Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen--It is Sweet and Right to Die for Your Country

Wilfred Owen was born the 18th of March 1893 in Oswestry (United Kingdom). He was the eldest of four children and brought up in the Anglican religion of the evangelical school. For an evangelical, man is saved not by the good he does; but by the faith he has in the redeeming power of Christ's sacrifice. Though he had rejected much of his belief by 1913, the influence of his education remains visible in his poems and in their themes: sacrifice, Biblical language, his description of Hell.

He moved to Bordeaux (France) in 1913, as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School of Languages; one year later he was a private teacher in a prosperous family in the Pyrenees.

He enlisted in the Artists' Rifles on 21st October 1915; there followed 14 months of training in England. He was drafted to France in 1917, the worst war winter. His total war experience will be rather short: four months, from which only five weeks in the line. On this is based all his war poetry. After battle experience, thoroughly shocked by horrors of war, he went to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.

In August 1918, after his friend, the other great War Poet, Siegfried Sassoon, had been severely injured and sent back to England, Owen returned to France. War was still as horrid as before. The butchery was ended on 11th November 1918 at 11 o'clock. Seven days before Owen had been killed in one of the last vain battles of this war.


Owen's Poem Dulce et Decorum Est

The poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is Latin for “It is sweet and right,” a phrase that was used extensively during the initial days of the First World War.  The poem ends with the same phase extended to include, “pro patria mori.”  The full translation implying that “It is sweet and right to die for your country,” or in other words, a great honor to fight and die for your country. Read Owen's poem at: http://www.voiceseducation.org/content/questions-reflection-%E2%80%9Cdulce-et-decorum-est%E2%80%9D-wilfred-owen.


Additional pages on Wilfred Owen, his life and works:

Dominic Hibberd on Wilfred Owen: http://www.voiceseducation.org/node/147.


Further Research

Further Investigation, Research, and Activities on British Poets and Writers
Edmund Blunden


Several years following the end of the First World War memoirs began to be published. Most were penned by writers who had fought in the war, others written by journalists and nurses. Three of the best memoirs were written by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon. Excerpts are available on line and hard copies can be obtained through library services.
Blunden, Edmund. Undertones of War (London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1928).
Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography (London: J. Cape, 1929). New edition published by Berghahn Books, 1995 includes a biographical essay and annotations.
Sassoon, Siegfried. Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1930).

The Importance of Relationships

As many of the poems in this module show, war can be a lonely and most predictably a life-changing experience. Several writers found encouragement from one another. For example, the friendship of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, while the two were patients at Craiglockhart was important to the literary development of the two. Both wrote for the hospital’s literary journal, The Hydra. Issues of the journal can be obtained through the website: www.lib.byu.edu/~english/WWI/index.html.
Stephen MacDonald’s play Not about Heroes (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1983) depicts the friendship between the two men.   A more recent book, Regeneration by Pat Barker (New York: Plume, 1993) centers between the doctor patient relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and his psychologist, W.H.R. Rivers.
Helen Thomas wrote a two-volume autobiography about her life with her husband, poet Edward Thomas. Thomas was killed in 1917 at the Battle of Arras. As it Was (London: W. Heinemann, 1926) and World Without End (London: Heinemann, 1931) addresses her husband’s struggle to become a poet.

Rudyard Kipling
The Death of a Son

One of England’s most famous writers, Rudyard Kipling, was convinced that the First World War would be short-lived. His belief was so strong that he urged his teenage son, John, to join the military. John was wounded in 1915 and two years later after being reported missing, was declared dead. In honor of his son Kipling wrote a history of The Irish Guards in the Great War (London: Macmillan and Company, Limited, 1923) and a short story, “The Gardner,” a moving tale about those who are left to mourn dead.  Another work, My Book Jack by David Haig (London: Nick Hern Books, 1997) tells the story of John Kipling.

Wilfred Owen


Owen is regarded as England’s greatest war poet. He was influenced by Keats and is associated with Georgian poetry, a school of writing to which Brooke, Sassoon and Graves, among others belonged. At the start of the war, Owen was working in France as a tutor and upon hearing of the war, returned to England to enlist. He was commissioned as an officer in 1916. After serving on the Western Front for six months, he was returned to England in June of 1917, and placed at Craiglockhart Hospital for treatment of shell shock. It was there that he met Siegfried Sassoon and they quickly became friends. They influenced each other’s work, sharing time editing the writing of the other. Sassoon also introduced Owen to his connections in the publishing world. While at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote a number of exceptional poems, among them “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”

Owen returned to active military service in September 1918 with a new sense of himself as a writer and as a soldier. In October of that same year he won the Military Cross for bravery, but sadly on November 4, 1918, he was killed while leading his men into battle. The Armistice came just seven days later. Owen is featured in the film, Voices in Wartime.

“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 goodbyes.
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. 


Reflective Questions: “Anthem for Doomed Youth”  
  1. What are the meanings for the following words: anthem, orison, demented, shire, pallor, and pall?
  2. As you read and re-read the poem what are your first impressions of what Owen is conveying to us? Who are the doomed youth? 
  3. What indication are we given as to how Owen feels about the lives of young soldiers?
  4. What are the possible “mockeries” to which Owen refers?
  5. What would be a “fitting” good-bye to those commemorated in this poem?   

“The Quiet”

 I could not understand the sudden quiet—
The sudden darkness— in the crash of fight,
The din and glare of day quenched in a twinkling
In utter starless night. 

I lay an age and idly gazed at nothing,
Half-puzzled that I could not lift my head;
And then I knew somehow that I was lying
Among the other dead.       

“The Last Laugh”
'Oh! Jesus Christ! I'm hit,' he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
The Bullets chirped-In vain, vain, vain!
Machine-guns chuckled,-Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
And the Big Gun guffawed.

Another sighed,-'O Mother, - Mother, - Dad!'
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
Leisurely gestured,-Fool!
And the splinters spat, and tittered.

'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed. 


Reflective Questions: “The Quiet” and “The Last Laugh”
  1. ”Who/What has “The Last Laugh” in the poem?   
  2. Explain how you believe death sounds after it occurs? Is there a color that can be seen? A smell that exists? With what feeling is the body left?
  3. How does Owen portray the demise of the soldier in “The Quiet?”
  4. How has Owen used personification in “The Last Laugh?”
  5. What are the feelings behind the last words of the soldiers in “The Last Laugh?  

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.  

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, -
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his color very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. - He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts,
That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jeweled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?


Reflective Questions: “Disabled”
  1. Describe the transition from day to night in Owen’s poem. What phrases make these descriptions so intimate?   How do these images play out in the poet’s mind?
  2. How had the artist’s life in the poem changed because of the war?
  3. How did the main character in this poem think of war before he went to war? How was he welcomed home? 
  4. What thoughts is the “Disabled” man left to bear?

