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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC (March 18 1893–November 4 1918) was an English poet. Born at Plas Wilmot near Oswestry in Shropshire of mixed English and Welsh ancestry, he was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School. He worked as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School while studying for the University of London entrance exams then, prior to the outbreak of World War I, as a private tutor at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France.
In 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and in January 1917 was commissioned as a second lieutenant with The Manchester Regiment. After some traumatic experiences, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. There he met another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him and helped with stylistic problems.
Sassoon had a profound effect on Owen's poetic voice, and Owen's most famous poems (Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth) show direct results of Sassoon's influence. Owen's poetry would eventually be more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor, which has led to the misconception that Owen was naturally the superior artist. While his use of pararhyme, with its heavy reliance on assonance, was both innovative and, in some of his works, quite brilliant, he was not the only poet at the time to utilise that particular technique. As for his poetry itself, its content was undeniably changed by his work with Sassoon: hitherto, there had been few if any poems which dealt with the war directly. Sassoon's emphasis on realism and 'writing from experience' was not exactly unheard of to Owen, but it was not a style which he had previously made use of. Enough cannot be said of the impact Sassoon made on Owen's work, and it is extremely regretful that Owen has 'superseded' his friend in the eyes of so many historians. Sassoon himself contributed to this by his strong promotion of Owen's poetry, both before and after Owen's death; and his own natural deference, which compelled him to slip into the background.
Owen, however, would have strongly disagreed with the assumption that he was superior. He held Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother about Sassoon that he was... "not worthy to light his pipe". Several incidents in Owen's life, as well as some of his poems (i.e. "Who Is The God of Canongate?") and his circle of friends in London, have led to the conclusion that he was a closet homosexual, and that he was attracted to Sassoon as a man as well as a more experienced poet. Surviving letters show quite clearly that he was in love with Sassoon, but there is no evidence that Sassoon reciprocated his feelings, or that their relationship ever became sexual. He was devastated by Sassoon's decision to return to the front, though he left Craiglockhart before Sassoon did. He was stationed in Scarborough on home-duty for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, including Robert Ross and Robert Graves.
In July of 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, though he might have stayed on home-duty indefinitely. His decision was almost wholly the result of Sassoon's being sent back to England. Sassoon, who had been shot in the head, was put on sick-leave for the duration of the war. Owen saw it as his poetic duty to take Sassoon's place at the front, that the horrific realities of the war might continue to be told. (Sassoon was violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches, threatening to 'stab [him] in the leg' if he tried it. Aware of his attitude, Owen did not inform him of his action until he was once again in France). By a supreme irony, he was killed during the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, only a week before the end of the war. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day. Sassoon did not learn of it until the spring of 1919, and never fully accepted nor got over the fact.
Only three of Owen's poems had been published before his death. Sassoon, along with Edith Sitwell, later helped ensure that a larger collection was published.
His best known poems include "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Dulce Et Decorum Est", "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young", and "Strange Meeting ". Some of his poems feature in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.
It should be noted that many of Owen's poems have never been published in popular form - those who wish to read Owen's full unexpurgated opus should consult the academic two-volume work The Complete Poems and Framents (1994) by Jon Stallworthy.
- Wilfred Owen - the last year, 1917-18. Dominic Hibbert. 1992.
- Wilfred Owen: A New Biography. Dominic Hibbert. 2003.
- Owen's selected poems, at Project Gutenberg
- Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive, at Oxford University
- The Wilfred Owen resource page at warpoetry.co.uk
- Selected Poems at Poetseers
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