Owen, Wilfred Edward Salter (1893–1918), poet, was born at Plas Wilmot, near Oswestry, Shropshire, on 18 March 1893, the eldest of the three sons and one daughter of Thomas (Tom) Owen (1862–1931), railway clerk, of Plas Wilmot, and his wife, (Harriett) Susan (1867–1942), daughter of Edward Shaw JP, ironmonger and former mayor of Oswestry. His father was transferred to Birkenhead in 1898, and between 1899 and 1907 Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute. In 1907 the family moved to Shrewsbury, where Tom Owen had been appointed assistant superintendent of the Joint Railways and Wilfred attended Shrewsbury Technical School. His enthusiasm for poetry—seemingly kindled in 1903 or 1904—was growing, but was for some time exceeded by a preoccupation with religion. Under the strong influence of his devout mother he read a passage from the Bible every day and, on Sundays, would rearrange her sitting-room to represent a church. Then, wearing a linen surplice and cardboard mitre she had made, he would summon the family and conduct a complete evening service with a carefully prepared sermon.
With his cousins Vera and Leslie Gunston, Owen formed an Astronomical, Geological and Botanical Society (of three members). As an early enthusiasm for botany had led him to the study of geology, this in turn led him to archaeology and, in 1909, he made the first of many expeditions to the site of the Roman city of Uriconium at Wroxeter, east of Shrewsbury. He left school in 1911, eager to go to university, and passed the University of London matriculation exam, though not with the first-class honours necessary to win him the scholarship he needed. Disappointed, he accepted the offer of an unpaid position as lay assistant to the Revd Herbert Wigan, vicar of Dunsden, a village outside Reading. In return for help with his parish duties, Wigan gave Owen free board and lodging and some tuition to prepare him for the university entrance exam. The arrangement was not a success. Wigan had no interest in literature, and Owen soon lost interest in theology, the only topic offered for tuition. Over the coming months, however, he attended botany classes at University College, Reading, and was encouraged both in his writing and in his literary studies by the head of the English department. Meanwhile, he gave practical help to the poor of the parish, his early reading of the gospels having been supplemented by his reading of Shelley, atheist and revolutionary (whom he was happy to learn had lived near by).
Owen's poems of this period show him moving beyond imitations of his admired Keats, and in 1912 the compassion that would characterize his writings from the western front makes itself heard in his response to a village tragedy, the lines beginning:
Deep under turfy grass and heavy clay
They laid her bruisèd body and the child.
He gazes into the open grave of mother and daughter with something of the same awed fascination which prompted a more ambitious poem some months later. ‘Uriconium/An Ode’ is, in an important sense, his first ‘war poem’. Contemplating the excavated ruins of the Roman city which, with its inhabitants (his guidebook told him) ‘perished by fire and sword’, his awareness of the victims' bodies—so prominent a feature of his later and greater poems—enables him to feel
Plasters with Roman finger-marks impressed;
Bracelets, that from the warm Italian arm
Might seem to be scarce cold;
and it sharpens his perceptions of the weapons that killed them—‘spears … unblunted yet’.
Early in 1913 a religious revival swept the parish like a springtide, carrying converts into church, but leaving Owen stranded on the recognition that literature meant more to him than evangelical religion, and that he could no longer reconcile the conservative cant of the vicarage with the godless poverty of the parish. He left Dunsden on the verge of a nervous breakdown and with congestion of the lungs which kept him in bed for more than a month. In July he sat a scholarship exam for University College, Reading, but failed, and in mid-September crossed the channel to take up a part-time post teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Over the next two years he grew to love France and had reached perhaps the highest point of happiness that life would offer him, tutoring an eleven-year-old French girl in her parents' villa, in the Pyrenees, when, on 4 August 1914, war was declared.
The Owen who left for France in 1913 was a late-Romantic descendant of Keats and Shelley, but the Owen who left France to enlist in 1915 was equipped to become a modern poet. The metamorphosis was largely the result of his friendship with Laurent Tailhade, a poet of the so-called ‘decadent’ school, who introduced him to the work of Verlaine, Flaubert, and many other nineteenth-century writers who challenged the beliefs and sensibilities of bourgeois society. Tailhade had written two pacifist pamphlets, but was also a duellist and by the end of 1914 had joined the French army. Over the next year Owen's thinking showed similar conflicts and confusion. He too considered joining the French army. His delayed decision indicates an understandable reluctance to go to war, but at no point do his letters speak of any principled aversion to fighting. ‘Do you know what would hold me together on a battlefield?’ he asked his mother. ‘The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!’ (Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, 300). Finally, he returned to England, said goodbye to his family, and, on 21 October 1915, enlisted in the Artists' Rifles.
