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Introduction to Wilfred Owen (1893 - 1918)

 

Wilfred Owen, a WWI poet,  wrote descriptive war poems depicting the reality of war as he experienced it.   He was able to immerse us into the situations the soldiers of World War I found themselves and help us vicariously experience what they did.

As his friend, mentor and fellow war poet, Siegfried Sassoon wrote in an obituary

He was a sensitive and caring individual. He saw what was wrong with war and wrote about it in a powerful, emotive way. In many ways it is ironic that he died for his country only a few days before the war officially ended.

The man himself was not one to shirk his responsibilities. Like many of us he was wounded and returned to fight so as to not let down his fellow soldiers. He felt his command, as an officer, was important even though he disliked the war.

Owen was not attempting to console the ones who lost loved ones, to document history or to glorify war.  On the contrary, his mission was to demonstrate to the civilians, the politicians and especially the High Command the harsh unappetising brutality of the conditions the men were operating under.  His visceral depictions condemned the indifference of the High Command and stripped away all political justifications for war.

That such a message was necessary was demonstrated shortly after the war ended when a general, who had been commanding at least fifty miles behind the front, on visiting the trenches purportedly commented “Did we send men to fight in this?”

Owen wrote most of his poetry in an intense nine month period while recuperating in Craiglock, a military hospital near Edinburgh, while on leave after suffering shell shock following a gas attack.  Much of his work owes to the encouragement of Siegfried Sassoon and other poets in England.  His poetry is anti-romantic, a reaction to the real and immediate experience of War depicted in its gruesome scarring reality.

This  book is not about heroes, English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them....

"Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry" .  

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The poetry is in the pity. 

He sought not to console, but to warn by attempting to speak truthfully about the horror of war.   Much of his poetry is a reply to a Miss Jessie Pope, a poetess and Rupert Brooke; both engaged in writing patriotic war poetry which he found appallingly false and insincere. 

Politicians talk of war in euphemism; the fallen, casualties.. or in religious metaphors; crucifixion and martyrdom, while those who were there use more graphic language of slaughter and abattoirs.  Most soldiers resort to silence – the horrors are indescribable – unspeakable – ineffable or as Robert Hughes puts it “the back of language is broken”.

Owen's greatest technical innovation was the substitution of assonance or consonantal rhyme for full rhyme.  This avoids the finality and assertion that the full rhyme seemed to give.  (H.W. Piper, The beginnings of Modern Poetry) 

You will find many presentation clips of his poetry on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gd3bhg3O_qE&feature=related

The American "Veterans' bitterness found its way into some of the best and most enĀ­during writing of the period. Some older writers, such as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and others who had helped but not fought, still found it possible to revel in the romance of war, and the popular conceptions of heroism and adventure died hard. 

But for those who had been to Europe with the AEF or the ambulance services, such as John Dos Passos, e e cummings, and Ernest Hemingway, a far more typical reaction was to find creativity in anger, cynicism, and a kind of licensed rebellion. The scarred veteran, it was felt, was entitled to speak his mind. The writing of Laurence Stallings, who had lost a leg after injuries received at Belleau Wood, was powered at this stage, before nostalgia took a hand, exclusively by rancor. 

The novel "In Company K", by William March attacked one of the standard texts of the old value system in his grotesque burlesque of an official letter of condolence:

Your son Francis, died needlessly at Belleau Wood. You will be interĀ­ested to hear that at the time of his death he was crawling with vermin  and weak from diarrhea. ... A piece of shrapnel hit him and he died in agony, slowly. ... He lived three full hours screaming and cursing. ... He had nothing to hold onto, you see: He had learned long ago that what he had been taught to believe by you, his mother, who loved him, under the meaningless names of honor, courage, patriotism, were all lies."   The Last Days of Innocence by Meirion & Susie Harries. 


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