Research Paper

Response to Wilfred Owen during the Interwar Period

 

On November 11, 1918, the end of the Great War was celebrated throughout England.  The war had taken thirty-seven million people, and just over seven hundred and fifty thousand of those were British soldiers.  While many women were feeling hopeful with thoughts of seeing their sons and husbands return, Susan Owen was learning that her favorite son, Wilfred, had died one week prior, shot down in Ors, France on the canal bank.  The themes in Owen’s poetry display the horrors and pity of war, as well as the loss of innocence due through war.  He is remembered along with poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, for writing about their experiences during World War I.  However, the fact that Owen was not able to return to publish his works emphasizes the true horrors of war and has martyrized him.  While at the end of the war he was only another lost soldier, he would later be remembered for the messages he left behind through his poetry when he died.

Wilfred Owen was the first child born on March 18, 1893, to Tom and Susan Owen in Oswestry, England.[1]  He grew up mostly in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury with an affinity for English literature and writing, and after primary school, went on to tutor and teach English, meeting famous writers, such as Laurent Tailhade.[2]  However, some have argued that it was the experience of war that brought Owen to his full maturation as a poet.[3]  Owen was drafted in 1915, participated in training and later became the second lieutenant for the Manchester Regiment.[4]  Owen often wrote to his mother and brother during the war–particularly at a recovery hospital, Craiglockhart, in Edinborough Scotland.  At Craiglockhart, he was treated for shell-shock and met the famous poet, Siegfried Sassoon.[5]  It was here that Owen wrote many of his poems that the world would celebrate after his death.  It was not long after Owen developed writing as a coping mechanism that he was shot down in action in 1918, a week before Armistice Day.[6]  However, it may even be argued that Owen’s death made his anti-war poetry more significant.

Owen’s story exemplified an experience that many British citizens can sympathize with. The Great War continues to be a common concept of collective memory not necessarily for the economic and political impacts it created for the country, but in the way that it effected society for the British population.  WWI continues to be an event that is looked to with great regret and devastation due to the unexpected high rates of death.  Owen’s poetry has impacted Britain because it is one of the prime examples of a soldier’s WWI experience and has helped to influence other British literature and works that were centered around war in the twentieth century.[7] Owen’s writings and image contributed to the formation of a collective memory of the Great War, which was different than any other British war.  Reactions to Owen’s poetry in the Interwar period are centered around Owen’s style and themes, his influence as a soldier-poet, and his early death.  The reactions to Owen’s works during the Interwar Period would set the stage for how Owen would continue to be perceived throughout the twentieth century and helped to mold British social memory of the war.

Despite its turnout, the war was originally predicted to be a short victory for the British.  However, it was soon seen by the government that they had entered an entanglement far beyond what they expected.  On August 4th, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary due to the Triple Entente, an alliance made with France and Russia in 1907.  While there had been tension in Europe, especially between Germany and Great Britain, the war was not expected to be as long or as exhausting as it turned out to be.  The war lasted four years, destroyed empires, and caused severe damage and drastic change.  The war left Great Britain with thousands of casualties, an altered government, and an economic downturn that would last decades.  Since the British government tried to portray the best side of the war and censored certain materials, those who were not in combat were not aware of the threats Britain was facing.  Despite future wars that Britain would become involved in, WWI is remembered as the most devastating.  This was because WWI included new technology and trench warfare, which led to a much more brutal soldier experience and many more deaths.  Many mourned and pitied the soldiers for dying at such a young age, which created the idea of a “lost generation.”  Owen’s poetic skills and young age included him in this category of lost soldiers.

One of the main concepts that come about when discussing British culture and WWI is the concept of a “lost generation.”  This idea came about around 1916 when British society and economy had to recuperate from the war.[8]  The “lost generation” was the idea that nearly an entire age-group of young British men were sacrificed to the Great War.[9]  There has been debate over whether Britain was severely impacted by the lost men, but it has been suggested that while the impact that the lost generation left on Britain did not cause severe damage to the British economy, it became an emblem of grief for British society.[10]  Jay Winter explains how it may seem that an entire generation was lost since most of the British military was made up of men ages eighteen to twenty-four.[11]  Although the name of the concept hints that it includes all of the young men lost to the war, it has also been suggested that those who were really considered to be “lost” were the future elite who served in the military and were able to pursue a University education.[12]  The themes in Owen’s poetry have helped to progress the idea of a “lost generation” by describing the mass amounts of death and the innocence of young soldiers.

