Today is the birthday (1893) of Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC, English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shockingly realistic war poetry concerning the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was heavily influenced by his friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon, and stood in stark contrast both to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Insensibility,” “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “Futility,” and “Strange Meeting.”
Wilfred Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, a house in Weston Lane, near Oswestry in Shropshire of mixed English and Welsh ancestry. He was the eldest of four children, his siblings being Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen. At that time, his parents, Thomas and Harriet Susan (née Shaw) Owen, lived in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather, Edward Shaw but, after the latter’s death in January 1897, and the house’s sale in March, the family lodged in back streets of Birkenhead while Thomas temporarily worked in the town with the railway company employing him. In April the latter transferred to Shrewsbury, where the family lived with Thomas’ parents in Canon Street.
In 1898, Thomas transferred to Birkenhead again when he became stationmaster at Woodside station and the family lived with him, at three successive homes in the Tranmere district, before moving back to Shrewsbury in 1907. Wilfred was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School (later known as the Wakeman 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 was to last throughout his life. His early influences included the Bible and the “big six” of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats. For Owen’s last two years of formal education he was a pupil-teacher at the Wyle Cop school in Shrewsbury. In 1911, he passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship, which in his family’s circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam, Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading. 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.
From 1913, 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. When war broke out, he did not rush to enlist, and even considered the French army, but eventually returned to England.
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 behavior, and in a letter to his mother described his company as “expressionless lumps.” However, his life was to be changed dramatically by a number of traumatic experiences. He fell into a shell hole and suffered concussion; he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, and spent several days lying out on an embankment in Savy Wood amongst (or so he thought) the remains of a fellow officer. Soon afterwards, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was while recuperating at Craiglockhart that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter that was to transform Owen’s life.
Whilst at Craiglockhart, he made friends in Edinburgh’s artistic and literary circles, and did some teaching at the Tynecastle High School, in a poor area of the city. In November he was discharged from Craiglockhart, judged fit for light regimental duties. He spent a contented and fruitful winter in Scarborough, and in March 1918 was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. While in Ripon he composed or revised a number of poems, including “Futility” and “Strange Meeting.” He spent his 25th birthday quietly at Ripon Cathedral, which is dedicated to his namesake, St. Wilfrid of Hexham.
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. However, only one week before the end of the war, whilst attempting to traverse the Sambre canal, he was shot and killed. The news of his death, on 4 November 1918, arrived at his parents’ house in Shrewsbury on Armistice Day. 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. The citation followed on 30 July 1919:
2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.
Owen is regarded by some critics as the leading poet of the First World War, known for his war poetry on the horrors of trench and gas warfare. He had been writing poetry for some years before the war, himself dating his poetic beginnings to a stay at Broxton by the Hill, when he was ten years old. The Romantic poets Keats and Shelley influenced much of Owen’s early writing and poetry. His great friend, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, later had a profound effect on Owen’s poetic voice, and Owen’s most famous poems (“Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth”) show direct results of Sassoon’s influence. Manuscript copies of the poems survive, annotated in Sassoon’s handwriting. Owen’s poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. While his use of pararhyme (near rhyme) with heavy reliance on assonance of consonants was innovative, he was not the only poet at the time to use these particular techniques. He was, however, one of the first to experiment with it extensively.
Here is an excerpt from “Strange Meeting” with the pararhymes in bold.
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
Here is “Dulce et Decorum Est” preceded by the marked up manuscript.
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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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
His poetry itself underwent significant changes in 1917. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, Owen’s doctor, Arthur Brock, encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry. Sassoon, who was becoming influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, aided him here, showing Owen through example what poetry could do. Sassoon’s use of satire influenced Owen, who tried his hand at writing “in Sassoon’s style”. Further, the content of Owen’s verse was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon. Sassoon’s emphasis on realism and “writing from experience” was contrary to Owen’s hitherto romantic-influenced style, as seen in his earlier sonnets. Owen was to take both Sassoon’s gritty realism and his own romantic notions and create a poetic synthesis that was both potent and sympathetic, as summarised by his famous phrase “the pity of war”. In this way, Owen’s poetry is quite distinctive, and he is, by many, considered a greater poet than Sassoon. Nonetheless, Sassoon contributed to Owen’s popularity by his strong promotion of his poetry, both before and after Owen’s death, and his editing was instrumental in the making of Owen as a poet.
Owen’s poems had the benefit of strong patronage, and it was a combination of Sassoon’s influence, support from Edith Sitwell, and the preparation of a new and fuller edition of the poems in 1931 by Edmund Blunden that ensured his popularity, coupled with a revival of interest in his poetry in the 1960s which plucked him out of a relatively exclusive readership into the public eye. Though he had plans for a volume of verse, for which he had written a “Preface”, he never saw his own work published apart from those poems he included in The Hydra, the magazine he edited at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and “Miners,” which was published in The Nation.
There were many other influences on Owen’s poetry, including his mother. His letters to her provide an insight into Owen’s life at the front, and the development of his philosophy regarding the war. Graphic details of the horror Owen witnessed were never spared. Owen’s experiences with religion also heavily influenced his poetry, notably in poems such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, in which the ceremony of a funeral is re-enacted not in a church, but on the battlefield itself, and “At a Calvary near the Ancre”, which comments on the Crucifixion of Christ. Owen’s experiences in war led him further to challenge his religious beliefs, claiming in his poem “Exposure” that “love of God seems dying”.
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.
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 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. There are memorials to Wilfred Owen at Gailly, Ors, Oswestry, Birkenhead (Central Library) and Shrewsbury.
On 11 November 1985, Owen was one of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The inscription on the stone is taken from Owen’s “Preface” to his poems: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” There is also a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building.
The forester’s house in Ors where Owen spent his last night, Maison forestière de l’Ermitage, has been transformed by Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson into an art installation and permanent memorial to Owen and his poetry, which opened to the public on 1 October 2011.
Here’s a recipe from Picardy where Owen was killed and now rests in peace. Picardy is especially noted for terroir cuisine (cooking using local ingredients only). Maroilles (also known as Marolles) is a cow’s-milk cheese made in the regions of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais in northern France. It derives its name from the village of Maroilles in the region in which it is still manufactured. The curd is shaped and salted before being removed from its mold and placed in a ventilated drying area for around ten days during which time a light coating of bacteria develops. The cheese is then brushed and washed and cellared for at least five weeks, though periods of up to four months are not uncommon. During this time it is turned and brushed at regular intervals to remove the natural white mold and to allow its red bacteria to change the rind from yellow to red.
For filet de veau au lard à la crème de maroilles a loin of veal is larded with bacon, baked, and then smothered in a sauce made from Maroilles and Picardy beer. Because this is a terroir dish you going to be hard put to make it at home — unless your home is in Picardy.
Filet De Veau Au Lard À La Crème De Maroilles
22 ozs/600 gm veal loin
10 slices Picardy bacon
½ cup/1 dl Picardy beer
7 ozs/200 gm of Maroilles cheese
3 ozs80 gm butter
1 cup/2 dl cream
Pre-heat oven to 250°F /(120 °C
Bard (wrap) the veal loin with slices of bacon.
Brown the barded loin on all sides in a heavy skillet. Place the loin in a baking dish and bake for 40 minutes.
Melt the maroilles with the beer in the skillet along with the veal and bacon juices. Add the cream plus salt and pepper to taste.
Coat the bottom of a serving plate with the maroilles sauce. Place the loin on top cut into thick slices (3 per person). Serve with egg noodles or new potatoes plus crusty bread.