Skip to main content

POETRY of WORLD WAR 1.: Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen [1893-1918]

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, United Kingdom. Wilfred took a four-year course as a pupil-teacher gaining not only a good grounding in French, English Literature, the earth sciences and other subjects, but also but also the experience of teaching children from very poor homes.  Studying Wordsworth and Keats made him long to be a poet and he started writing verse.  In 1913 he became a teacher of English in Bordeaux, France, but returned to England in 1915 yo join the Artists' Rifles, a prestigious officer training unit.  In June 1916 he became a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.

In January 1917 Owen arrived on the Western Front, most of his later poems such as 'The Sentry' are based on his experiences during the next four months.  Conditions were appauling with bitter cold, incessant rain, deep mud, obliterated trenches and constant shelling. 

He was blown into the air by a shell while asleep and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Here he became friendly with poet Siegfried Sassoon.  Until he met Sassoon in August 1917, he had not written any of the poems for which he is now famous, his few war poems had been patriotic and heroic.  Owen's thoughts and style changed dramatically, by October he was writing poems such at 'Dulce et Decorum Est'.  

In November Owen was sent on light duties to Scarborough.  He began to break away from Sassoon's influence, reading other wartime poets such as Robert Graves and Wilfred Wilson Gibson and reflecting on his 'duty' as a poet.  Like Sasson, he wanted to speak for the troops, but his strong allegiance to the great Romantics gave him a wider view.  Some of his 1918 poems 'Insensibility', 'Strange Meeting' and 'Spring Offensive' are among the greatest poems written about war.

In spring 1918, Owen was sent to camp at Ripon to get fit for active service.  At the end of August he returned to France.  He took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line, winning a Military Cross.  On the 4th of November, in the last battle of the war, he was killed while his battalion was trying to cross the Oise-Sambe canal at Ors.  He is buried in the village cemetery.

Hibberd, Dominic 2004. Wilfred Owen. Available from: <http://www.warpoets.org/poets/wilfred-owen-1893-1918/>. [17 February 2016]

"Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen [1893-1918]

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

"Anthem for a 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 for them from prayers or 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 silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Insensibility

Happy are men who yet before they are killed 

Can let their veins run cold. 
Whom no compassion fleers 
Or makes their feet 
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers. 
The front line withers. 
But they are troops who fade, not flowers, 
For poets’ tearful fooling: 
Men, gaps for filling: 
Losses, who might have fought 
Longer; but no one bothers. 
                                     II 
And some cease feeling 
Even themselves or for themselves. 
Dullness best solves 
The tease and doubt of shelling, 
And Chance’s strange arithmetic 
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling. 
They keep no check on armies’ decimation. 
                                     III 
Happy are these who lose imagination: 
They have enough to carry with ammunition. 
Their spirit drags no pack. 
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache. 
Having seen all things red, 
Their eyes are rid 
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever. 
And terror’s first constriction over, 
Their hearts remain small-drawn. 
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle 
Now long since ironed, 
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned. 
                                     IV 
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion 
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, 
And many sighs are drained. 
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained: 
His days are worth forgetting more than not. 
He sings along the march 
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk, 
The long, forlorn, relentless trend 
From larger day to huger night. 
                                     V 
We wise, who with a thought besmirch 
Blood over all our soul, 
How should we see our task 
But through his blunt and lashless eyes? 
Alive, he is not vital overmuch; 
Dying, not mortal overmuch; 
Nor sad, nor proud, 
Nor curious at all. 
He cannot tell 
Old men’s placidity from his. 
                                     VI 
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns, 
That they should be as stones. 
Wretched are they, and mean 
With paucity that never was simplicity. 
By choice they made themselves immune 
To pity and whatever moans in man 
Before the last sea and the hapless stars; 
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores; 
Whatever shares 
The eternal reciprocity of tears.