My subject is War, and the pity of War. . . All a poet can do today is warn.That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
Wilfred Owen is considered by many scholars to be the greatest poet of World War I. His gritty poems could only have been produced by someone intimate with the horrors of the World War I trenches. Owen was born in England on March 18, 1893 and began writing poetry in his teens. He enlisted on October 21, 1915 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June, 1916. When he first enlisted, perhaps, he believed in the myth of the glory of war. That romanticism didn't last long.
In January 1917, Owen wrote to his mother. "I can see no excuse for deceiving you about the last 4 days," his letter says. "I have suffered in seventh hell. . . . Those fifty hours [in the dug-outs] were the agony of my happy life. I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was now slowly rising over my knees." (from First World War Poetry Digital Archive) In April of the same year, he, again, wrote his mother. "For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out." (Ibid.) Not long after, Owen developed shell-shock and was sent to Craighlockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland where he was under the care of Captain A.J Brock.
Captain Brock treated shell-shock patients through encouraging them to take on projects, such as the production of the hospital-based literary magazine, The Hydra, which Owen edited. Owen's first war poems were printed in its pages. Also at the same hospital was poet Siegfried Sassoon and the friendship between the two poets had a major influence on Owen's work. After one visit with Sassoon, Owen wrote another friend that Sassoon had advised him to, "Sweat your guts out writing poetry."
from Exposure by Wilfred Owen
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . . /We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy./Dawn missing in the east her melancholy army/Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,/But nothing happens.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,/Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp./The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,/Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,/But nothing happens.
At the hospital, Owen and Sassoon were encouraged to talk about their combat experiences and praised for their poetry. This was an unusual treatment for those times. WHR Rivers (Sassoon's doctor) wrote that, "The advice which has usually been given to my patients in other hospitals is that they should banish all thoughts of the war from their minds." It was a gift that both Owen and Sassoon were treated by doctors who respected the healing power of bearing witness to trauma.
Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce et Decorum Est were written at Craiglockhart. Both poems were a far cry from the serenely measured stanzas of "In Flanders Fields", which has become the most famous poem written about World War I. Owen would have had little use for such lines as those in the final stanza of "In Flanders Fields." Take up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch, be yours to hold it high. By contrast, the final lines of Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" show the poet's outrage over the meaningless deaths of the men under his command. The poet writes, that if they had seen with their own eyes the horrors of the trenches, "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori." (How good it is to die for your country.)
Tragically, that is exactly what Owen, himself, did - die for his country. He was killed on November 4, 1918 only one week before the end of the war. He was only 25. The last letter he wrote to his mother told her that, "You could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here." (First World War Poetry Digital Archive)
For more on war poetry, check out the splendid anthology, Against Forgetting. The friendship between Owen and Sassoon, and their treatment at Craighartlock Hospital, has been brought to brilliant life in Regeneration by British author Pat Barker.
For yet more readings go to Small Wars.