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Wilfred Owen

1893–1918

On March 18, 1893, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Shropshire, England. After the death of his grandfather in 1897, the family moved to Birkenhead, where Owen was educated at the Birkenhead Institute. After another move in 1906, he continued his studies at the technical school in Shrewsbury. Interested in the arts at a young age, Owen began writing poetry as a teenager.

In 1911 Owen matriculated at London University, but after failing to receive a scholarship, he spent a year as a lay assistant to a vicar in Oxfordshire. In 1913 he went on to teach in France at the Berlitz School of English, where he met the poet M. Laurent Tailhade. He returned from France in 1915 and enlisted in the Artists Rifles. After training in England, Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment in 1916.

He was wounded in combat in 1917 and, diagnosed with shell shock, was evacuated to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. There he met another patient, poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served as a mentor and introduced him to well-known literary figures such as Robert Graves and H. G. Wells.

It was at this time Owen wrote many of his most important poems, including “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est.” His poetry often graphically illustrated the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes that surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brooke. A gay man, Owen also often celebrated male beauty and comradery in his poems.

Owen rejoined his regiment in Scarborough in June 1918, and in August, he returned to France. In October he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens. He was killed on November 4, 1918, while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors. He was 25 years old. The news reached his parents on November 11, Armistice Day.

While few of Owen's poems appeared in print during his lifetime, the collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, with an introduction by Sassoon, was published in December 1920. Owen has since become one of the most admired poets of World War I. A review of Owen’s poems published on December 29, 1920, just two years after his death, read, “Others have shown the disenchantment of war, have unlegended the roselight and romance of it, but none with such compassion for the disenchanted nor such sternly just and justly stern judgment on the idyllisers.”

About Owen’s post-war audience, the writer Geoff Dyer said, “To a nation stunned by grief, the prophetic lag of posthumous publication made it seem that Owen was speaking from the other side of the grave. Memorials were one sign of the shadow cast by the dead over England in the twenties; another was a surge of interest in spiritualism. Owen was the medium through whom the missing spoke.”

Wilfred Owen

By This Poet

26

The Unreturning

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled;
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men’s sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

S. I. W.

		“I will to the King,
		 And offer him consolation in his trouble,
		 For that man there has set his teeth to die,
		 And being one that hates obedience,
		 Discipline, and orderliness of life,
		 I cannot mourn him.”
							W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace,—
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers—would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y. M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
for torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of his world’s Powers who’d run amok. 

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonor, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

                                       One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident?—Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed.
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For this teeth seem for laughing round an apple,
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls. 

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