Wilfred Owen War Poems: The Basics

Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen

This Resource is for students in Year 11 studying ‘Wilfred Owen War Poems’ in AOS1: Unit 1, Reading & Creating Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE Curriculum.

It can also be studied in AOS1:Unit 2, Reading & Comparing Texts along with ‘Minefields & Miniskirts’ play by Terrence O’Connell.

Poetry in Context of World War I 1914-1918

The literary responses evoked by the Great War were in many ways unique, particularly the writings that came from its immediate participants.  The British war poets such as Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Graves and Rosenberg are familiar to many, but it needs to be remembered that their work was but a small sample of the literature produced by soldiers at the front.  Australian soldiers fighting on the Western Front from 1914 to1918 also generated poetry and stories that have been published.

World War I in Context of Why Men Enlisted

Many of the thousands of British men (and Australian men) enlisted for quite different reasons: they were spurred by the public propaganda campaigns, the rousing speeches of politicians, clergymen and headmasters, the call of adventure, family and civic pressure and, for those without steady employment, the lure of regular pay. Some would have enlisted as they feared being labelled as cowards; it was an era where social pressure could be intense. To receive a white feather was seen as shameful. It is also crucial to remember that formal religion underpinned life in WWI Britain more than it does now. Much of the propaganda encouraging young men to enlist in WWI included notions of personal responsibility to God as well as patriotism to King and Country.

Why did Owen Enlist?

Despite a view that Owen’s motives in enlisting may have been more self-focused than patriotic, there is no doubt that he did take his role as an officer and soldier very seriously in France. Owen enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles on October 21, 1915, and spent nearly fourteen months training in various places around the English countryside before heading to France in winter, 1916.  It is worth noting that Owen did not actually spend a great deal of time at the Front compared to many soldiers. The battle experience on which his most famous poems are based was contained to about four months of which Owen spent no more than five weeks at the Front Line.

Battle in France 1916

Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen arrived in France in late December 1916, right in the middle of the coldest winter of the war. He was sent to Beaumont Hamel on the Somme as one of 527 reinforcements sent out following heavy losses in the Ancre Offensive. His letters to his mother from this period reflect his shock at the conditions both in the trenches and behind the lines. He also speaks movingly of his pity for his fellow soldiers and their suffering, especially in the extreme cold of that particular winter, when men were known to freeze to death. His language, even in these simple letters, is evocative, making the reader truly understand the deprivation and hardship brought on by the war. ‘Futility’ and ‘Exposure’ are fine examples of poems based on these experiences.

In March 1917, Owen fell into a cellar suffering a concussion, which hospitalised him for two weeks. On his return to his battalion at the beginning of April, he found himself involved in heavy fighting near St Quentin. He was blown off his feet and spent several days in a shell-hole surrounded by the remains of a fellow officer. Owen was not physically hurt, but when his Battalion was relieved, it was noticed that his behaviour had become somewhat strange—his speech was confused and he seemed shaky. He was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and was sent to a Casualty Clearing Station. Eventually he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he would remain for four months.

Owen Meets Poet Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart

Whilst a patient at Craiglockhart, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient, and the two became friends. Sassoon’s reputation as a poet and decorated war hero had preceded him.  Sassoon perceived a natural talent hidden in some of Owen’s poems. Sassoon encouraged Owen, even offering advice on the manuscript of one of Owen’s most famous poems, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.  His friendship with Sassoon gave Owen the impetus he needed and it was at this time that Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, responding to the propagandist poems of Jessie Pope and others like her, who persuaded young men into joining up when they had little or no grasp of what was involved at the front.

Return to France in 1917

Owen left Craiglockhart in October 1917 to undertake more training and also used his leave opportunities to visit literary friends in London. By the end of August 1918, he was back in France, having been passed fit to return to the Front. Before leaving England, he had told his brother, Harold, of his desire to return to the front, despite sensing that he, like so many English soldiers, would be killed. He had also, encouraged by friends, started planning a volume of poetry for publication, for which the draft Preface is included in Stallworthy’s collection.

