You are here: Books Monthly » Articles » The Jerry Dowlen Column »
Jerry Dowlen on... Wilfred Owen
Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives
Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) seems to be first among equals of
the famous War Poets. Look in any anthology of the best British poetry and
you’ll likely find that the soldier-poet Owen is a fixture there. He resides in
the English Literature school syllabus, too.
Owen’s best-known poems include ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’,
‘Futility’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. The latter poem starts with its mesmerising
description of a dream-like, after-death journey into Hell:
It seemed that
out of battle I escaped
profound dull tunnel …
The composer Benjamin Britten incorporated settings of
Owen’s verse in his ‘War Requiem’ composed during 1961 for the consecration of the
new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt from the ruins of bomb damage during World War
W.B. Yeats wrote that Owen was the WW1 poet of “blood and
dirt”. Later, the poet Philip Larkin summarised: “From being indifferent to the
war, and the troops fighting it, Owen became deeply concerned. From being an
unimpressive and derivative poet, he became an original and unforgettable one.”
The big catalyst for this change was Owen’s meeting with
Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917. (If you read Pat Barker’s
novel ‘Regeneration’ this famous moment is dramatized in her story). Already
writing war poetry that was challenging and outspoken in tone, Sassoon became a
mentor to the younger Owen, and encouraged him to write realistically of the
bleak and appalling experience of trench warfare.
In a remarkably short time, Owen’s poetry gained a darker,
harsher and more telling realism, albeit displaying deep compassion amidst his outpourings
of rage and disgust.
into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it
wakes the seeds, -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
The critics diverge on classification of Owen beyond the
obvious label of War Poet. Was he a Romantic? Was he a Modernist? One thing is
certain: he is an accessible, powerful, skilful and historically educational
poet of the twentieth-century.
The war brought human carnage and economic devastation on a
scale that people afterwards could scarcely comprehend. But people
instinctively knew that nothing – including literature – remained the same. The
old order was gone. Into this void stepped the work of poets like Owen: poets
whose warning voices had not necessarily been heard or appreciated during the
war itself, but would now command respect for the message that their poetry
Tragically, Owen had been killed in action in France just
one week before the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.