About the Poets

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press; Reissue edition, 1994).
In a profound new analysis of Emily Dickson’s life and work, Judith Farr explores the desire, suffering, exultation, spiritual rapture, and intense dedication to the art that characterize Dickinson’s poems, deciphering their many complex and witty references to texts and paintings of the day. In Farr’s analysis, the poet emerges not as a cryptic proto-modern or a victim of female repression but as a cultivated mid-Victorian in whom the romanticism of Emerson and the American landscape painters found bold expression.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (Modern Library, 2002).Emily Dickinson, probably the most loved and certainly the greatest of American poets, continues to be seen as the most elusive. One reason she has become a timeless icon of mystery for many readers is that her developmental phases have not been clarified. In this exhaustively researched biography, Alfred Habegger presents the first thorough account of Dickinson’s growth–a richly contextualized story of genius in the process of formation and then in the act of overwhelming production.

Building on the work of former and contemporary scholars,
My Wars Are Laid Away in Books brings to light a wide range of new material from legal archives, congregational records, contemporary women's writing, and previously unpublished fragments of Dickinson’s own letters. Habegger discovers the best available answers to the pressing questions about the poet: Was she lesbian? Who was the person she evidently loved? Why did she refuse to publish and why was this refusal so integral an aspect of her work? Habegger also illuminates many of the essential connection sin Dickinson’s story: between the decay of doctrinal Protestantism and the emergence of her riddling lyric vision; between her father’s political isolation after the Whig Party’s collapse and her private poetic vocation; between her frustrated quest for human intimacy and the tuning of her uniquely seductive voice.

The definitive treatment of Dickinson’s life and times, and of her poetic development, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books shows how she could be both a woman of her era and a timeless creator. Although many aspects of her life and work will always elude scrutiny, her living, changing profile at least comes into focus in this meticulous and magisterial biography. 

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (Orion Press, 2003).
When Wilfred Owen died in 1918, aged 25, only five of his poems had been published. Yet he became one of the most popular poets of the 20th century. For decades his public image was controlled by family and friends, especially his brother Harold who was terrified anyone might think Wilfred was gay. In recent years much new material has become available. This book, based on over 30 years of wide-ranging research, brings new information to almost every part of Owen's life. Owen emerges as a complex, fascinating and often endearing character with an intense delight in being alive.

Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell (HarperCollins Publishers; first education edition, 1999).
When Randall Jarrell died in 1965, he left a critically acclaimed body of poetry, fiction, and criticism that has earned him a permanent place in the pantheon of American letters. A Library of Congress Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, he had a formidable intellect and wit that endeared him to--or infuriated--the finest minds of his day.
Now, in the nine essays collected in Remembering Randall, his widow, Mary von Schrader Jarrell, offers a distinctive portrait of the esteemed poet-critic as only she could have known him. Capturing the essence of this complex, brilliant man, she writes knowingly about the wellsprings and character of Jarrell's poetry, particularly his last and best book, The Lost World; his courageous endeavor, after suffering from hepatitis, to create the celebrated children's books The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family; his lifelong friendships with fiction writer Peter Taylor and poet Robert "Cal" Lowell; his commitment during the last eight years of his life to completing his translation of Goethe's Faust, Part One; and, finally, their marriage.
From their home in North Carolina to Washington, New York, San Francisco, and London, Mary von Schrader Jarrell vividly describes the restless mind and free spirit they shared in their marriage. As she writes, "To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him." This engrossing, intimate collection could not serve as a better tribute.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (University of California Press, 2000).
Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself is the first full-length critical biography of Walt Whitman in more than 40 years. Jerome Loving makes use of recently unearthed archival evidence and newspaper writings to present the most accurate, complete, and complex portrait of the poet to date. This authoritative biography affords fresh, often revelatory insights into many aspects of the poet's life, including his attitudes toward the emerging urban life of America, his relationships with his family members, his developing notions of male-male love, his attitudes toward the vexed issue of race, and his insistence on the union of American states. Virtually every chapter presents material that was previously unknown or unavailable, and Whitman emerges as never before, in all his complexity as a corporal, cerebral, and spiritual being. Loving gives us a new Poet of Democracy, one for the twenty-first century. 

Loving brings to life the elusive early Whitman, detailing his unhappy teaching career, typesetting jobs, quarrels with editors, and relationships with family and friends. He takes us through the Civil War--with Whitman's moving descriptions of the wounded and dying he nursed, the battlegrounds and camps he visited--demonstrating why the war became one of the defining events of Whitmans life and poetry. Loving's account of Whitman's relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most complete and fascinating available. He also draws insights from new material about Whitman's life as a civil servant, his Lincoln lectures, and his abiding campaign to gain acceptance for what was regarded by many as a 'dirty book.' He examines each edition of Leaves of Grass in connection with the life and times that produced it, demonstrating how Whitman's poetry serves as a priceless historical document--marking such events as Grant's death, the completion of the Washington monument, Custer's defeat, and the Johnstown flood--at the same time that it reshapes the canon of American literature. 

The most important gap in the Whitman record is his journalism, which has never been completely collected and edited. Previous biographers have depended on a very incomplete and inaccurate collection. Loving has found long-forgotten runs of the newspapers Whitman worked on and has gathered the largest collection of his journalism to date. He uses these pieces to significantly enhance our understanding of where Whitman stood in the political and ideological spectra of his era. 

Loving tracks down the sources of anecdotes about Whitman, how they got passed from one biographer to another, were embellished and re-contextualized. The result is a biography in which nothing is claimed without a basis in the factual record. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself will be an invaluable tool for generations to come, an essential resource in understanding Leaves of Grass and its poet--who defied literary decorum, withstood condemnation, and stubbornly pursued his own way.

Morris, Roy, Jr. The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War (Oxford University Press; new education edition, 2002).
On May 26, 1863, Walt Whitman wrote to his mother: "O the sad, sad things I see--the noble young men with legs and arms taken off--the deaths--the sick weakness, sicker than death, that some endure, after amputations...just flickering alive, and O so deathly weak and sick." For nearly three years, Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experience with an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world. 

In The Better Angel, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest accounting of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War Years and an historically invaluable examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsisting on journalistic hackwork, wasting his nights in New York's seedy bohemian underground, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Though his brother's injury was slight, Whitman was deeply affected by his first view of the war's casualties. He began visiting the camp's wounded and, almost by accident, found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing and brotherhood. 

Instead of returning to Brooklyn as planned, Whitman continued to visit the wounded soldiers in the hospitals in and around the capital. He brought them ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens and paper, wrote letters for those who were not able and offered to all the enormous healing influence of his sympathy and affection. Indeed, several soldiers claimed that Whitman had saved their lives. One noted that Whitman "seemed to have what everybody wanted" and added "When this old heathen came and gave me a pipe and tobacco, it was about the most joyful moment of my life." Another wrote that "There is many a soldier that never thinks of you but with emotions of the greatest gratitude." But if Whitman gave much to the soldiers, they in turn gave much to him. In witnessing their stoic suffering, in listening to their understated speech, and in being always in the presence of death, Whitman evolved the new and more direct poetic style that was to culminate in his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. More than that, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"--the legions of sick and wounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history--seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest poet.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes (Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941) (Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, 2001).

