordinary speed.
From November 1917 Owen began to find other models. Robert Graves urged him to have ‘a spirit above wars’, advice that helped to produce ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’, a remarkable piece that admits to the ‘exultation’ of battle yet condemns pitiless civilians. Protest was not enough: the supreme value now was ‘the pity of war’ – as Shelley had said, pity enabled people to enter imaginatively into the suffering of others. The huge German offensive of 21 March 1918 showed that Germany was still intent on military victory; Owen’s response was to write some of his greatest poems, including ‘Futility’, ‘The Send-Off’ and ‘Mental cases’. ‘Strange Meeting’ is perhaps the only wartime poem in which a soldier meets the man he has killed and hears the truth from his ‘enemy’ who is now, too late, his ‘friend’. ‘Spring Offensive’, thought by many to be Owen’s finest poem, was begun in the summer and perhaps completed at the front in early October; the final lines, the last he ever wrote, may have been added after he had seen – and tried to help – dozens of men killed and wounded on the Hindenburg Line.
Owen has a unique fascination for many people, including me: I have written three books about him, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (2002), Wilfred Owen; The Last Year (1992) and the critical study Owen the Poet (1986). He is undoubtedly the greatest poet of the First World War, but he is far from being typical of the ‘war poets’. He and Sassoon were almost alone in their 1917 opposition to the war, and in 1918 Owen went further, working out a unique position and writing poems that have no parallel.
Dominic Hibberd, Vice-President of the Wilfred Owen Association