On National Poetry Day, and just weeks from the centenary of his death, it seems only fitting to reflect on the legacy of one of the most notable poets produced by the First World War: Wilfred Owen. During her student summer placement at IWM London, Anna Moloney was tasked with researching his story, and in this guest blog post Anna reflects on how Owen’s memory has been shaped over the last hundred years.
- Owen the soldier
A soldier and a poet, Wilfred Owen’s remarkability lies in his ability to see poetry through a soldier’s eye and war through a poet’s.
Owen was initially reluctant to join the army, justifying this with his belief that his poetry was of more value to England than his life. However, his stance soon changed and he decided that he could no longer ignore his duty as a poet to join the war effort. Owen was resolute that he was joining on his own terms – his decision to join the Artists Rifles when enlisting in the war in 1915 was no coincidence (he was later commissioned as an officer in the Manchester Regiment).
I must always remember it is my war … I am acting from my own volition … but others are not … perhaps I can speak for them …can my poetry do this?
In Wilfred’s own words, as recalled by his brother Harold,
“I must always remember it is my war…I am acting from my own volition…but others are not…perhaps I can speak for them…can my poetry do this?”
In this way, Owen saw himself as set apart from the common soldier. Though his poetry may portray the injustices of war, he never saw himself as an unfair victim of it. Rather, he emphasised that his entry into the war was a product of reasoned judgment rather than patriotic hysteria.
- Owen the poet
Whilst he was moved deeply by losing his fellow comrades, Owen had a sort of premonition of his own early death and it struck him as somewhat of an inevitability; it was only the survival of his poetry which remained of paramount importance to him. He was obsessed by his artistic idols who had also faced early deaths, John Keats being chief among these, and he seemed to consider suffering as crucial to the fostering of good art. As Harold Owen describes:
“… he was inclined when working well to fear it denoted early death; and when feeling robust and healthy to fear that this was a signal of lack of talent.”
Such a fate that Owen did later meet, dying only a week before Armistice Day aged twenty-five, the same age at which Keats met his death, thus seems to possess a poetic tragedy that Owen would have deemed fitting.
Furthermore, with Owen’s death came the birth of his poetic legacy. Thanks to the efforts of Owen’s good friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen’s poems came to be some of the most well known and well loved of the war. Their refusal to glorify the war, and determination instead to expose the horrors of frontline experience, stood Owen’s poems apart from the bulk of First World War literature. Owen always sought to speak the gritty truth of war. Even his letters to his mother never played down his suffering, unlike those of most of his comrades who sought to hide the worst.
As a hundred years of remembering Owen’s death and the end of the First World War approaches, his concern with truth prompts a reflection on the nature of his legacy. In particular, early impressions of Owen as a pious young man are undeniably the creation of his mother, who took charge in the cultivation of Owen’s early public image. This misrepresentation is most striking in her choice of inscription on Owen’s gravestone; her isolation of the lines ‘Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth/All death will he annul’ from Owen’s poem ‘The End’ distorts their true meaning, as the poem actually goes onto refute this claim. Owen himself also had a part to play in moulding his own legacy, after instructing his mother to burn a sack of his papers in the event of his death. Harold’s editing of Wilfred’s letters shows a similar desire to make Wilfred’s reputation as respectable as possible. This has sometimes proven controversial and Harold has often been accused of trying to intentionally conceal Wilfred’s inferred homosexuality.
However, the increase in scholarly interest in Owen and in particular the publishing of his letters in 1967 (despite their aforementioned censoring), has made it easier to gain a sense of the true Wilfred and to free his legacy from the tinting of his family’s gaze. Perhaps the most interesting misconception complicated by these letters is the belief that Owen was a pacifist, as many believe. On the contrary, Owen held deep contempt for those ‘shirkers’ who refused to fight in the war. He was not fundamentally opposed to war, he just passionately believed that people should know the truth of it. He stated his own purpose in one his most famous poems: to dispel ‘that old lie – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ [it is sweet and honourable to die for your country]. For him, poetry was the only way that the truth could properly be revealed. His resolve that “to describe [the fate of comrades], I think I must go back and be with them” led Owen to his death, but it also introduced his poetry to the world and it is this that mattered to him.
A century later, Owen is perhaps able to speak to us more clearly than ever. In the Preface to a collection of poetry that he would not live to see published, he wrote
All the poet can do to-day is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful
“… these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All the poet can do to-day is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”
He himself stated that his poems were written for people in the future to be inspired and educated by. A hundred years on he can rest easy that he has achieved this.
- Discover the stories of other First World War poets, in this Lives of the First World War Community