Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier, regarded by many as one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his friend Siegfried Sassoon and sat in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time, and to the confidently patriotic verse written earlier by war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Some of his best-known works—most of which were published posthumously—include Dulce et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility and Strange Meeting. His preface intended for a book of poems to be published in 1919 contains numerous well-known phrases, especially 'War, and the pity of War', and 'the Poetry is in the pity'.
He is perhaps just as well-known for having been killed in action at the Battle of the Sambre just a week before the war ended, causing news of his death to reach home as the town's church bells declared peace.
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. In January 1917 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with The Manchester Regiment. Owen started the war as a cheerful and optimistic man, but he soon changed forever. After traumatic experiences, which included leading his platoon into battle and getting trapped for three days in a shell-hole, 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.
After a period of convalescence in Scotland, then a short spell working as a teacher in nearby Tynecastle High School, he returned to light regimental duties. In March 1918, he was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. A number of poems were composed in Ripon, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly in Ripon Cathedral.
After returning to the front, Owen led units of the Second Manchesters on 1 October 1918 to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. He was killed in action on 4 November 1918, only one week before the end of the war. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.
Owen is regarded by historians as the leading poet of the First World War, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare. His great friend, the poet Siegfried 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. The novel Regeneration by Pat Barker shows this relationship closely. Manuscript copies of the poems survive, annotated in Sassoon's handwriting. Owen's poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. While his use of pararhyme, with its heavy reliance on consonance, was both innovative and, in some of his works, quite brilliant, he was not the only poet at the time to use these particular techniques. He was, however, one of the first to experiment with it extensively.
As for his poetry itself, it underwent significant changes in 1917. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, Owen's doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry. Sassoon, who was becoming influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, aided him here, showing Owen through example what poetry could do. Sassoon's use of satire influenced Owen, who tried his hand at writing "in Sassoon's style". Further, the content of Owen's verse 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 of which he had previously made use--his earlier body of work consists primarily of light-hearted sonnets. Sassoon himself contributed to this growth in Owen by his strong promotion of Owen's poetry, both before and after Owen's death: Sassoon was one of Owen's first editors. Nevertheless, Owen's poetry is quite distinctive, and he is generally considered a greater poet than Sassoon.
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 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured his popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960s which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye.
Though he had plans for a volume of verse, for which he had written a "Preface," he never saw his own work published, apart from those poems he included in The Hydra, the magazine he edited at the Craiglockhart War Hospital. One of his more famous poems was "The Sentry" which he wrote about his personal experience of the death of a sentry.
Owen had many other influences on his poetry. These included his mother who he was close with throughout all his life. He wrote to her often, both before and during the War and never spared her the horrific details of what he was going through. He drew from his personal experiences and uses them in his poetry. We also see a unique look at how mothers and sons interact with each other.
Other early influences included Keats and Shelly who were Romantic poets of the time. They were responsible for much of Owen's early writing.
Owen 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". On being discharged from Craiglockhart, Owen was stationed on home-duty in Scarborough for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, which included Robert Ross and Robert Graves. He also met H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and it was during this period he developed the stylistic voice for which he is now recognised. Many of his early poems were penned while stationed at the Clarence Garden Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel in Scarborough's North Bay. A blue tourist plaque on the hotel marks its association with Owen.
Robert Graves and Sacheverell Sitwell (who also personally knew him) have stated Owen was homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry. Through Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which included Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, writer and poet Osbert Sitwell, and Scottish writer C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work. Historians have debated whether Owen had an affair with Scott-Moncrieff in May 1918; Scott-Moncrieff had dedicated various works to a "Mr W.O.", but Owen never responded.
The account of Owen's sexual development has been somewhat obscured because his brother, Harold Owen, removed what he considered discreditable passages in Owen's letters and diaries after the death of their mother. Owen also requested that his mother burn a sack of his personal papers in the event of his death, which she did.