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The life of Wilfred Owen

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Emma Williams

on 12 December 2016

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Transcript of The life of Wilfred Owen

The life of Wilfred Owen
Early life
Owen was born on March 18th 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire located in the west of England. He was the eldest of four children; he had two brothers, Harold and Colin, and a sister, Mary. Owen went to a local school where he quickly demonstrated an interest in the arts, especially the poetry of Keats. He probably started writing poetry at the age of 17.
Early life
He failed to gain a resident place at the Universities of London and Reading. To raise money for a correspondence course at London University, Owen reportedly worked for a year as a lay assistant to a vicar, the Reverend Herbert Wiggin, who had a parish near Reading. What Owen found most marked about his time doing this work, was the stark contrast in lifestyle between Wiggin’s and many of his parishioners. The reverend lived alone in a large vicarage while very many in the parish were poor and lived in one room hovels. It was probably at this time that Owen developed sympathy for the poor and those who had little or nothing – the underdog.

During this time he attended classes at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading), in botany and later, at the urging of the head of the English Department, took free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the Church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.
As a young adult
Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School. He discovered his poetic vocation in 1903 or 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. Owen was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical school, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which lasted throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the "big six" of romantic poetry.
His work
From 1912 he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France, and later with a family. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French. For the first time, he was separated from his controlling mother and not only did he experiment with his poetry but his letters clearly state that for the first time, he openly enjoyed himself and took to drinking wine and smoking.When war broke out, Owen did not rush to enlist - and even considered the French army - but eventually returned to England.
John Keats
John Keats (1795-1821) as an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley despite his work having been in publication for only four years before his death. His reputation grew after his death, so that by the end of the 19th century, he had become one of the most beloved of all English poets
Infer how Owen's
reluctance to enlist in the army and consideration of joining the French army be thought of at the time?
Infer how this may have influenced his poetry later on in his life?

Owen's decision to enlist came down to his love of the English language stating that he decided to go to enlist “to save the language of Keats and Shakespeare”. Owen had developed a fear that a German victory in the war would destroy the English language. He managed to join up despite being 5 feet 5 inches tall – in 1914 he would have failed the height required for military service.

On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles Officers' Training Corps. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4 June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in the Manchester Regiment. Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as "expressionless lumps".
Some people shared this view, and the permeation of the German culture into the the USA and Britain was used as a propaganda technique to encourage others to enlist- to protect their own culture and way of life.
War service

In June 1916 he received his commission in the 5th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment and spent the rest of the year in training. Owen arrived in Étaples, France on December 30th – “in perfect spirits”. He found the men he was to lead rough, uncultured and uncouth. Owen found that he gained the respect of his men because he proved to be a very good shot with most infantry weapons. It was a strange combination – a man who had the heart of a poet but who was deadly with a rifle, machine gun and pistol.

Owen first faced battle in January 1917 when he and his men had to hold out for 50 hours in a flooded dug-out in No-Man’s-Land in while being heavily bombarded by German artillery. He had seen his training at Étaples as a ‘laugh’ and his letters home hint at the jollity in his life while training. However, he was now “in front of the front line” with orders not to pull back under any circumstances. A German shell landed near the dugout and shrapnel hit one of his men who was on sentry duty. His poem “The Sentry” is an account of his time in the dugout.
In March 1917, Owen received minor injuries after falling into a cellar in the dark but was back on the front line in April. In May, he was hit by a shell explosion at Savy Bank and spent several days in a railway embankment, amongst (what he believed to be) the remains a fellow officer. The same explosion killed his best friend ‘Cock Robin’ and this had a devastating impact on him. When Owen was rescued his colleagues noticed that he was behaving in a strange manner and he was diagnosed with shell shock.


In the early years of the war, senior officers did not recognise shell shock and some men were executed for cowardice as a result. However, as the war moved on shell shock became a recognised disorder. Owen was later evacuated from the war front. In June, Owen convalesced in Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh under the supervision of Dr. A J Brock.

While some hospitals used electric shock therapy to treat shell shock, Brock did not. He believed in occupational therapy. Men under him did gardening, looked after animals etc. Brock encouraged Owen to write. He became editor of the hospital’s own magazine, “The Hydra”. Brock wanted Owen to rediscover his creativity. When Brock found out that Owen wrote poetry, he encouraged him to continue with this while in hospital.

Relationship with Seigfried Sassoon

It was while Owen was in hospital that he met fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon had also served in the military but was sent to Craiglockhart because of his outspoken opposition to the war. Sassoon read Owen's poetry and encouraged him to continue with it. While convalescing, Owen wrote much of the poetry for which he is famous, including ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. As a result of his friendship with Sassoon, he met and communicated with men such as Robert Graves, H G Wells and Arnold Bennett.

His relationship with Sassoon fundamentally changed the way he wrote poetry and the way he viewed life. Owen was in awe of Sassoon, in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother that he was "not worthy to light [Sassoon's] pipe". Owen expressed, in a letter to Sassoon after leaving Craiglockhart "You have fixed my life-however short".

Years after Owen's death it was reported that, like Sassoon, Owen was homosexual and while it is unclear whether the men ever had an intimate relationship, Sassoon certainly introduced Owen 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 Marcel Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence.

Return to war service

In November 1917 Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart, judged fit for light regimental duties.

In July 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, although he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. His decision was probably the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England, after being shot in the head in an apparent "friendly fire" incident, and put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his duty to add his voice to that of Sassoon, 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.

At the very end of August 1918, Owen returned to the front line - perhaps imitating the example of his admired friend Sassoon. On 1 October 1918 Owen led units of the Second Manchesters to storm a number of enemy strong points near the village of Joncourt. For his courage and leadership in the Joncourt action, he was awarded the Military Cross, an award he had always sought in order to justify himself as a war poet, but the award was not gazetted until 15 February 1919

In the spring of 1918, Owen released a short book of the poems he had written. The poems in the collection were blunt and told about warfare as it was, not sparing the reader nor glossing over the nastiness of what Owen had observed. This was a stark contrast to the poems written previously about war which focused on the glory and excitement of war and were used as propaganda to encourage other young men to enlist. While well received by the literary world, it would be many more years before these poems received the acclaim that they now get.

Owen also had poems sporadically published in a magazine called 'The Nation' during 1917 and 1918.


Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice (which brought about the end of the war) and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

Infer why Owen's poems didn't receive acclaim until years later.
Infer why Owen's sexuality was kept relatively quiet by his family.
Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature used to promote a political or point of view
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