Wildred Owen was considered by many to be the greatest poet coming out of World War I. As a soldier he wrote about the horrors and realities of trench warfare in dramatic contrast to the patriotic poetry that was used to drum up support for the war and bring in new recruits.
As a young boy he began to write poetry, heavily influenced by the Bible and the romantic poets, especially John Keats. Because of his family’s income his education was among the commoners rather than the elites. His experience brought him to critique the Church of England for its failures to address the needs of the poor.
He got a job as a tutor in France, which brought him into contact with other poets. When the war broke out he returned to England where he enlisted in 1915.
Owen was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. In 1916, a series of battlefield traumas dramatically changed him. He fell into a shell hole and suffered a concussion. Then he was blown into the air by a mortar round and spent several days lying amid what the thought were the bloody bits of a comrade. He was diagnosed with “shell shock” (what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) and sent back to England to recuperate.
While recovering at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, also recovering from war wounds. Sassoon introduced Owen to the work of Freud, particularly related to dreams. He also encouraged Owen to explore realism rather than the romanticism of his earlier work. The two poets became great friends, but when Owen decided to return to France he kept his plans a secret as Sassoon had vowed to stab him in the leg to keep him out of the war.
In August 1918 Owen returned to the front lines. He led an attack near the village of Joncourt where his courage resulted in him being awarded the Military Cross. Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, just a week before the Armistice that ended World War I went into effect.
Only five poems by Owen were published before his death. Sassoon edited and helped publish the works we now have from Owen and was a great promoter of his friend’s work.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori” is from a line of the Roman poet Horace “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” Owen gave a vastly different view of what it meant to die for one’s country.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
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 now 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.