Wilfred Owen was born the eldest of four children in a house near Oswestry in Shropshire called Plas Wilmot on 18 March 1893, of mixed English and Welsh ancestry. His siblings were Harold, Colin, and Mary Millard Owen. At that time, his parents, Thomas and Harriet Susan (Shaw) Owen, lived in a comfortable house owned by his grandfather but, on his death in 1897, the family was forced to move to lodgings in the back streets of Birkenhead. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and at Shrewsbury Technical School (now The Wakeman School), and discovered his vocation in 1903 or 1904 during a holiday spent in Cheshire. Owen was raised as an Anglican of the evangelical school, and in his youth was a devout believer, in part due to his strong relationship with his mother, which was to last throughout his life. His early influences included the 'big six' of romantic poetry, particularly John Keats, and the Bible.
Shortly after leaving school in 1911, Owen passed the matriculation exam for the University of London, but not with the first-class honours needed for a scholarship (his studies suffered as Owen mourned the loss of his uncle and role model, Edgar Hilton in a hunting accident) which in his family's circumstances was the only way he could have afforded to attend.
In return for free lodging, and some tuition for the entrance exam, Owen worked as lay assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden near Reading and as a pupil-teacher at Wyle Cop School. He then attended classes at University College, Reading (now the University of Reading), in botany and later, at the urging of the head of the English Department, free lessons in Old English. His time spent at Dunsden parish led him to disillusionment with the church, both in its ceremony and its failure to provide aid for those in need.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, he worked as a private tutor teaching English and French at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France. There he met the older French poet Laurent Tailhade, with whom he later corresponded in French.
On 21 October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles Officers' Training Corps. For the next seven months, he trained at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. On 4 June 1916 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant (on probation) in The Manchester Regiment. Owen started the war as a cheerful and optimistic man, but he soon changed forever. Initially, he held his troops in contempt for their loutish behaviour, and in a letter to his mother described his company as "expressionless lumps". However, Owen's outlook on the war was to be changed dramatically after two traumatic experiences. Firstly, he was blown high into the air by a trench mortar, landing among the remains of a fellow officer. Soon after, he became trapped for days in an old German dugout. After these two events, Owen was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. It was whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart that he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, an encounter which was to transform Owen's life.
After a period of convalescence in Northern Ireland, then a short spell working as a teacher in nearby Tynecastle High School, he returned to light regimental duties. In March 1918, he was posted to the Northern Command Depot at Ripon. A number of poems were composed in Ripon, including "Futility" and "Strange Meeting". His 25th birthday was spent quietly in Ripon Cathedral.
Owen held Sassoon in an esteem not far from hero-worship, remarking to his mother that he was "not worthy to light [Sassoon's] pipe." On being discharged from Craiglockhart, Owen was stationed on home-duty in Scarborough for several months, during which time he associated with members of the artistic circle into which Sassoon had introduced him, which included Robert Ross and Robert Graves. He also met H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, and it was during this period he developed the stylistic voice for which he is now recognised. Many of his early poems were penned while stationed at the Clarence Garden Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel in Scarborough's North Bay. A blue tourist plaque on the hotel marks its association with Owen.
Robert Graves and Sacheverell Sitwell (who also personally knew him) have stated Owen was a homosexual, and homoeroticism is a central element in much of Owen's poetry. Through Sassoon, Owen was introduced to a sophisticated homosexual literary circle which included Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, writer and poet Osbert Sitwell, and Scottish writer C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, the translator of Proust. This contact broadened Owen's outlook, and increased his confidence in incorporating homoerotic elements into his work. Historians have debated whether Owen had an affair with Scott-Moncrieff in May 1918; Scott-Moncrieff had dedicated various works to a "Mr W.O.", but Owen never responded.
The account of Owen's sexual development has been somewhat obscured because his brother, Harold Owen, removed what he considered discreditable passages in Owen's letters and diaries after the death of their mother. Owen also requested that his mother burn a sack of his personal papers in the event of his death, which she did. Andrew Motion wrote of Owen's relationship with Sassoon: "On the one hand, Sassoon's wealth, posh connections and aristocratic manner appealed to the snob in Owen: on the other, Sassoon's homosexuality admitted Owen to a style of living and thinking that he found naturally sympathetic.
In July 1918, Owen returned to active service in France, although 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 in a so-called friendly fire incident, was put on sick-leave for the remaining duration of the war. Owen saw it as his patriotic 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.
Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells were ringing out in celebration. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery. There are memorials to Wilfred Owen at Gailly, Ors, Oswestry, Birkenhead (Central Library) and Shrewsbury.
On 11 November 1985, Owen was one of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone is taken from Owen's "Preface" to his poems; "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." There is also a small museum dedicated to Owen and Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, now a Napier University building.
Burial: Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, Nord-Pas-de-Calais Region, France
The Works of Wilfred Owen (Wordsworth Poetry) by Wilfred Owen
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd (December 5, 1999)
Amazon: The Works of Wilfred Owen
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 in just over a year, and Dulce et Decorum Est, S.I.W., Futility and Anthem for Doomed Youth still have an astonishing power to move the reader. Owen pointed out that 'All a poet can do today is to warn. That is why all true Poets must be truthful'. His warning was based on his acute observation of the soldiers with whom he served on the Western Front, and his poems reflect the horror and the waste of the First World War. This volume contains all Owen's best-known poems, only four of which were published in his lifetime. He was killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918.
Wilfred Owen: A New Biography by Dominic Hibberd
Paperback: 608 pages
Publisher: Phoenix Paperbacks (November 4, 2003)
Amazon: Wilfred Owen: A New Biography
When Wilfred Owen died in 1918 aged 25, only five of his poems had been published. Yet he became one of the most popular poets of the 20th century. For decades his public image was controlled by family and friends, especially his brother Harold who was terrified anyone might think Wilfred was gay. In recent years much new material has become available. This book, based on over thirty years of wide-ranging reaearch, brings new information to almost every part of Owen's life. Owen emerges as a complex, fascinating and often endearing character with an intense delight in being alive.
Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey From The Trenches, A Biography (1918-1967) by Hilary Radner
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Routledge (December 2, 2004)
Amazon: Siegfried Sassoon: The Journey From The Trenches, A Biography (1918-1967)
–John Gross, The Sunday Telegraph
A story in which the roots are as interesting as the core . . . invaluable to historians of the period..
–Andrew Motion, The Times (London)
A necessary and engrossing piece of work..
–Neil Powell, Times Literary Supplement