World War One produced a number of famous poets and affected the lives of many notable authors. I will introduce you to some of them over the course of the next several weeks. We start with my favorite Great War poet.
March 18, 1893, Shropshire, United Kingdom.
Owen had a good education, but his family could not afford higher education. He tried, but failed, to earn a scholarship.
He began writing when he was around 10. Although, some scholars say he was 17.
Raised in a religious family, Owen became disillusioned with the church because he felt it wasn’t helping the impoverished nearly enough.
When the war began, he was working as a Berlitz teacher in France.
World War One:
Owen enlisted in the autumn of 1915, attended officer-training school and entered active duty in 1916. Once on the front, he suffered from one terrifying experience after another. Eventually he was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to a military hospital outside Edinburgh for treatment.
There, he was able to immerse himself in Edinburgh’s artistic and literary culture, and met poet Siegfried Sassoon who became a close friend and mentor. His doctor also encouraged him to express his feelings with his writing.
He returned to active duty in 1918.
Nov. 4, 1918, France, while on a combat mission. Owen’s family received the telegram on Armistice Day just as the city’s bells were tolling to announce the war’s end.
He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.
Most of Owen’s poems were published after his death, including his most famous.
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound’ring 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.* (Source: The War Poetry Website)
- Latin translation: It is sweet and right to die for your country.
Do you have a favorite war poem? Leave a comment below.
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