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About this poet

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.”

Exposure

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . 
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . . 
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . . 
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, 
       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire, 
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles. 
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles, 
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war. 
       What are we doing here? 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . . 
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy. 
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army 
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey, 
       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence. 
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow, 
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew, 
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance, 
       But nothing happens. 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces— 
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed, 
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed, 
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses. 
       Is it that we are dying? 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed 
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there; 
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs; 
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,— 
       We turn back to our dying. 

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn; 
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit. 
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid; 
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born, 
       For love of God seems dying. 

To-night, this frost will fasten on this mud and us, 
Shrivelling many hands, and 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.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

One of the most admired poets of World War I, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen is best known for his poems "Anthem for Doomed Youth" and "Dulce et Decorum Est." He was killed in France on November 4, 1918.

by this poet

poem
My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars,
poem
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
poem
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.  

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then,