Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen is one of the most respected poets of World War I, which is an impressive feat for someone who wrote almost all of his poems between August 1917 and September 1918. Many previous British poets had focused on the glory of war. Owen’s experiences in the trenches, however, shaped his much grimmer view of war. Along with his friend and fellow British poet Siegfried Sassoon, Owen wrote about the realities of war in a way that was unfamiliar to audiences of the time. The title of his poem “Dulce et Decorum est” is a reference to a quotation by the Latin writer Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (roughly translated, “It is sweet and proper to die for your country”). In the poem, Owen challenges that view with a description of a poisonous gas attack on soldiers in the trenches. In “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen replaces heroic songs and music with the terrifying sounds of battle, and he explores the dread of waiting for something to happen in the poem “Exposure.” In “A Parable of the Old Men and the Young,” Owen rewrites the ending of the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac, implicitly questioning the motives of the older men who send young men to their deaths. Owen’s poetry is remarkable not only for its content, but also for its use of half rhyme and assonance instead of full rhyme: a style that he is credited with popularizing. His rejection of traditional poetic form and reaction to the horrors of World War I are textbook examples of Modernism in poetry. Despite both his feelings about the war and being wounded badly enough that he was sent home for recovery, Owen insisted that it was his duty to return to the fighting, in part to continue to record the experiences of the common soldier. One week before the signing of the Armistice that ended the war, Owen was killed on the battlefield.
Consider while reading:
- Compare Owen’s poetry to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Rupert Brooks’ “The Soldier.” How does each poet write about war?
- Compare Owen’s poems to the works of his friend Siegfried Sassoon. Are there differences in their approaches to describing the war?
Written by Laura Getty