Poet, playwright, novelist, and a grand figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Langston Hughes stands as one of the most extraordinary and prolific American writers of this century. As the first installment of a two-volume biography, this portrait of Langston Hughes depicts his life from his birth in Missouri in 1902 to the winter of 1941.
Rampersad recounts Hughes' early days in Kansas as a child of a family steeped in radical Abolitionism, with an ancestor who fought and died at Harper's Ferry in John Brown's band. Taught by his aged grandmother to revere freedom and justice, he nevertheless led a lonely life as a child. His mother left him in his grandmother's care while trying unsuccessfully to launch a career in the theater, and his father—a  black man who seemed to hate blacks—abandoned him to find a business career in Mexico. Hughes grew into a highly disciplined and yet restless adult who found personal salvation in poetry.
Inspired by both the democratic chants of Walt Whitman and the vibrant forms of Afro-American culture, Hughes became the most original and revered of black poets. Rampersad's study traces the nomadic, yet dedicated spirit that led him--as a young man--to Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Africa, Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan, as well as all over the United States. During his travels, Hughes cultivated associations with a dazzling range of political activists, patrons, and fellow artists, including Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Carl Van Vechten, Lincoln Steffens, Nancy Cunard, Ernest Hemingway, and Claude McKay.
Based on exhaustive research in archival collections throughout the country, especially in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale University's Beinecke Library, Rampersad's masterful work presents a vivid portrait of one of our greatest writers and a sweeping panorama of culture and history in the early twentieth century.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (Vintage, reprint edition,1996).
In his poetry Walt Whitman set out to encompass all of America and in so doing heal its deepening divisions. This magisterial biography demonstrates the epic scale of his achievement, as well as the dreams and anxieties that impelled it, for it places the poet securely within the political and cultural context of his age.

Combing through the full range of Whitman's writing, David Reynolds shows how Whitman gathered inspiration from every stratum of nineteenth-century American life: the convulsions of slavery and depression; the raffish dandyism of the Bowery "b'hoys"; the exuberant rhetoric of actors, orators, and divines. We see how Whitman reconciled his own sexuality with contemporary social mores and how his energetic courtship of the public presaged the vogues of advertising and celebrity. Brilliantly researched, captivatingly told, Walt Whitman's America is a triumphant work of scholarship that breathes new life into the biographical genre. 

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University, reprint edition, 1994).
The life of Emily Dickinson, Richard B. Sewall's monumental biography of the great American poet (1830-1886), won the National Book Award when it was originally published in two volumes. Now available in the one-volume edition, it has been called "by far the best and most complete study of the poet's life yet to be written, the result of nearly twenty years of work" (The Atlantic).

R.W.B. Lewis has hailed it as "a major event in American letters," adding that "Richard Sewall's biographical vision of Emily Dickinson is as complete as humans scholarship, ingenuity, stylistic pungency, and common sense can arrive at."

Wilfred Owen

Owen is regarded as England’s greatest war poet. He was influenced by John Keats and is associated with Georgian poetry, a school of writing to which Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, among others belonged. At the start of the war, Owen was working in France as a tutor, upon hearing of the war returned to England to enlist. He was commissioned as an officer in 1916. After serving on the Western Front for six months he was returned to England in June of 1917, and placed at Craiglockhart Hospital for treatment of Shell shock. It was there that he met Siegfried Sassoon, considered to be one of the finest poets of the Great War, and they quickly became friends. It is clear that they influenced each other’s work, sharing time editing the writing of the other. Sassoon also introduced Owen to his connections in the publishing world. While at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote a number of exceptional poems, among them “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”
Owen returned to active military service in September 1918 with a new sense of himself as a writer and as a soldier. In October of that same year he won the Military Cross for bravery, but sadly on November 4, 1918, he was killed while leading his men into battle. The Armistice came just seven days later. Owen is featured in the film, Voices in Wartime.

Fragment: A Farewell

I saw his round mouth's crimson deepen as it fell,
Like a Sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies.  

Questions for Reflection: “Fragment: A Farewell” 

  1. How do you imagine it would be like to see someone die? What would you see? What would you feel? How would you describe what you experienced to another person?
  2. What imagery in the poem strikes you as being appropriately descriptive of the moments of death?
  3. What is meant by the title of the poem, “Fragment: A Farewell?”  


The Last Laugh

'Oh! Jesus Christ! I'm hit,' he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
The Bullets chirped-In vain, vain, vain!
Machine-guns chuckled,-Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
And the Big Gun guffawed.

Another sighed,-'O Mother, - Mother, - Dad!'
Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
Leisurely gestured,-Fool!
And the splinters spat, and tittered.

'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed. 

Questions for Reflection: “The Last Laugh” 

  1. How has Owen used personification in “The Last Laugh?”
  2. What are the feelings behind the last words of the soldiers in “The Last Laugh?”
  3. Who/What has “The Last Laugh” in the poem?
  4. Looking through the words of “The Last Laugh” how would you speak of the death of these three soldiers? What feelings would you experience?


Dominic Hibberd on Wilfred Owen

Dominic Hibberd has taught at universities in Britain, the United States and China and written extensively about the poets and poetry of the First World War. His most recent book is the much-acclaimed Wilfred Owen, A New Biography. The conversation below is excerpted from Hibberd’s interview for the film Voices in Wartime.  This portion of the interview talks about the lives of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.


The Life of Wilfred Owen

What sort of background did Owen come from?

Wilfred Owen came from a lower middle class background. His father was a railway official, a stationmaster for awhile, and then monsignor. He never earned very much money, but he earned as much as, say, a schoolteacher. He made a manageable wage, but they were never wealthy. He had four children to be brought up, so there was never any spare cash around.

Wilfred Owen's mother was a very pious evangelical, and I think the father was probably also more religious than is generally believed. So Wilfred had a strong religious background. He went to some quite decent schools, not outstanding ones, but he received a reasonable education. Some of the teachers took a great interest in him and helped him. He wanted very much to go to university, but I don’t think he ever would have done that because the parents couldn't have afforded it, and he wasn’t quite clever enough to get a scholarship.

This is an interesting point. Was Owen comfortable in his skin and in his class, or did he find his background lacking?

I think that neither Owen nor anybody else born into the lower middle class in England at that time was entirely comfortable in their skin. They all had learned at a very early age that you had to climb the ladder and do better. Certainly Owen would have loved to go to a public school if he could have done so. He was very envious of people who had, and he was very pleased when he finally made friends with people from that kind of class, like Sassoon and others. But he made do with what he had, and made it work for him. He used what he knew as well as he could.

