Text by Chris Bent
“Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”
Wilfred Owen wrote some of the best World War One poetry. The poignant images he created captured his violent and horrific experiences of war, in particular trench and gas warfare. This was in complete contrast to the romantic poems written by the likes of Jessie Pope and Rupert Brooke. His desire was to inform everyone at home of the true horrors of war and the dreadful suffering that the soldiers endured. In the Preface to a collection of poems that he was hoping to publish in 1919, he memorably states “All a poet can do today is warn”.
Even as a young man he always aspired to be a poet. The early indications for this can be found when he was a ten year old on holiday near Broxton in Cheshire. During an idyllic stay with his mother’s friends, he saw his poethood born. He loved the Romantic poets and worshipped Keats from a young age. Keats and Shelley were significant influences in his early writings.
During his time at Bordeaux, where he was providing English lessons, he was introduced to a French poet called Laurent Tailhade. They met occasionally for lunch and Tailhade provided much encouragement for Owen to further his poetry writing.
Whilst in Craiglockhart Hydropathic Establishment he famously met Siegfried Sassoon who was to become a significant influence in the development of his poetry. Sassoon became a mentor figure and original manuscripts survive today that show his contributions to some of the most highly acclaimed poems, such as Anthem for Doomed Youth. Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, also provided him with encouragement for his poetry as a form of rehabilitation.
Sassoon also introduced Owen to Harold Munro who became another strong influence. He regularly visited Munro’s poetry bookshop in Bloomsbury, London.
Owen’s poems were remarkably completed in just over a year. His style became innovative as he experimented with various forms. However, it is his use of pararhyme that we most remember him for today. Only five poems were published in his lifetime. Of these, three appeared in The Nation and two in the Hydra (the Craiglockhart journal he edited).
Whilst at Witley, Owen’s manuscripts suggest that A New Heaven and Purple were written. Though neither were his most significant poems, A New Heaven has elements that can be seen as a precursor to Anthem for Doomed Youth.
In 1919 Edith Sitwell produced Wheels which contained seven of his poems. One year later Siegfried Sasson edited Poems which contained 23 poems. However, it was not until 1931 when Edmund Blunden edited The Poems of Wilfred Owen with 42 poems that his recognition was ensured. A significant revival of public interest was brought about in the 1960s with the C Day Lewis edited Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen which contained 80 poems. His popularity remains as strong as ever in the 21st Century.
“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; no prayers nor 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 patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The manuscript above shows Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ with Siegfried Sasson’s amendments. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive constructed by the University of Oxford contains many poems together with a selection of letters written home. The media available includes original manuscripts and photographs.
Read more about Wilfred Owen in Surrey:
Acknowledgement for ‘Anthem’ is made to: Wilfred Owen: The War Poems, ed. Jon Stallworthy (Chatto & Windus, 1994)