The WWI War Poems of Wilfred Owen: The Poetry is in the Pity

by JoHarrington

Wilfred Owen is arguably Britain's greatest ever war poet. His words took his readers right into the trenches of the First World War, and broke their hearts.

'GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!'

It feels like we're there, lulled by the sheer, relentless exhaustion of horror into half missing the canisters which just dropped behind. Now we're part of this. An 'ecstasy of fumbling' to secure our gas masks. Or we're drowning in air. Floundering. Choking. Falling, as ghastly sores erupt in our mouths and lungs.

Wilfred Owen takes us there, into the rat-infested trenches of the Great War. He doesn't stint on what he shows us. He rubs our noses in what we've been cheering on. It's not patriotism, it's pity.

The Wartime Bard Wilfred Owen

There were times when he didn't need to be there, experiencing the horror and the carnage, but he did it so he could write the verses.

Image: Wilfred OwenThe First World War is always seen through the lens of time or propaganda.

It's something which happened elsewhere, permeated now with visions of cratered landscapes and endless rows of neat, white gravestones. If it comes alive at all, then it's remotely glimpsed through the jerky images of grainy, black and white footage; or the photographs of a muddied Somme.

Wilfred Owen changes all that. His words reach back through time to drag us into the reality.

This twenty-something boy from rural Shropshire was killed just days before the end of the war. His parents received the telegram on Armistice Day. Before that, Owen had a close call when he'd been blown sky-high during a mortar attack. He'd suffered shell-shock. He'd lain for days on an embankment surrounded by the scattered remains of an officer.

Owen had also wrestled an enemy machine gun from an isolated position and used it to fire back across the lines. He had led several units in an assault near the village of Joncourt, France; and taken those points. He received the Military Cross for Valor.

Wilfred Owen needn't have been on the front line at all in 1918. Having been injured and sent home for recuperation, he opted to return to France. His fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon had narrowly survived being shot in the head, and that left no 'voice' to tell these stories.

Owen went back because he felt his duty lay in ensuring the truth was told. The poetry had to be written. (Though Sassoon threatened to 'stab him in the leg', if Owen volunteered to return to the front. And the poet soon regretted his 'foolishness', once he was back in the trenches.)

Wilfred Owen was desperate to do his part to ensure that something like this could never happen again. Because people reading his verse, understanding the reality, would grasp the pity of war. How then could they send more men into it?

He was shot and killed, on November 4th 1918, while attempting to cross the Sambre Canal. 2nd Lieutenant Owen, of the Manchester Regiment, was only twenty-five years old.

Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est

'Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori' is a sentiment that is still repeated in modern wars. It translates from the Latin as 'It is noble and good to die for one's country'.

The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

The Evocative Style of Wilfred Owen's War Poetry

Even if you didn't know what the words were saying, you could get a sense of the scene from the sounds made speaking them.

Image: Wilfred OwenLike Jeremy Paxman, I was also exposed to Wilfred Owen's poetry for the first time at school.

It was through pouring over poetry like Anthem for Doomed Youth and Futility that I learned the power of words. Not as an abstract, being worked upon as a reader without knowing why, but as something which could be crafted to become more than the sum of their definition.

Wilfred Owen selects words not merely for their meaning, but the way that they sound when spoken aloud. His poems were never written to be silently scanned, but to be shouted with passion from the roof-tops.

Speak aloud these lines from Anthem for Doomed Youth, and listen to how the machine guns can be heard behind them.

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons

Two volleys splutter through the first two lines, then shocked silence lingers through the third. It's in the choice of words and the speed of the syntax. There's the repetition of 'only the' signalling another round. Then the softer sounds of 'can patter out' to apply the literary brakes. Before the sibilance kicks in with 'their hasty orisons', spitting bitterness into the lull.

This kind of thing is the genius of Wilfred Owen. It's what renders his poetry less a straight narrative description, and more an actual experience of war. His readers don't just register a report, we hear the guns, smell the gas, flinch from the mortars, get deafened by the shells and shiver in exposure to the wind and snow.

Sometimes we die.

Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth

Before the war, Owen had been a lay assistant for a vicar. In the horrors of battle, he lost his faith in God and wondered bitterly about all those pretty funeral rites back home.

Poetry is in the Pity of World War One

Wilfred Owen didn't write to glorify war. He followed Seigfried Sassoon's advice to tell it as it really is. Owen let his compassion and self-pity shine through.

Image: Wilfred Owen'This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.'

Wilfred Owen did not live to see his poems published together in a collection. But he planned for that to happen. In May 1918, he even wrote the preface for it.  The above is how it began.

A heart-breaking humanity runs an undercurrent through every one of Owen's snapshot glimpses into the front line. He mentions courage and heroism, but more so the fact that no-one would willingly be there. They are living, breathing, thinking, feeling men pushed right to the limits of endurance, then past them.

Owen describes what he sees all around him with a deep compassion. Nor is this solely reserved for those on his own side.