Everything in his life adds up to his poetry, it all reappears in the poetry somehow. You have to remember that he was not only a poet and a soldier, but also a qualified teacher. He wrote teaching poems. I think he wanted us to understand, to know, to learn. He was also an evangelical who spent over a year as an assistant in an evangelical parish, so he was a preacher, and he knew how to talk to people with a message and get across what he wanted people to learn. He was quite effective at that, I think, and that comes through in the poetry, of course. He’s preaching poetry and teaching poetry. And it’s a soldier’s poetry. He’s no kind of pacifist. He is committed to being the three things that he is: poet, teacher, soldier.  

Did Owen have a direction that he was heading in, or was he sort of lost?
Owen was a committed poet from his late teens onwards. He was a great admirer or Keats and other romantics, Wordsworth in particular, and he knew from them that to be a poet was the greatest calling that anybody could possibly have. He never had any doubt that that’s what he wanted to be. But, of course, poetry wouldn’t make him any money, so he expected to be a teacher, and he wanted, if possible, to be a teacher in the secondary system because it paid much better. But in practice, he went abroad and to France and taught English as a foreign language for awhile. He saw that there were all sorts of jobs in that kind of field. I think if the war hadn’t intervened, he probably would have worked abroad for quite a long time, finding work wherever he could, and writing poetry in the gaps.

What happened when the war started?
When the war broke out, Owen was working as a tutor in France for a family in the Pyrenees. The happiest month of his life was probably August 1914. France had conscription, so there was no recruiting propaganda, and he wasn’t under pressure. He didn’t feel that he had to rush and join the army in the way that so many young men in England did, because he wasn’t in England, and he was away from that kind of influence. He said that he felt his duty really was to stay alive, because poets were needed.

As the war went on, he returned to England and began to feel the pressure of the recruiting campaign, and he realized that he really ought to have joined the army like everybody else. He finally did so in October 1915, which was quite late, really. By that stage, many of the volunteers had already volunteered. This was a last burst before conscription was introduced. He was, in the end, quite enthusiastic to join, but for a long time, perhaps almost a year, he was content to stay in France and keep his own life alive and not feel that he had to go and get himself killed.

Did he join the war as an officer or an enlisted man?
It was always much better to be an officer if you could, because you got far better treatment. There were people of the officer class who could have walked straight into commissions but who chose to go to the ranks instead, because they felt that they were obliged to do that morally. Owen had no such scruples and certainly wanted to be an officer from the beginning. But he hadn’t been to the right school, so he was lucky that he did finally find a way in. The army was prepared to regard him as a gentleman from a public school, or as we call it in England, an independent school, because he’d been abroad for awhile. Two years abroad was enough to count as that.

So he went into the Artists' Rifles, which was a training regiment that produced enormous numbers of officers for the army during the war. He had a very high-powered, very efficient training. By the time he emerged, he was a very capable young officer. He then joined the Manchester Regiment in the summer of 1916 as a fully trained officer, a second lieutenant. Six months later, he was sent to France, into the trenches.

Do you think that the army, in some ironic way, became a vehicle for him to make the social transition that he longed for?
It was very nice to become an officer because the moment you put on the king's uniform you became a gentleman, no matter who you were. So that gave him the social status that he’d never quite had before. He’d actually managed to create it for himself in France, but he didn’t have it in England, and never, perhaps, would have been able to.

Becoming an officer put him in the right rank, and he joined early enough for him not to be seen as what came to be known as a temporary gentleman. Later in the war, so many people came up from the ranks to be officers that they quite clearly weren’t in the same social class, but Owen got in just early enough to avoid that. The sort of people he was joining up with at the time were people who had been stockbrokers, and industrialists, and the sons of industrialists—at any rate, those sorts of folk. They weren’t from the upper classes or even the upper middle classes, most of them.

Owen's Regiment

What happened to Owen in his first visit to the front? Did he come through unscathed?

Owen had had a rather good time in England as a trainee officer. He had done well, he was highly regarded, and he had, I wouldn’t say, a comfortable time—it was far from it—but he certainly didn’t have to suffer any particular discomforts. He was sent out to France at the beginning of 1917, and within three weeks he was in one of the most appalling circumstances one could possibly imagine. He was sent into a German dugout in no man’s land that had recently been captured as a British outpost. He had to keep his platoon there for 50 hours, he says, under constant shellfire, expecting at any minute to be buried alive. The place was slowly flooding with rainwater. The water was rising above their knees so that at any moment they might have been buried, or drowned, or just died of shock.

It was an unspeakably horrific experience, and it colored everything that happened to him thereafter. But in a strange kind of way, he had already written about aspects of this experience in his poetry. He’d had nightmares of this kind before. I can’t begin to explain that, but it is so. There are earlier poems with lines that pretty accurately describe what he was in.

What caused the shell shock that he had later?

First, he was in that dugout. They were then taken out for a short period, and put back in again in a quite different situation, on the top of a hill in very hard frost. So it had been heavy rain and mud, but now it was bitter frost, and they were out on the snow exposed, unable to move. One man in his platoon froze to death. They all might have died of thirst because the water froze in their water bottles.

That was his second experience. He was then taken out of that for awhile. By the time he was sent back into action again, his battalion had moved farther south into a fresh sector of the line where there hadn’t been much fighting before. They hadn’t dug any trenches, so they were very vulnerable to shellfire. Owen was eventually almost killed by a shell that dropped near his head while he was asleep, and he was blown into the air. That finally broke his nerve, but his nerve had been going for some time under the strain of it all. After all, it was an utterly alien experience for a man of his background. He’d worked in a parish, he’d been a teacher, but he’d never been anywhere near fighting or gunfire or shell explosions—that kind of thing. That was unimaginable for him, as it was, of course, for the great majority of soldiers.

Finally, in April 1917, his nerve broke, and he had to be sent back to England. That was considered to be a disgrace by a lot of people in the army. They still didn’t really understand shell shock. The doctors understood it, but the average senior officer didn’t. There is some evidence that Owen was accused of cowardice by his temporary commanding officer. That would have been a terrible blow and the final straw that broke him.

What happened to him back in England?

I have heard it said that Owen was very lucky not to have been court-martialed, but I think that’s absolute nonsense. The army was actually very sensible with him and sent him to a good hospital just outside Edinburgh, Craiglockhart Hospital, which was a place for treating shell-shocked officers. Not very, very serious cases, but pretty serious cases. There, he was put under the care of the ideal doctor, exactly the man he needed, someone who understood him. A strange man with odd, highly unusual ideas. Owen was put through a kind of a sociological training. He was made to reconnect with his environment by studying the locality. It worked. It was marvelously successful. Within a few months, he was very nearly right again.


What was the effect of Owen meeting Siegfried Sassoon?

