Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC (March 18, 1893 - November 4, 1918) was an English poet. Owen is regarded by some as the leading poet of the First World War, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare. He died in action in France in 1918; most of his poetry was published posthumously. Born at Plas Wilmot near Oswestry in Shropshire on the 18th of March 1893 of mixed English and Welsh ancestry, he was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School. He worked as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School while studying for the University of London entrance exams then, prior to the outbreak of World War I, as a private tutor at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France. On 21st October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and in January 1917 was commissioned as a second lieutenant with The Manchester Regiment.
After some traumatic experiences, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart that he was to meet fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter which was to transform Owen's life. Sassoon had a profound effect on Owen's poetic voice, and Owen's most famous poems (Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth) show direct results of Sassoon's influence. Owen's poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor, which has led to the misconception that Owen was naturally the superior artist. While his use of para rhyme, with its heavy reliance on assonance, was both innovative and, in some of his works, quite brilliant, he was not the only poet at the time to utilise that particular technique.
As for his poetry itself, its content was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon. Sassoon's emphasis on realism and 'writing from experience' was not exactly unheard of to Owen, but it was not a style which he had previously made use of. Sassoon himself contributed to this by his strong promotion of Owen's poetry, both before and after Owen's death. Thousands of poems were published during the war, but very few of them had the benefit of such strong patronage, and it is as a result of Sassoon's influence, as well as support from Edith Sitwell and the editing of his poems into a new anthology in 1921 by Edmund Blunder that ensured his popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960's which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye. Relationship with Sassoon Owen, however, would have strongly disagreed with the assumption that he was superior, or even that he was a poet opposed to war. His poems criticise the conditions of the First World War, but his poetry is relatively unconcerned with its motives.
He held Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother about Sassoon that he was 'not worthy to light his pipe'. Several incidents in Owen's life, as well as some of his poems (e.g. It was a navy boy) and his circle of friends in London, have led to the conclusion that he was a closet homosexual, and that he was attracted to Sassoon as a man as well as a more experienced poet. Surviving letters show quite clearly that he was in love with Sassoon, but there is no evidence that Sassoon reciprocated his feelings, or that their relationship ever became sexual. Indeed Sassoon rarely mentions him in either letters or diaries from the time, and in 1946 described his behaviour at Craiglockhart War Hospital as 'consistently cheerful'. However, Harold Owen, Wilfred's brother, was responsible for Owen's letters and diaries after his mother Susan died.
Harold Owen is now credited with the destruction and editing of hundreds of Owen's letters, including scoring out sections and destroying others. He was also responsible for changing the commendation of Wilfred's Owen's Military Cross so that it looked less bloodthirsty and more in keeping with the popular perception of the sensitive officer poet. Wilfred Owen was devastated by Sassoon's decision to return to the front, though he left Craiglockhart before Sassoon did. He was stationed in Scarborough on home-duty for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, including Robert Ross and Robert Graves. During this period he developed the stylistic voice for which he is now recognised. In July of 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, though he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely.
His decision was almost wholly the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England. Sassoon, who had been shot in the head, was put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his poetic duty to take Sassoon's place at the front, that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. (Sassoon was violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to 'stab [him] in the leg' if he tried it. Aware of his attitude, Owen did not inform him of his action until he was once again in France).
Owen was killed on the fourth of November 1918 during the crossing of the Sombre-Oise Canal, only a week before the end of the war. There is some speculation that his death was in fact a suicide. Specifically, he stood and exposed himself to machine gun fire unnecessarily. Citation needed His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. Only five of Owen's poems had been published before his death, one of which was in fragmentary form.
His best known poems include Anthem for Doomed Youth, Dulce Et Decorum Est, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, and Strange Meeting. Some of his poems feature in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. It should be noted that many of Owen's poems have never been published in popular form - those who wish to read Owen's full unexpurgated opus should consult the academic two-volume work The Complete Poems and Fragments (1994) by Jon Stall worthy..