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 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?