Now that Owen was almost well from shell shock, he had another enormous piece of luck. He was a lucky man even though he was killed at the age of 25. I know it sounds awful to say so, but he was—he had extraordinary bits of luck in his life. The biggest piece of luck he ever had was that Siegfried Sassoon was sent to the same hospital, supposedly as a patient, though really just to shut him up, because Sassoon had protested against the war. The authorities didn’t want to court-martial him, so they pretended that he was shell shocked even though he wasn’t.

So suddenly Sassoon and Owen were in the same hospital together. Owen plucked up his courage, went to introduce himself to the senior man, and they became good friends. Owen very rapidly discovered how Sassoon had been writing and what Sassoon’s political attitude to the war was. He picked it up and began writing himself.


Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart

Tell me a little bit about Siegfried Sassoon. What was his background?

Sassoon came from a nearly upper class background, not really upper class I suppose, but certainly upper middle class. He’d been to public school; he’d been to Cambridge. He had money. He had influential friends. He belonged to an entirely different sort of world from Owen, but he was like Owen—bookish and dedicated to poetry—so that gave them something immediately in common.

In 1916, Sassoon had begun to protest against the war with some encouragement from friends at home. Finally, he decided that he would make a serious public protest and get it publicized. He composed it with the help of civilian pacifists. His soldier friends, most of them anyway, thought he was mad. It was the civilians who persuaded him that he should act as he did. He made a very strong public statement against the war that got read in the House of Commons. The authorities had to do something, and so they decided that the best thing to do was to put him away in a shell-shock hospital until he behaved properly.

How did Sassoon enlist? Didn’t he lead a relatively hedonistic and irresponsible life before the war?

Sassoon had a divided personality, in a way. He was a poet on the one hand, and on the other hand he was a bit of a dilettante. Before the war, he was tremendously keen on fox hunting and cricket, and his sporting self seemed to dominate. But before the war broke out, he eventually decided that he would make himself a poet and concentrate on that side. Then the war came, and for him, as for so many people, it was a resolution. It gave him the chance to set aside his own personal problems and take up a bigger cause. You get the same kind of thing with Rupert Brooke, and many others. He joined up with his horse, I believe a few days before the war broke out, in the [Sussex] Yeomanry.

For awhile, he was an ordinary rank private soldier on horseback, but that didn’t last for very long, partly because he was thrown by that horse or by another one—I forget—and broke his arm, I think, and had to recuperate from that. He then decided he would, after all, become an officer in a main regiment. And the horse was rather too good for that kind of use anyway.


What was Sassoon like in the early stages of the war?

Sassoon never had the really bad experiences that Owen had. He was in the war for longer, but he was never in those extreme front-line situations that Owen was in. Nevertheless, he came very near to shell shock, and he recognized that he was very close to a breakdown by the time he came out of the line. But he had long periods of recovery at home, and he was not under the same kind of strain in the front line. He was actually in the front line for no longer than Owen was, although he was in the army for much longer. Each of them, I think, spent about 30 days in the front line.

Didn’t he get the nickname Mad Jack because he was very brave in the front line?

Sassoon was foolhardy. I don’t think you’d call him brave. He did silly things, really, and was almost certainly regarded as unreliable by his seniors. He was held back on a number of occasions when he really ought to have been in the fighting. But, yes, he was extraordinarily reckless, and did on one occasion capture a trench single-handed. One legend has it that he sat down and read a book afterwards, but I think that’s not likely to be true. But it sounds good, and it’s the sort of story that went around. He was called Mad Jack, as a number of officers were—I think it was a not uncommon nickname. But he was certainly considered to have done some extraordinary, daring acts.

Didn’t his daring acts come after someone close to him had been killed?

Sassoon did go through a period of being frenziedly anti-German—a very short period when his closest friend in the army was killed. Sassoon attended the burial, and then felt he ought to take revenge. For awhile, he was ferocious and did what he could to kill Germans, although, of course, the Germans are out of sight in the trenches, so you never really knew whether you’d killed one or not. Maybe he didn’t. But it didn’t last very long. It was a sort of battle frenzy that soldiers in history have sometimes. So even Sassoon got it, but then he was ashamed of himself and calmed down.

Was Sassoon’s publishing poetry during the early stages of the war?

Sassoon started publishing poetry at his own expense well before the war. He produced a number of little volumes of rather effete, aesthetic verse, I dare to say, of no great value. But he had published quite a bit by the time he met Owen. He was relatively well known. His book The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, which was the first book of his that Owen read, contained a number of very powerful war poems and satires against the war. These were unlike anything that anybody else had written at that stage, or at any rate, that anybody had published. They shook Owen considerably. He was deeply moved by them.

Why were these poems different?

Sassoon’s poems were regarded by reviewers at the time as being more like epigrams than poems. And they’re certainly more like epigrams than Owen's poems are—they’re short, punchy, satirical. They were designed to be put at the foot of a column in a magazine so that they kicked you in the stomach instantly. His aim was to shock civilians into realizing what the war was really like, so he described or tried to describe actual incidents at the front in simple, raw, vivid language, with the ultimate hope that the civilians who read them would then bring pressure to bear on the politicians.

The politicians would then negotiate a diplomatic solution to the war, and actually do it through talking instead of fighting. Civilians at the time believed that was a possibility in 1917, but I think historians would now say that actually it wasn’t a possibility, that it was a hopeless hope. 

Were these poems bitter?

The tone of Sassoon’s poems certainly is bitter, some of them more so than others. His essential skill, he felt, was actually in writing in a lyrical, elegiac way rather than a satirical way. As the pressure of war experience slackened in him, his poems lost their satirical edge, but for awhile he was deeply anxious that people at home should know what it was like to be stuck in those trenches being shot at day after day, what it was like to die slowly of agonizing wounds. In one of his first trench poems, he describes the ordinary soldier as a Christ figure dying for the sake of others. This was an image that both he and Owen—well certainly Owen, I think—later rejected. But at the center of Sassoon’s poetry is actually a lyrical impulse, I think, which is rather at odds with his political view of the war. It keeps breaking through, and you get rather lush lyrical descriptions in the middle of some of the longer poems, which I think Owen then cleared out for his own poetry and made more straightforward.

When Sassoon met Owen at Craiglockhart, what happened on a personal and poetic level?

Sassoon was rather bored by newcomers. He didn’t really want to meet anybody else while he was at Craiglockhart. He was ashamed of being there anyway. He felt he was a failure. He felt he’d been silenced by authority, and that he shouldn’t have given in.  So he wasn’t terribly enthusiastic when Owen knocked on his door. Owen, on the other hand, was immensely excited to meet a published poet who was writing a new sort of poetry. He kept up his visits, and they did eventually become close friends, very close friends, I think. They found they had a great deal in common.

