“Wilfred Owen is widely recognised as one of the greatest voices of the First World War,” the association that bares his name says. Indeed, he is perhaps the best known poet to come out of the conflict. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
The majority of Owen’s poems, however, were published after his death, including his most famous — Dulce et Decorum Est.
Owen was born March 18, 1893 in Oswestry, United Kingdom. Scholars debate about when Owen began writing. Some say around the age of 10; others say he was a young man.
He received a good education, but his family could not afford university. He tried, but failed, to earn a scholarship. Raised in a religious family, he then considered a religious career. This plan was soon abandoned. He became disillusioned with the church, feeling it wasn’t helping the impoverished nearly enough.
Owen went to France where he became a Berlitz teacher and later a tutor.
World War I
Owen enlisted in the autumn of 1915, attended officer-training school and entered active duty in 1916. Once at the front, he suffered from multiple terrifying experiences and eventually was diagnosed with shell shock. Doctors sent him to a military hospital outside Edinburgh for treatment.
There, he was able to immerse himself in the city’s artistic and literary culture, and met poet Siegfried Sassoon who became a close friend and mentor. In addition, Owen’s doctor encouraged him to express his feelings in writing.
Owen returned to active duty in 1918. He was awarded the Military Cross for his Sept. 29 capture of a machine gun position during the attack of the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme Line.
He was killed Nov. 4 while on a combat mission in France. The Owen family received the notification of his death via telegram on Armistice Day just as bells tolled to announce the war’s end.
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.*
- Translation from Latin: It is sweet and right to die for your country.
Updated: 20 October 2020