Wilfred Owen lived for just 25 years. Much of his work was not published in his lifetime. And yet, in such a short life, he stands as one of the most important poets in the English language. He was heavily influenced by his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon, perhaps the only war poet to compete with Owen for fame. His unflinching descriptions of the horrors of trench warfare stood in stark contrast to the confident, patriotic poetry of Rupert Brooke, or the war propaganda of the day. Owen died just a week (almost to the hour) before the end of the war. His mother learned of his death as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration of victory, and the end of World War One.
World War One
On 4 June 1916, Wilfred Owen was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, and went to fight in France. There, he saw most of his closest friends die amidst the mud, disease and the gas of the Western Front. Owen presents an almost entirely negative view of war, with young men dying “as cattle”. But, like his mentor, Sassoon, Owen was a highly courageous soldier.
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Owen could be described as an individualist. His poetry prioritises the individual’s well-being (or merely the end of their suffering) over whatever the collective good might be. Drawing his readers through the ghastly reality of life in a battle zone, Owen turns patriotic fervour into a kind of disease. Everyone, it seems, is lost in war, leading to the sacrifice of a whole generation of Britons.
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Many of Owen’s poems describe the deep bonds of friendship and understanding that develop between soldiers. Without their families, these young men had only one another to rely on. Owen suggests that these bonds are even more powerful than romantic love, as their desperate circumstances forge deeper connections. Friendship is one of the few things these soldiers have to live for.
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Owen was raised as an evangelical Anglican by his devout mother, and his poems are filled with Biblical allusions. However, his works express profound disillusionment with organised religion, which advocated for Britain to join the war. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen describes the rituals of the church as being cold comfort to men on the battlefield, or to the people who loved them back at home.
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Although Anthem for Doomed Youth does not explicitly mention death after the first line, the whole poem – along with most of Owen’s other works – is obsessed with the issue. The poem moves between the sounds of incoming death, such as rifle and artillery fire, and images of mourning (coffin covers, candles, the passing-bells), and finally ends up at dusk: the dying of the day.
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