Owen quickly learned Sassoon’s political view of the war, that this was a war, as civilian pacifists were arguing in 1917, which could be brought to an end by diplomatic meetings. That it wasn’t necessary to go on and on fighting until everybody was killed. That the politicians could sit around a table and actually talk to the Germans, and that the Germans had shown some interest in peace negotiations, too, though the German High Command might not have been so enthusiastic. So Owen picked that up very quickly, I think, and when you have a political basis for protesting against a war, you can start writing about it. If you think that the war is the right thing and a noble cause, as everybody did in 1914, and as Owen himself thought right up to early 1917, then you don’t protest against it. That would be ridiculous. You just want to get it finished as soon as possible. You don’t talk about its horrors because you know they’re there—you just have to put up with them and live or die with them as best you can.

But if your political view changes and you think that the war could be brought to an end by the politicians, then you start writing against it. So Owen’s poems at Craiglockhart are very much in Sassoon’s style. The influence of Sassoon is strong. Some people later thought it was too strong.

Did Sassoon help Owen with his poems and help him get published?
Owen took manuscripts to Sassoon, asked for advice, and got advice. The poems were no doubt improved as a result, but we don’t know very much about how that happened, because there isn’t that much manuscript evidence to show what Sassoon’s interventions were. Sassoon quite quickly recognized, according to Sassoon’s own records, at any rate, that Owen was a better poet than he was, and that there maybe wasn’t much that he could teach him.  But he certainly encouraged him, and gave him contacts in London, and hoped that he would get published.  Sassoon’s friend Robert Graves came up to see him at Craiglockhart and also met Owen.

I think Graves, in the early stages, was actually more enthusiastic than Sassoon and more convinced that Owen really was a poet. The real thing, he said, and well worth encouraging. So between them, they introduced Owen to people in London who would be able to get him published, they hoped. But they also saw that he was still in the early stages, still feeling his way, that he still had a lot to do. So they, and Owen too, felt that there should be no great hurry in getting him published. He had to find his own feet first.

Did Owen start producing a lot of poetry at Craiglockhart?
Owen wrote enormous quantities of poetry, I think, at Craiglockhart, and then went on doing that for the rest of his life, on and off at any rate. But the pressure of meeting Sassoon got him going at extraordinary speed. He was remarkably productive in that one annus mirabilis – the one year between meeting Sassoon and going back to the front line and not being able to write anymore, and soon after that being killed. I suppose he wrote 30 or 40 poems about the war that will always be remembered. And of course, he had already written many more poems that weren't about the war at all. Some of his war poems are only fragments that don’t stand up on their own. Undoubtedly, he would have revised a lot of his work, so we have, in a way, an unfinished product. Nevertheless, his achievement in that one year was quite extraordinary. It was the combined pressure of war experience plus Sassoon’s influence that really got him going, and kept him going.


Owen's Poem, "Strange Meeting

Owen's War Poetry

A lot of people say that Owen is really the greatest war poet ever. Do you agree?

I don’t think I want to say that Owen was the greatest war poet ever.  After all, he’s up against some pretty stiff competition—Homer, for example. A lot of poets have written about war in one way or another. But Owen was extraordinarily powerful. The immediacy of his poetry does seem to speak to people, which is exactly what he wanted it to do. It reaches people who are otherwise unmoved by poetry. Many teachers have found, for example, that if you’ve got unruly Fifth Form students on Friday afternoon who want to go home, and you give them one of Owen’s poems, they’re stuck to their desks after all, and they want to read it and find out about it. You wouldn’t be able to do that with a Keats ode, for example, or a piece of Tennyson.

So the poetry has had a rather odd effect. I sometimes think that Owen's reputation is rather strange. I’ve seen it said, for example, that he’s one of the half dozen best known English poets, which is very odd when you think of Milton and Wordsworth, and one or two others in earlier stages. But there’s no poet I know of who has written so vividly about front-line experience, so memorably, and in such an extraordinarily literary way. I mean, he is a poet.  He’s not just describing something like a journalist. He’s using a great many different literary devices to make his poetry come across and to make it last.  So while the war fades into distant memory and is half forgotten, the poems are still there alive, and still speaking to people.  As the years go by, I think he will become more and more immediate instead of less and less so, which is extraordinary.

Do you think it’s fair to say that many people see the war through Owen's poetry?

It is quite true that large numbers of people do imagine the First World War through what they’ve read in Wilfred Owen's poetry. The result of that maddens historians. I’ve met historians who loath the name of Wilfred Owen because he has distorted the vision of war so much. If you’re a teacher, you have to sort of un-teach it all over again if you want people to know about the history of the war. It was one man's vision, or I suppose you could say it was Sassoon’s vision, too, to some extent, but essentially it was Owen’s vision. It was peculiar to him, and it was a special way of seeing, but it was intensely real and true. That was what it was like for an individual stuck in that war. There’s no other poet, as far as I know, who has ever done that in any other war with quite the same power and lasting strength.

Why do you think a poem like "Strange Meeting" is powerful?
Owen was a poet. He was steeped in poetry, and he’d read a great deal of poetry in many different periods -- not just the romantics, although they were always the most important poets for him. When he wrote poetry, he used all the literary talents he could get hold of. A poem like "Strange Meeting," for example, is full of all sorts of extraordinary echoes. It has traces of Arthurian legend, Spencer, Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, and all sorts of other things. There are remarkable sound effects and most elaborate—some people think too elaborate—lines, but also wonderfully simple lines put in together.

The poem is about the First World War.  It’s a scene in a dugout, but at the same time it’s about myth and human experience in all ages.  He sets it in some unspecified time and is very careful to avoid pinning it down to, say, 1914 or 1918. One line, for example, was "I was a German conscript, and your friend." Owen changed that to "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," because he didn't want that reference to Germany or even to conscription, and it had to go. There have been critics who thought it was a better line than the final one, but this is not a view I share at all. Owen wants to get the poem away from the history of his own time into a universal context, which you can do through literature and poetry, but you can’t perhaps do in any other medium.

Were people beginning to recognize his genius at that time?
During Wilfred Owen's lifetime, five of his poems were published, but really only three of them any place where anybody would have noticed.  He was totally unknown except to a handful of literary people. It wasn't until after his death that his poems began to be known. There was an article published, for example, at the end of the war about the great poets of the war.  Sassoon is a major figure in that article, and gets a full-page portrait.  Owen isn't mentioned.  Owen isn't mentioned in most books about First World War literature until perhaps the mid-1920s, and then he's still a figure that literary people know, but nobody else much knows. His reputation takes off very slowly.  Now, of course, he's regarded, by far and away, as the greatest of the First World War poets, but that was not so at all at the time.

