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Wilfred Owen – the voice of the fallen

Portrait of Wilfred Owen, circa 1916. - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the poet responsible for a tragically slim collection of some of the finest verse in the English language.

One hundred years ago this week a slim hardback volume of poetry was published in London by Chatto & Windus.

Six shillings bought you a collection of 23 poems and a portrait of their author protected by a sliver of tissue paper bound into the spine.

He wore a military officer’s uniform and had a small, clipped moustache, a combination that conspired to make him look older than his 25 years.

That particular image froze the poet in time forever because he never grew any older than that. Poems was his first published collection but Wilfred Owen didn’t live long enough to hold a copy in his hands.

Two years after the Armistice a traumatised Britain was still coming to terms with the enormity of the First World War.

The sheer scale of the tragedy, the loss of so many thousands of young men, was utterly overwhelming.

On Armistice Day the previous year a temporary wood and plaster cenotaph had been constructed on Whitehall; it had been replaced by a permanent catafalque in Portland stone in time for the 1920 anniversary.

The date would also be marked that year by the funeral of the Unknown Warrior, the body of a British soldier ‘known only to God’, at Westminster Abbey. Before the inception of what became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission thousands like him lay buried in the clay of France and Belgium, named and unnamed, in churchyards, in makeshift cemeteries or just buried where they fell, Flanders farmers ploughing respectfully around lonely mounds of earth marked by wooden crosses in the middle of their fields.

Thousands more had no known grave.

Those who returned were transformed by the experience.

Thousands had marched off jauntily to war singing cheerily about how it was a long way to Tipperary but came back changed utterly, many of them wounded, some disfigured or permanently disabled, nearly all of them blighted by what they’d witnessed and experienced, destined to see forever the spaces in the world left by friends and comrades who never came back.

Nobody knew quite what to do or how to feel. Men sat at home in their armchairs, glassy-eyed, haunted, while wives, mothers and children did their best to carry on as normal when nothing could possibly be normal ever again.

The publication of Wilfred Owen’s poems represented one of the first literary responses to the war from one who had been there in the mud, lice-ridden, nipped by rats, surrounded by death, fear and the sheer futility of it all.

The publication of the book, facilitated by his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon with help from Edith Sitwell, came at a crucial time.

The memorialisation process in Britain was still in its infancy, establishing the rituals of remembrance by whose rhythms we still abide today, but Owen’s blistering, visceral depictions of the realities of war were a timely reminder that superficial symbolism should never be enough.

The dead would be remembered in glorious terms, and rightly so, but thanks in no small part to Owen giving voice to the experiences of the men who were there, questions would always remain about the nature of that glory.

“This book is not about heroes,” wrote Owen in the fragmentary preface to the collection found among his papers after his death.

“English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power, except War.

Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry. The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory.

They may be to the next. All the poet can do to-day is to warn.”

When Owen’s Collected Poems was published in 1963 Philip Larkin echoed this sentiment when he reviewed the book, writing of how “a ‘war poet’ is not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate a war, but one who reacts against having a war thrust on him”.

Poems contains Owen’s most famous works, Dulce et Decorum Est, Anthem for Doomed Youth, The Sentry, Futility, verses that have over the last century been anthologised to within an inch of their lives and become iron horses of poetry collections, staples of school syllabuses and at the heart of remembrance events across Britain and beyond.

Reading them in their original context, on thick, musty yellowed paper in a book that if it wasn’t between hard covers would be little more than a pamphlet, is a wholly different experience to seeing the individual poems placed among the work of other poets in themed sections on fresh, tangy white pages.

The words are familiar yet made more immediate somehow, more intimate, by reading them gathered into one collection as they were originally intended.

It’s like reading them anew, poems published a century ago having renewed impact when read together.

Poems certainly had an impact on publication. “They all fought and saw the vision; doubted and hoped, wondered at the result of endeavour.

Wilfred Owen makes them articulate,” wrote one reviewer. “These are not war poems of the drum and trumpet style; they are the revelation of war as the horrible, the unavoidable, the senseless.

It is a book which will doubtless be neglected, but one which, if its message could sink into the hearts of all, would make war impossible.”

In the post-suffragist newspaper The Women’s Leader Vita Sackville-West was astounded by the collection.