In October 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross. On the morning of 4th November, while attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal, Owen was shot and killed (only 7 days before War was officially ended on 11th November, 1918. Owen is buried in the tiny Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Ors.

Owen and ‘The Pity of War’

The Preface written by Wilfred Owen in 1918 for the collection of poems he intended to have published after the war indicates his vision and aim as a poet. ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry/My subject is War, and the pity of War/The Poetry is in the pity’.  He goes on to say that even though his poems will offer no consolation to those who suffered WWI, they may be of use to the next generation, particularly as a warning about the consequences of war: the real experience of it and what it does to people.  Owen’s poems convey his genuine feelings for soldiers as they are caught up in the pity of war.  Here are soldiers experiencing extreme destructiveness: destruction of civilization, destruction of the landscape, and very importantly, the destructive effect war can have on a soldier’s physical, spiritual and psychological life.

Most Famous of Owen’s Anti-War Poem is ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’

Owen wrote it as he was recovering in hospital after being shell-shocked and gassed.  The title refers to a famous Latin patriotic saying ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ meaning that it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.  However, Owen disagrees with this as he has been at war and seen the reality.  In order to prove that there is no heroism in war, Owen recreates the reality very vividly with soldiers “bent double, like old beggars under sacks” and later “all went lame: all blind.”  The imagery is one of physical despair, illness and ageing before one’s time showing us that this is what one reaps from war.  The vivid contrast with the reality of “gas! gas! quick, boys!” confronts us with the reality of attack and the nightmare vision is surreal “as under a green sea I saw him drowning”.  Onomatopoeia is used throughout the poem creating very clear and disturbing imagery “guttering, choking, drowning, smothering, gargling.”  Owen builds up the reality of the men suffering and we cannot turn away from it. It is anything but noble and heroic, furthermore the dead are simply “flung”.  In particular the reality of dead men thrown one on top the other on a carriage disgust us, yet we cannot turn away from the horror, “if you could hear at every jolt, the blood, come gargling from the froth, corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer…” which leads to the conclusion that only silly children would believe the Old Lie: ‘How sweet it is to die for one’s country’.

Major Themes in Owen’s Poetry & Only Some Poems Related
The pity of war‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ * crosses over into many themes
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘Futility’  
The horrors of war‘Mental Cases’ / ‘Disabled’ / ‘Insensibility’  
Protest against war‘1914’ / ‘The Letter’ /
‘Soldier’s Dream’  
Injuries in war‘The Sentry’ / ‘The Dead Beat’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’  
Weapons of war‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘The Last Laugh’ / ‘Soldier’s Dream’  
Death and burial‘Futility’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ /
‘Wild with All Regrets ’
Survivors‘The Send Off’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Disabled ’
Nature‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Exposure’ / ‘1914’  
Love‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Strange Meeting’ / ‘Exposure’  
Hatred‘The Dead Beat’ / ‘S.I.W.’ /
‘Strange Meeting’  
Anger‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘Insensibility’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’  
Frustration‘Disabled’ / ‘Wild with All Regrets’  
Grief‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Sentry’ /
‘The Last Laugh’  
Officers & Men‘Inspection’ / ‘The Sentry’ /
‘The Dead Beat’  
Brothers in Arms & Camaraderie‘The Send Off’ / ‘Spring Offensive’ / ‘Exposure’  
Parents & Children‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ / ‘S.I.W.’ /
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’  
The Role of Women‘The Letter’ / ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ / ‘The Dead Beat’  
God, The Church, Religion‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ / ‘Soldier’s Dream’ /
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’  
Making Sense of the Senseless‘1914’ / ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ / ‘Strange Meeting’  
Dreams‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ / ‘Strange Meeting’ / ‘Miners’  

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum

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