For many people, most of what they know about the futility, sacrifice and tragedy of World War I, they learned through reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.
On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side. But as the troops attempted to build a pontoon bridge, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Against the odds, they forced a crossing and routed the enemy, but in so doing they suffered more than 200 casualties.
The attack was one of multiple attempts made up and down the canal to push back the Germans, all with similar consequences. But what made the crossing at Ors different however was the death of its most celebrated officer – Lieutenant Wilfred Owen – who was hit while helping the men who were building the bridge.
The tragedy of Owen’s end, just seven days before the guns fell silent, stands out in the cultural memory ahead of the thousands of men who died – or were yet to die – during the final moments of World War I. As a poet, Owen understood the irony of heroism very well. He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another.
In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
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.
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The sentiment here echoes a shift in war poetry, away from the jingoistic tenor of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets from 1914 about “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” and the men that gave their life for “immortality” to Siegfried Sassoon’s defiant denunciations of the evils of war.
The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. But the time for this was not now. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. He was probably correct.
Owen had aspired to become a poet since boyhood. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world. The protagonists in Owen’s poems are often no more than a spectre of themselves, mere voices who have lost all sense of their surroundings –- “unremembering” souls “[o]n dithering feet” who have “cease[d] feeling | Even themselves or for themselves”.
These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision. The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant. Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.
As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them. Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry. But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him. This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying.
His manuscripts reflect that state of mind. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry. Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.
In May 1918, C K Scott-Moncrief, who had tried and failed to secure Owen a Home posting as cadet instructor, told the young poet he ought to send his work to the publisher Heinemann. Owen was enthused by the encouragement. He drafted his Preface and hastily drew up a table of contents.
But it is likely that getting his work in order led to more writing and rewriting. Two poems, Hospital Barge and Futility (one revised, the other new), appeared in The Nation a month later – in August he received his embarkation orders to return to France. On September 17, at 7.35am, he boarded a military train to Folkestone from where he crossed the English Channel. With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.
In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales. (A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed. Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.
The hidebound Basil de Selincourt, on the other hand, dismissed Owen’s “soothing bitterness” in the Times Literary Supplement. He countered that “[t]he only glory imperishably associated with war is that of the supreme sacrifice which it entails; the trumpets and the banners are poor humanity’s imperfect tribute to that sublime implication”.
Owen’s posthumous reputation, however, owes much to the way that first volume introduced his work to the public. “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, Sassoon wrote in his introduction. Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.
Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views. By 1920 the nation was in the grip of commemoration as it began the erection of monuments to the war dead all across the country – and the language adopted was the language of glory, honour, dominion and power which Owen had found repugnant:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.