“It is more truly poetry than half the fanciful verse-making or far-fetched surprises that impose themselves upon the credulous in the semblance of that art,” she wrote.

“Amongst the young poets fallen in the war Wilfred Owen must always stand as one of the bitterest losses.”

Owen has become such a familiar figure it’s easy to overlook how young he was when he was killed, how he was only beginning to find his voice as a poet.

The son of a railway engineer father and an evangelical Anglican mother, Owen grew up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury and while he did well enough at school to win a place at the University of London it wasn’t quite well enough to qualify for the scholarship he needed to afford to go. In 1913 he took a teaching job at the Berlitz International School in Bordeaux and then became tutor to a family in the Pyrenees, some of the happiest times of his life, before returning to Britain in 1915 to enlist.

He shipped to France with the 2nd Manchester Regiment in December 1916 and within two weeks was in command of a platoon on the front line.

In April 1917 he was blown into the air by an exploding shell, then spent several days pinned down in a hole with the body of a fellow officer before being diagnosed with shell shock, leading to his admission to the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh.

In four peaceful months there Owen composed many poems, edited the hospital magazine Hydra and met fellow poet Sassoon, from which grew a friendship that saw Owen blossom creatively.

Sassoon recognised his new friend’s talent and was able to introduce him to literary heavyweights like Robert Graves and H G Wells, so that by the spring of 1918 when he returned to the Manchesters at their British base in Ripon, Wilfred Owen stood on the threshold of a gilded literary career.

He went back to the front in September as the war entered its final phase. Within weeks he led his men in a daring assault that would earn him the Military Cross only to be killed guiding his platoon across the Sambre and Oise Canal near Ors a week before the end of the war.

Famously, his mother received the telegram informing her of his death as the Shrewsbury church bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice.

Poems comprises a remarkable body of work born of the most intense experiences endured by any man during the 20th century.

It stands alone in gathering between its covers some of the finest poetry in the English language, written, like his hero Keats’ greatest work, in a flurry shortly before the poet’s death. It’s hard to imagine what Owen would have gone on to achieve.

Would post-war life have proved anticlimactic? Would he have written as well about hedgerows, skylarks and sun-kissed love as he did about “froth-corrupted lungs” and “eyeballs, huge-bulged like squids”?

There’s every reason to think so. “There was in Owen a sanguine, energetic delight in the world around him,” wrote Edmund Blunden in 1932, “a rich confidence in the powers of poetry and the other arts.”

In his introduction to Poems Sassoon emphasised how Owen came to channel everything into his verse.

“All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems; any superficial impressions of his personality, any records of his conversation, behaviour, or appearance, would be irrelevant and unseemly,” he wrote.

Whatever Owen’s post-war life might have looked like, whatever demons might have accompanied him home from the front, whatever relationships he might have forged, it seems inevitable he would have expressed them in verse.

That he was just finding his voice when it was stilled is a minor tragedy among the unfathomable tragedy of the First World War, but a tragedy all the same, equivalent to that of every unfulfilled life that never came back from the trenches.

How fortunate we are to have what poems of Wilfred Owen remain.

They are some of the most beautiful verse in the English canon but they also ensure the reality of life in the trenches, the revulsion, the mass extermination, the conditions that reduced men of dignity to mudbound bullet-fodder, will never be lost.

“Earth’s wheels run oiled with blood. Forget we that,” wrote Owen in an alternative ending to his bewildering Strange Encounter, the first poem in the book; and blood is one of the most commonly used words throughout the collection.

Blood helps make us human, its spillage, especially in the vast quantities of the First World War, emphasises the horror and sheer futility of what Owen expressed as well as anyone ever has.

“Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles, far off, like a dull rumour of some other war,” he wrote in Exposure before asking, “What are we doing here?”

In S.I.W – military abbreviation for ‘self-inflicted wound’ – Owen wrote of a soldier’s lonely suicide (“Could it be accident? – Rifles go off… Not sniped? No. (Later they found an English ball.”).

It’s not one of his best-known poems but it’s certainly one of the most poignant. In summing up the man’s fatal decision, Owen notably does not condemn it but instead cites “the reasoned crisis of his soul”.

What better summary could there be of the brief, brilliant collection of poems Owen left behind, published a century ago and destined to endure for another, its lessons timeless, too often ignored by those most in need of them? 

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