The Immortality of Wilfred Owen

Few literary commentators would dispute that Wilfred Owen was one of the greatest war poets of the last hundred years. He wrote from personal experience as a British soldier in World War I. Surprisingly, these poems were written in just over a year, and of those he fought with, few knew he had such a gift.

He volunteered in October 1915, trained for a year, and was sent to the front in late December of 1916. He fought stoically but succumbed to shell shock in 1917 and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland to recover. He returned to his regiment in June of 1918 and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery while under fire in Amiens, France. He was killed on November 4 of that year, while attempting to cross a canal near the village of Ors, France, with his men. He was 25 years old. His parents were notified of his death on the day the war ended, November 11, 1918.

Owen had credibility as a war poet because he had lived the life of a soldier. He understood what it was like to be in battle amidst the appalling conditions, fear, and blood-soaked horror. Though in many ways he was an unexpected warrior, he was ill- suited to combat (who isn’t?) He was slight of build and introverted, put his head in books, was profoundly religious, and was repulsed by the coarseness of men in the trenches. Nevertheless, he felt it was his duty to fight.

In his poetry, Owen raised profound ethical questions about the conduct of the war – the cruel indifference that seemed prevalent -- and the war itself. Having seen the carnage firsthand, he believed World War I was the first conflict in which technological advance and new industrial capability made the noise deafening, chaos and atrocities usual things, and the killing efficient. Mechanization effectively rendered heroic action almost void of meaning, and produced a protracted and shamelessly conducted war.

His book of poetry on the war was published posthumously in December 1920. His friend, soldier and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, wrote the introduction. He believed Wilfred Owen was the conduit or channel by which the the war’s dead could truthfully speak to the living. He understood that Owen successfully [or brilliantly, or something like that   DF] transmitted, through his poetic verse, the grotesque and unparalleled calamity that was World War I. Owen explored, through stark and garish representations, the psychological toll of so much violence and destruction on the human psyche and soul after the gallant marches, parades, dramatic bluster, and propaganda had wilted.

In several of his most compelling war poems, he focused on infantrymen who froze in the trenches, were blinded by mustard gas, wished for death as a release, had nightmares or hallucinations because of sleep deprivation, injury, or mental exhaustion. In his poetry, he revealed that rest often held no relief. With sleep arose haunting visions and fantastical images that interpreted the current hysteria and dreadfulness. Owen’s story and poetry confirmed the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s lament: “And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  

His poem “Strange Meeting” – T. S. Eliot considered it his masterpiece – fit that mold. Thematically, it was frightening and personal. Owen focused on the hollowness, the lives cut short, and the pity of it all. “Strange Meeting” was meant to be lyrically jarring and never far from denoting dissonance, fear, or misery. The poem was not maudlin or consoling, but a requiem for the dead. It was a lament for the lost and disheartened soldier, and for those left behind to pick up the pieces. It was about countless deaths, recognition, futility, and [deleted “the”, but not sure if that’s the right thing to do or not  DF]waning light: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. / I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. / I parried, but my hands were loath and cold. / Let us sleep now … ” As we might expect, “Strange Meeting”  was sophisticated in its construction and technically complex. Owen used literary devices such as personification, metaphor, and the pairing of similar consonants with dissimilar vowels to express the melancholy, the extreme otherness, and the heartbreak of war. The poem was written in iambic pentameter. For its author, simple rhymes were one-dimensional and would have failed to convey, in their tone, the atmosphere and the great toll of war.

Read Wilfred Owen’s poems such as “Strange Meeting” and prepare to be stunned by their power, judgment, and beauty of language.