November 4, 2009
Hail & Farewell: Wilfred Owen
by Dennis Johnson
On this day in 1918 the man most poetry scholars consider the greatest war poet of them all, Wilfred Owen, was killed in action during World War I. He was 25 years old, a lieutenant, and leading his men across a canal to attack a German stronghold when he was shot in the head. The war ended a week later, and according to an article on Wikipedia, Owen’s mother received notice of his death on Armistice Day, as church bells pealed in celebration.
His poetry was, in many ways, revolutionary, blending classic British romantic influences with those of grittier modernists such as his friend Siegfried Sassoon. He also, notably, eschewed the patriotism rampant in the popular poetry of the day, such as that of another war poet, Rupert Brooke. Instead, he described the war in all its horrors, with a brutal reality.
Most of his work was published after his death in the collection The Poems of Wilfred Owen. As Geoff Dyer comments in a biographical note at Poetry.org, “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.”
The BBC has posted an homage to Owen, including photographs and readings of some of his poems and letters. The English Department at Emory University has posted several of his poems here. Perhaps his most famous poem is Dulce et decorum est, from the Latin phrase for, roughly, “it is good and proper to die for one’s country.” In it, Owen describes witnessing one of his men dying from a gas attack as Owen tries to race him to a field hospital. The poem ends:
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.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives