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Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an English soldier and poet who fought in World War I. Owen's experiences on and off the battlefield inspired many of his compelling poems regarding the agonies that soldiers had to face. Expressing anger and criticism towards those who he believed were causing these agonies, many of Wilfred Owen's poems also carry the running theme of compassion towards his fellow soldiers. He clearly empathised with and felt a connection to them. Let's take a look at Wilfred Owen's life and death, poetry, and its themes.

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Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an English soldier and poet who fought in World War I. Owen's experiences on and off the battlefield inspired many of his compelling poems regarding the agonies that soldiers had to face. Expressing anger and criticism towards those who he believed were causing these agonies, many of Wilfred Owen's poems also carry the running theme of compassion towards his fellow soldiers. He clearly empathised with and felt a connection to them. Let's take a look at Wilfred Owen's life and death, poetry, and its themes.

Wilfred Owen: Life

Wilfred Owen: before the war

Wilfred Owen was born on 18 March 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire, to parents Thomas and Susan. Owen attended Birkenhead Institute school, shortly before moving to Shrewsbury Technical School, due to his family relocating. For higher education, Wilfred Owen attended University College in Reading, shortly matriculating at the University of London. Wilfred Owen then moved to France, where he became a language tutor.

Wilfred Owen: war begins

World War I began in 1914, and Wilfred Owen returned to England from France in 1915 to officially enlist. Owen was greatly affected by his experiences in the War and went on to write about these experiences in letters that he sent home as well as in his poetry.

Wilfred Owen: returning home

In a letter that he wrote on 4 February 1917, Wilfred Owen communicated how he felt about the War and its conditions:1

Everything is unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unbearable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious but to sit with them all day, all night ...

Just a few short months following this, Wilfred Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to undergo treatment for shell shock (commonly known today as Post-traumatic stress disorder, or, PTSD). Wilfred Owen spent a lot of time writing poetry while he was at Craiglockhart, and it was here that Owen met fellow soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon, who would greatly influence many of Owen's poems.

Wilfred Owen: back on the front lines

Wilfred Owen returned to the War in 1918, and was awarded the military cross during this time for his courage and bravery.

Wilfred Owen: Death

On the 4 November 1918, just one week before the Armistice was declared, Wilfred Owen was killed in action. Aged just 25, Wilfred Owen was crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in France when it came under attack, resulting in his untimely death. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetry in the village of Ors, France.

Wilfred Owen: Poems

Wilfred Owen: 'Dulce et Decorum Est'

In 'Dulce et Decorum Est', Wilfred Owen details the horrors that soldiers would experience in war utilising vivid imagery. Owen strikes at the heart of the patriotism and propaganda peddled by society by denouncing Horace's famous Latin phrase 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori', in other words, 'It is a sweet and honourable thing to die for one's country'.

Owen uses incredibly graphic descriptions of the gruesome nature of war to dispel the myth that death is in any way glorious. Owen also uses an accusatory tone to criticise those who encourage this narrative, thus forcing the reader to question their own views regarding war while also having to face the traumatic experiences that soldiers themselves suffered.

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. (l.21-28)

Wilfred Owen: 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'

'Anthem for Doomed Youth' explores the futility of the ceremonies (religious or otherwise) and tributes that are given to soldiers after they have died, either in celebration of their life or as grievance over their deaths. Owen's poem remarks that the soldiers are treated like cattle - slaughtered in large numbers without care or thought. Owen also delves into the way in which many of these often young men lost their lives prematurely, before they even had a chance to properly begin them. This is ironic in retrospect, as Owen himself died in the War at the age of just 25.

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 (l.1-4)

Wilfred Owen: 'Futility'

Wilfred Owen's 'Futility' is a short elegy, dedicated to a soldier that has died. In this poem, we again see a soldier whose life has been cut short, further emphasising notions of the wasting of life. Wilfred Owen uses the metaphor of the sun, perhaps to symbolise a new day or beginning that the soldier will not have. The sun is not able to revive the soldier as it once could, though he is still warm.

Wilfred Owen poses existential questions regarding life and death in this poem, not only through the speaker's denial and disillusionment but also through the perceived futility of nature - why should nature continue to light the earth with the sun, if the sun cannot light and revive his fellow comrade?

An elegy is a reflective and solemn poem, lamenting someone's death.

Move him into the sun—

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown. (l.1-3)

Wilfred Owen: 'Insensibility'

'Insensibility' presents a detailed depiction of the horrors and traumas that soldiers had to suffer during World War I. Wilfred Owen indicates that many soldiers had to make themselves insensible, in other words numb, in order to survive their brutal realities. This poem also serves to criticise those who, in Owen's opinion, were ignorant of these realities, as well as those who actively chose to not see the soldiers' daily adversity and anguish. Owen expresses empathy and sorrow in this poem for his fellow soldiers in addition to his anger at all that they had to face in the War, acting as an advocate for his voiceless comrades.

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. (l.7-11)

Wilfred Owen: Themes

WarWilfred Owen often writes about his and his comrades' experiences of war. He clearly felt great empathy and compassion towards his fellow comrades and the suffering that they endured.
NatureMany of Owen's poems detail the way in which war has overpowered nature, and the way in which nature is no longer able to provide comfort to humanity.
HorrorWilfred Owen depicts the gruesome horrors and the grim reality that soldiers had to face on a daily basis in wartime.
DespairWilfred Owen's poetry also features the questioning of existence, loss of faith, and disillusionment with the War and the reasons for fighting in it.
Loss of innocenceThis theme is present in many of Wilfred Owen's poems, in which Owen explores the often gruesome deaths of innocent, young soldiers, who have had their lives ended too briefly
Death/ sacrificeWilfred Owen often uses this theme to highlight what he believed to be the needless sacrifice of soldiers' lives, and the suffering that they endure on their way to this death. Owen also believed that the soldiers were being sacrificed for horrific and senseless means.
FutilityWilfred Owen explores futility in his poetry through the immense loss of life and futility of society's patriotism, propaganda, and ceremonies for the soldiers.

Wilfred Owen - Key takeaways

  • Wilfred Owen was an English soldier and poet
  • Owen was born on 18 March 1893 in Owestry, Shropshire.
  • He enlisted in World War I in 1915.
  • Many of his poems carried anti-war sentiments. In particular, Wilfred Owen sought to expose the horrors and the futility of war
  • Owen was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to undergo treatment for shell shock. Here, he met fellow soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon, who would become a great influence on many of Owen's writings.
  • Owen was killed in action during the First World War, while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in France, 4 November 1918.

1. Wilfred Owen, Cecil Day Lewis, and Edmund Blunden, The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, 1965

Frequently Asked Questions about Wilfred Owen

One of Wilfred Owen's most famous poem's is Dulce et Decorum Est 

Many of Wilfred Owen's poems carried anti-war sentiments. In particular, Wilfred Owen sought to expose the horrors and the futility of war 

Wilfred Owen was an English soldier, and poet  

Wilfred Owen was born on the 18th March 1893 

Wilfred Owen was killed in action during the First World War, whilst crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in France 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What meter is used for the majority of the poem?

Which of these cases of imagery are not present in the poem?

What themes does the poem not explore?

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