He wrote a preface to a planned book of poems. What was his emphasis and what did he want to accomplish?
Owen was lucky in yet another way, in that he spent a long time in England recuperating from shell shock, so he had plenty of time to write.  By the spring of 1918 he was ready to put his poems together as a book. He had somebody in London whom he hoped would find a publisher.  In the end, that never happened. He drafted a preface for us, and so all we have is one scrappy little fragment of paper with a lot of it crossed out; it's so very much a preliminary draft. But it's clear from that and from the list of poems that goes with it, that every poem has a motive or reason.  He had a fairly clear program in mind, in that he wanted to wake people up, shock people through vivid description and satire and any other way in which he could get at their conscience, and make them really think about this war, and in the end to feel what he called "the pity of War."

Not protest—that was a stage he went through—but the ultimate thing was to feel pity, because that meant that you were genuinely sympathizing with the ordinary soldier.  You were putting yourself in the position of a soldier in the front line.  That is what poetry is for, according to the great romantic tradition of Shelley and others, that a poet will enable his readers to put themselves into the position of other people, many other people, and sympathize with human predicaments.  That was a supreme task of the poets, and that's what Owen is clearly trying to do.
Was there sympathy for the enemy in Owen's poetry?
There was quite a lot of sympathy in the British army, and in the German army, too, for the ordinary soldier on the other side.  You know, "the poor buggers, they're all in it together, like us." But Owen is rather more than just that, I think.  He doesn't want us to identify with one side or the other.  He says quite clearly in his preface that he's not going to use proper names.  He did think, even right to the end, I think, that Germany had to be defeated, that this was the only outcome that could put that war to an end.

But it was desperately important to remember that the Germans were human beings, and the vast majority of them were much like us: well-intentioned, not all-out to kill and dominate the world, and all the rest of it. Only a few top generals were like that.  Owen tried to make his poetry appeal to anybody on any side and of any nationality. It's interesting that his poems have recently been translated into German, apparently very successfully.  I myself lectured in Germany once or twice and found that the audiences were tremendously appreciative and interested. They can appreciate his poems just as much as we can.

Do you think Owen consciously tried to cover all the experiences of war?
I think Owen tried to cover all the experiences that he'd been through.  You can trace most of his poems back to some experience that he went through himself.  That was a pretty wide range, from front-line horrors to hospital and beyond.  I think that a lot of what was in his poetry can be found in other people's poetry at the time as well. He just does it much better. Yes, he did want, I think, to give a full range of the sort of experiences that the ordinary soldier would have to go through.  One thing, you could say unique thing, is the situation in "Strange Meeting" where he meets the man he's killed.  That happens in some poems by other poets, but I don’t know of any other poem where the poetry then stands its ground and actually has a conversation with the person who has been killed, and comes to some kind of resolution. It is special to Owen and typical of him, I think, that he was prepared to take this thing right through the ultimate reality of having actually killed somebody else, and being responsible for that death, and facing up to it in its fullness.

What were Owen's feelings about returning to the front?
An officer was trained intensely that his supreme task was to look after his men and keep them fit for battle, obviously, but also to make sure that their morale was fine.  So a trained, fit officer could do a lot of good in the front line, or so they felt, by helping men to fight well and thereby making them safer than they would be otherwise—because you're at far worse risk in the front line if you lose your morale and start to want to run away.

So there was a tremendous obligation for junior officers to get back there and do what they could. Owen felt that just as much as everybody else, and Sassoon felt it too, of course.  I think it's fair to say that Owen put off returning to the front line as long as he could, but he knew he would have to go back.  The circumstances of the war in 1918, when there was very nearly a British defeat, meant that he had to go back in.  His conscience drove him.

It's possible that his superiors decided that he was going to have to go back anyway, whether he wanted to or not. It's impossible to be absolutely sure from the records how far he jumped and how far he was pushed. But after he got back, he wrote home repeatedly, saying that he felt all the better for it, his nerves were now in perfect order, and he was much happier to be in France than he had been in England. He also felt—and he was right in this—that this would give his poetry an authority that it might otherwise lack, especially to the immediate post-war generation who would have thought that poems by a shell-shocked man who had not returned to the front might be the product of cowardice. Clearly now, he was not a coward anymore.  The record of his fighting in the last few months of his life is one of unremitting courage and skill.  He was one of the first British soldiers to get through the last of the Hindenburg Line and break through the final German defenses, his possibly ultimate victory.  He played a significant part in that.


Owen Back at the Front

Wasn't he almost reckless on the front line?
I think there were probably times when Owen, perhaps like Sassoon, did feel the battle madness that apparently seizes you when you're in the midst of fighting, though it is something, of course, that I've never done. He may have taken risks that he wouldn't ordinarily have taken in calmer circumstances. But on the whole, he did what he was trained to do, and he did it extremely well. He knew what he was about.

An exact pattern of events of his action in the front lines is almost impossible to reconstruct from the fragmentary records that exist, but it's clear that he did behave with extraordinary courage and at precisely the right moment to enable his men to get through. He won the Military Cross, clearly a well-deserved honor. But of course, thousands of other officers won that medal as well—it’s not a rare award—but he proved himself, which is what he wanted to do. When Owen was on the Hindenburg Line, he said "I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can."

Do you think this was a turning point in his life?
I think the moral duties of an officer were so great that you could feel this was the purpose of your life when you were caught up in it and in the war. Things would be different when the war was over, but for the time being, it was his supreme task to lead men in such a way that they would be as safe as possible, and to write about them in such a way that people who were at home would know what was going on, and understand, maybe not in time for this war, but in time for later wars. 

If you're going to send young men into battle, this is what it's like, this is what happens, and it's no good pretending that it's a great crusade and a wonderful adventure, and that this is some glorious thing, and that it's sweet and decorous to die for one's country in battle. It's none of those things. It's terrible and unspeakable.

That's still true today, despite modern weapons and things. It's a dreadful thing to do, and it should be avoided if at all humanly possible. I'm not quite sure that Owen ever says that it's got to be avoided at all costs. There may be times when war is the final necessity, and there's no other way of going forward, but it should be avoided if at all possible.

Was Owen gay? If so, do you think that influenced what he was doing?

I think Owen was always gay, and I think he knew he was gay from quite early on.  One of the great things he learned from Sassoon was that Sassoon was also gay, and that they could talk about it.  And that, I think, helped Owen enormously. There are signs that by the last year of his life he was far more confident and at ease with himself than he had been before, although he never suffered quite the same agonies of conscience that Sassoon perhaps did.  Clearly, the sensibility of gay men is very relevant to writing about the sufferings of young men in war.

But in another way it's not relevant at all, because their sufferings are still sufferings, and it doesn't make a difference whether you're gay or straight.  It doesn't matter.  They could write about feelings for young men in a way that was, at the same time, both very public and very private.  It matters, and yet it doesn't matter at all—it depends on which way you see it. But it is crucial to understanding Owen as a person that he was gay.  That was part of him, and it's no good trying to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that  it wasn't there, or that it's not to be mentioned, or that he was still really an adolescent and hadn't found himself.  I don't think that any of that is true.  He was unquestionably gay.

Tell us about Owen's death.