In Strange Meeting, it is a German soldier who tells of what the war has cost him. The richness of his own life, mind and personality ('I went hunting wild after the wildest beauty..') has been extinguished in 'the pity of war, the pity war distilled.' There's guilt too for the Englishman, as the ghostly German tells how sheer exhaustion meant that he couldn't even save his own life.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now ...

If time and propaganda would dehumanize those individuals fighting on both sides of the conflict, then Wilfred Owen strikes back with a resounding 'no'. This happened to people just like him, and just like me and you.

Now, for pity's sake, stop it happening ever again.

Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting

In the afterlife, two soldiers meet again in the middle of No Man's Land. (Poem begins at 5:02, prelude action from 4:26)

Books about Wilfred Owen and the War Poets

Wilfred Owen: A New Biography

Mr. Hibberd's new biography of the Great War's greatest poet, based on more than thirty years of wide-ranging research, brings new information and reinterpretation to virtually ...

View on Amazon

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others (Unabridged)

Rich selection of powerful, moving verse includes Brooke's "The Soldier," Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," "In the Pink" by Sassoon, "In Flanders Fields" by Lieut. Col. McCrae,...

View on Amazon

The Works of Wilfred Owen (Wordsworth Poetry) (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

In his draft Preface, Wilfred Owen includes his well-known statement 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity'. All of his important poems were written...

View on Amazon

Wilfred Owen (Oxford Student Texts)

One of a series designed to provide a new, accessible approach to the works of great poets and playwrights. Each text includes general notes on the text; discussion of themes, i...

View on Amazon

Wilfred Owen: On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War (Battleground Europe. on the Trail of th...

This is a guide to the battlefields that inspired the young and sensitive poet, whose poems are probably the twentieth century's best-known literary expressions of experience of...

View on Amazon

Not About Heroes: The Friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

Drama Characters: 2 malesSet Requirements: Unit set "Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori", facetiously penned British poet Wilfred Owen, who was soon to die in the Great War. I...

View on Amazon

Updated: 02/28/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

Mari - You have just introduced me to a poet of whom I knew nothing. Thank you. I, for one, would love to read a whole article on this. There's plenty to be said and to teach us. I tend to think art or novels with regard to the Spanish Civil War. I would like to be exposed to the poetry too.

JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

Kate - I now have an exquisite mental image of muses swapping shifts.

I did read how the WWII war poets felt that they couldn't possibly match the passion of Owen, Sassoon, Graves etc. Plus it had already been said and the message hadn't got through. So they moved onto other things.

Maritravel on 06/27/2013

Just caught up with this discussion. Second World War poets there were aplenty but they were less emotional in their poetry. Alun Lewis, Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas. Sidney Keyes and Jarrell are just a few of my favourites. Douglas's work seems unemotional at first but it can be very unsettling because of his exact description. One of his best poems, in my opinion, is "Desert Flowers" and in it he mentions World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg (one missing from your list of First WW. poets.
I can't resist quoting a few lines of probably the most famous of Alun Lewis's poems, " All Day it has Rained" as this to me epitomises what I imagine to be the other side of war, the total boredom.

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found

No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap
And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap,
All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,

Don't forget either. the poetry of the Spanish Civil War and that of the Vietnam war. The poetry of the Vietnam War more resembles that of the First WW as the loss of innocence in that one was similar.

I should do an article on this, I think. I've blogged about my love of war poetry but I didn't see it somehow as fitting into Wizzley. I have a lot to learn.

Sorry for going on so much.

kate on 06/20/2013

good point Rupert ... i can't think of one poet who dealt directly with the war. Plenty of good artists around at that time though - Nash, Sutherland, Spencer etc. Perhaps the muse's had swapped shifts?

JoHarrington on 06/13/2013

That's the absolute tragedy, in a period full of tragedy. You can't help feeling your heart sink further, when you contemplate that what Wilfred described didn't actually end war at all.

Yes, very intense stuff, brilliantly rendered.

jptanabe on 06/13/2013

Intense stuff! Somehow people involved in WWI saw it as the war to end all wars, although that turned out not to be the case, sadly.

JoHarrington on 06/12/2013

I know that Seigfried Sassoon was actively encouraging writers like Wilfred Owen to put it down in verse. But I doubt that he was the driving force for the whole explosion of First World War poetry.

You're right though. Off the top of my head, I really am struggling to find a Second World War poet of the same quality. Surely there's a biggie we're both missing. I mean there's 'First They Came...' by Pastor Martin Niemöller, but that's just one poem. Mmmm.

And it's really cool that you're named for Rupert Brooke.

RupertTaylor on 06/12/2013

Why was it that the Great War gave us so many wonderful poets? In addition to the ones you mention, Rupert Brooke (after whom I was named), John McCrea, Robert Graves, Laurence Binyon come to mind.There were many others. However, I can't think of a single Second World War poet of renown. Perhaps, somebody can enlighten me.

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