For the next seven and a half months Owen was in training, mainly at Hare Hall camp in Essex. There were two brief but important interludes in London, spent largely at the Poetry Bookshop in Devonshire Street. Its proprietor, Harold Monro, himself a poet and the editor of the Poetry Review, read his poems and gave him encouraging advice. On 4 June Owen was commissioned into the Manchester regiment and underwent further training with its 5th (reserve) battalion in various parts of England, before crossing to France on 29 December. He joined the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme and, in the second week of January 1917 (one of the coldest on record), led his platoon into the trenches.
In mid-March 1917 Owen fell through a shell-hole into a cellar and was trapped there for three days with only a candle for company. He emerged with concussion and was involved in fierce fighting—at one point being blown out of the trench in which he was taking cover from an artillery bombardment—but on 1 May was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia (shell-shock) and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, to recuperate. He was put under the care of a perceptive doctor, Captain Arthur Brock RAMC, who believed shell-shock to result from broken contact with real life, and sought to re-establish that vital connection by means of ‘work-cure’ (or, as he termed it, ‘ergotherapy’). Owen joined the field club Brock had started and became editor of the hospital magazine, The Hydra, which would shortly print two of his poems and four by another inmate, Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon's book, The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, had just been published. Its ‘trench life sketches’ (Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, 484), with their dynamic use of direct speech (learned from Thomas Hardy), had an overwhelming effect on Owen. He introduced himself, and so began one of the most productive of literary friendships. The older poet's advice and encouragement, showing the younger how to channel memories of battle—recurring in obsessive nightmares which were a symptom of shell-shock—into a poem such as ‘Dulce et decorum est’, complemented Dr Brock's ‘work-cure’. The final manuscript of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ carries suggestions (including that of the title) in Sassoon's handwriting. Owen's confidence grew, his health returned, and in October a medical board decided that he was fit for light duties. On leave in London, he met Robert Ross who in turn introduced him to some of his literary friends: Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and a number of less well known figures, several of whom were homosexual, as were Ross and Sassoon themselves. It is clear from Owen's writings that he shared their sexual orientation; but it is debatable whether he ever entered into a physical relationship that, if detected, could have resulted in a prison sentence like that imposed on Oscar Wilde, a relationship that would have horrified his mother, whose good opinion he valued above all others. There is no evidence that he did. What is certain, however, is that Owen and Sassoon wrote more eloquently than other poets of the tragedy of boys killed in battle because they felt that tragedy more acutely, more personally.
In November 1917 Owen rejoined the 5th Manchesters in Scarborough. There he read Under Fire (the English translation of Henri Barbusse's book Le feu), the last significant text to filter into his poems: one sentence, for example, being transformed into the lines beginning ‘Cramped in that funnelled hole’. This vision of ‘one of the many mouths of Hell’ would be more fully elaborated in ‘Miners’ and ‘Strange Meeting’ and can be traced back, by way of ‘Uriconium’, to the hell of which he heard at his mother's knee.
The following March Owen was transferred to Ripon where, over the next three months, he either wrote or revised and completed many of his most celebrated poems, including ‘Insensibility’, ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Exposure’, and ‘Futility’. Part of the power of these derives from his pioneering use of ‘pararhymes’: escaped/scooped, groined/groaned. In ‘Strange Meeting’, from which these examples are taken, the second rhyme is usually lower in pitch than the first, giving the couplet a dying fall which musically reinforces the poem's tragic theme.
Owen was graded GS (fit for general service) in June and rejoined the 5th Manchesters at Scarborough. He was recommended for a home posting but the recommendation was rejected, and when in July he heard that Sassoon was back in England with a head wound, he seems to have accepted that it was his duty as a poet to take his place. He had come to share his friend's sense of mission, a word with appropriately religious overtones. Although both poets were, by this time, fiercely critical of the role of the church that had forgotten the biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, both had a fundamentally religious outlook. Owen never lost his belief in the person and teachings of Christ, and his mother's evangelical influence no doubt contributed to his conviction that he must go out again, as he told her, ‘to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can’ (Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, 580). He returned to the front in September 1918 during the final advance on the German lines. His courage in the ensuing conflict won him the MC, but he was killed while crossing the Sambre and Oise Canal near Ors in the early morning of 4 November—one week before the armistice, and two years before the first collection of his poems was published. He was buried in the Ors village cemetery.
In Owen's famous draft preface for that book, he wrote: ‘All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful’ (autograph poems, BL, Add. MS 43720–43721). This document came to have the force of a manifesto for the socially concerned poets of the 1930s, who accorded him the status of saint and martyr. Dying at twenty-five, he came to represent a generation of innocent young men sacrificed—as it seemed to a generation in unprecedented rebellion against its fathers—by guilty old men: generals, politicians, war profiteers. Owen has now taken his place in literary history as perhaps the first, certainly the quintessential, war poet. He would have preferred another title. On new year's eve 1917 he had told his mother: ‘I am a poet's poet.’ This proved to be true. The four successive editions of his work have all been edited by poets, and it was only with Benjamin Britten's sensitive setting of Owen's poems in his War Requiem (1961) that he became known to a national and an international audience as the Orpheus of the trenches.