The last battle that Owen was in—which was also the last battle of the First World War and the final victory that persuaded Germany to drop out and give up—was  a very important event and not just the ending of a squabble. It was the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal in France. 

In most cases along the British front, that crossing was carried out with great success and not very much loss of life.  But in one place, or maybe two, I think, the crossing troops ran into severe trouble.  The Germans had more artillery ahead that had been recognized, and there was absolutely no shelter.

Engineers working for Wilfred's battalion built a bridge across the canal with enormous skill, in half an hour. Some men got across, and then it was smashed by a shell.  They had to still keep on trying to reconstruct this thing and get more people to cross.  It seems likely that Owen was actually on a raft when he was hit and killed, we don't know for sure, although some people think he was on the bank, but I think that's probably not the case. Rafts had certainly been constructed for this operation, to try to get men and materials out to the bridge to carry on with the repairs.   

We certainly have no idea whether he was hit by shrapnel, machine gun bullets, or a rifle, and whether he died instantly or not until some hours later.  Quite often people say, "the machine gun got him," or something of that sort, but no one really knows, so the ending of his life is a mystery.

How did his parents learn of his death?

The message got back to Shrewsbury, where his parents were, on the actual day of the Armistice. It is said—this is family legend, but I think it probably is true, and I've certainly never found anything to contradict it—that the bells were actually ringing to celebrate the Armistice when the telegram arrived at his parents' house. His father, of course, had been out at work and his mother, who adored him, went to open the telegram and got the terrible news.  She never really recovered, I think, ever.  He was her first-born and the child she loved most.  And he was so nearly a survivor.  The war was over.  He ought to have survived.

That canal crossing was called off, perhaps only ten minutes after he was killed.  It was a matter of minutes, that's all.  It sounds awful to say so, but in a way he was lucky even in that, because his life makes a complete whole, and everything fits into those 25 years.  His early death is part of what has kept his reputation so powerful, and people can be moved by that.  If he lived to be 90, it would have been a very different story, I think.  So in a way, it's hard to regret his death, desperately sad though it was and though I do regret it, of course.

John Keegan, in his book about World War I, says he never could really figure out what World War I was about.  Did people really know what the war was about?

The best conversation about it that I've ever read is in Frederic Manning's great novel, Her Privates We.  I think there were enough soldiers around who felt that somehow or other, Germany had to be defeated. They did have some sense of what they were doing.  They had a very strong sense, of course, in the early days. Then everything got so complicated, and every country had a different motive—America wanted to make the cities safe, Britain wanted to rescue Belgium, France wanted to get their provinces back—so it was very hard to pin down a particular cause or aim.  The government was very reluctant to state war aims, and never did so clearly.

After you'd been in the trenches for months, or in the war zone for months, you did begin to feel that this whole thing was utterly pointless, and it was never going to end.  It was just going to drag on and on and on until you were mutilated or killed.  But there was a real sense of purpose among the politicians and among the soldiers, and they did keep going until it was finished. I think we're untrue to them and untrue to history if we don't recognize that that was the case. 

To say that the First World War was mainly futile is not historical.  The war did have aims and it had results, though, heaven knows, not necessarily the results that people wanted.  Although Owen's poem “Futility” seems to say that the war is futile, he's really asking a question of what life itself is for.  Maybe life is futile, which is a larger and perhaps another question.


And the Poets Wrote - Sawyer-Lauanno

Sumerian Stanard of Ur, Peace Panel

The essay below is adapted from a film review written by Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno, Writer-in-Residence at MIT about Voices in Wartime. The review captures the essence of the film, the words of the poets upon whose shoulders the film rests. It is also from these poets and their poems that the module, Poetry in Wartime originates. Sawyer-Lauanno gives us much to think about as we enter the poet’s world. “Questions for Reflection” follow the essay and act as a staging ground for the individual poetry selections, exercises and activities in this module.
The ancient Sumerians (Iraqis) told them:
Like a fiery monster you fill the land with poison.  You are blood rushing down like a mountain.

Homer told them:
Hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds...”

The 16th Century Maya told them:
The misery goes on
day after night after day
goes on and on
patiently punishing the earth
and all its mournful children.

Walt Whitman told them:
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket
And buried him where he fell.

Wilfred Owen told them:
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 these hasty orisons

Siegfried Sassoon told them:
Does it matter—losing your sight?...
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

And E.E. Cummings, to whom I owe this paraphrase, told them:
…I told
him; we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no
sir) it took
a nipponsized bit of
the old sixth
avenue el; the top of his head: to tell

And now, our contemporary poets are telling us too:  War = death, dismemberment, destruction and despair.  War = wounds that never heal; souls that never recover.

Voices in Wartime is a startling, gripping film that chronicles the writings of poets about war.  Interspersed with the contemporary footage of poets—famous and unknown—reading their work are often grisly and horrifying segments depicting the actual face of war: Civil War soldiers face down in the mud; infantrymen dying in the trenches in World War I, the bombings of cities during World War II, bloodied soldiers and civilians (many of them children) in Vietnam, and, of course, the mayhem in Iraq.  There are also poignant scenes of “forgotten” wars such as those in Biafra and Colombia, where civilians were mainly the casualties of power politics.

Voices in Wartime reveals how for millennia poets have taken a stand, how war has always compelled poets to speak out, to chronicle the horror with words.  The haunting verse of poets long gone, such as Homer, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Shoda Shinoe from Hiroshima are combined with more recent voices: South Boston native, David Connolly, a Vietnam vet; Sinan Antoon and other poets in war-torn Baghdad; and Nigerian poet Chris Abani, a poet whose family experienced the devastating war in Biafra.  

Soldiers, journalists, historians and experts on combat are also interviewed in Voices in Wartime.  All of these, including Lieutenant General William James Lennox, Jr., Superintendent of West Point, add diverse perspectives on war’s effects on soldiers, civilians and society.

Among the more famous poets featured are Hamill, Marie Howe, Marilyn Nelson, Emily Warn, Rachel Bentham, Terry Tempest Williams and Todd Swift.  But the unknowns are also quite remarkable.  Nine-year-old Alexandra Sanyal from Boston recites a moving poem she wrote that combines images of snow and war.  Sampurna Chattarji, a poet from India, reads a stunning and stirring poem “Easy,” that ends with these words: “Death is easy to pronounce / it’s the smell of burning children / that’s hard.”

Voices in Wartime, while certainly a political film, is also a film about people and their responses to war.  Its focus on poetry seems natural, for poets have always been in the forefront as witnesses to the immense human catastrophe that is war.  

Or as British poet Wilfred Owen, killed in World War I, put it: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity. Yet 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 true Poets must be truthful.”
Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno

About the author: Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno is best known for his writing as a biographer. His many books include a recently released biography of E.E. Cummings, one of the 20th Century's greatest anti-war poets. The above article first appeared in The Montague Reporter, September 16, 2004.