Owen’s use of language in his poems communicated his central themes of pity, loss of innocence, and futility of war.  Two of his most famous poems, Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, both displayed the language used by Owen that invoked pity from the reader and martyrize his characters.  In Dulce et Decorum Est, Owen described comrades suffering from a gas attack, where one of the soldiers die.  The last line of the poem addressed the typical attitudes displayed towards war: “You would not tell with such high zest/to children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro Patria mori.”[13]  This line and the title of the poem addressed the idea that fighting in war was not as glorious as it was typically described.  The Latin title of the poem, which translates to “It is sweet and necessary to die for one’s country,” revealed the idea that men were supposed to feel honored to die for their homeland.  Owen’s work tended to insist that these soldiers are mere boys, not men.  This enforced the idea that the soldiers were much too young to be participating in war and were not prepared for the physical or emotional trauma that the war brought.

In Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen explained that the mass amounts of soldiers that die “as cattle” and are forgotten quickly.[14]  He emphasizes the age of the soldiers that are processing the death of their comrades when he says “Not in the hands of the boys, but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.”[15]  These two poems highlight the young soldier experience during WWI and send the message that the tragedies of war contributed to a loss of innocence that could not be replaced.  Owen’s language also displayed the perception of mass amounts death among young soldiers.

The bold themes in Owen’s poetry have led it to be compared to a brand of propaganda that allows him to share the tragic truths of war with the British public.[16]  Owen uses irony to inflict guilt upon the reader, to illustrate the lack of glory in war and the tragic honor bestowed upon those who are sacrificed.[17]  It is thought that Owen’s goal was to inflict pity on the reader, not just grief, to create a new state of mind that was aware of these misfortunes.[18]  Owen seemed to have anger that stemmed from the ignorance and naivety of those who did not experience the war themselves.  Owen’s agenda in his poems was much different than other soldier poets, who were concerned with raising morale and patriotism during the war.[19]  However, the British confidence in the war dropped after the Battle of the Somme, making them more skeptical of their government.[20]  This distinction shows how Owen’s works symbolized a new kind of poetry, concerned with spreading the truth of war.

Though Owen himself may have disappeared with the end of the war, his poetry survived.  Siegfried Sassoon published many of Owen’s poems in 1920.  However, it has been argued that Owen’s poems did not begin to receive attention until the 1930s, since many British citizens were avoiding the topic of war.[21]  This was because many had chosen to try to forget the war—especially those who had experienced it themselves.[22]  Contrary to this argument, it can be seen how Owen’s works received praise in the British press, primarily in The Observer and The Guardian, in the 1920s and 1930s.  These features in the press tend to focus on Owen’s style and theme of poetry, his influence, and his death.

The earlier reactions to Owen’s poetry tended to show surprise in how Owen portrays the war.  Those who draw attention to Owen’s style mentioned how he uses pity to reveal the truths of war.  A piece from The Guardian from December, 1920 reflected on how Owen reveals the “soul of the soldier” and portrays him “not as victory; not as the hero,” but “as victim.”[23] It went on to say how Owen “tells in a few hundred lines the quintessential truth about war than has ever been achieved by the efforts of historians and war correspondents.”[24]  A piece from The Guardian in September 1921, insisted that no novel written about the Great War “has told so much truth about it as Wilfred Owen’s poems.”[25]   These reactions to the subject of Owen’s works insist that anti-war poetry was rather new to England.  It can also be gathered that critics found his poetry intriguing because it allowed for a point of view that they were usually kept from seeing.  These responses may also hint at displeasure towards the British government, which had been known to censor some soldier experiences during the war.

While some critics focus on Owen’s methods and style, many focus on his influence as a poet, and especially as a soldier-poet.  As Owen’s poetry became more well-known, critics became more insistent that his work be featured in more journals and anthologies.  One critic claimed that Owen had ought to have been the “first choice” in an anthology that he was omitted from since the anthology featured many soldier poets.[26]  One author of an anthology claimed that Owen’s poem Strange Meeting was the “greatest short poem in modern years,” which is why had chosen to include him in the series.[27]   In Strange Meeting, the speaker arrives in hell and meets an enemy soldier that he had killed the day before, portraying the futility of war.[28]  Another critic insisted that Owen was a Georgian poet (British poets between 1911 and 1923), and therefore should be included in an anthology of prominent Georgian poets.[29]  The insistence to include Owen in anthologies showed how his work became revered on its own.

While critics felt that Owen was deserving of recognition in written work, Owen’s writings became well known in other places.  In 1930, Owen’s poem Spring Offensive was featured in a symphony by Arthur Bliss titled “Morning Heroes.”[30]  The symphony featured the horrors of trench warfare with traditional Greek heroes.  Spring Offensive was not only the last completed poem that Owen wrote, it is also considered one of the most famous.  The poem describes soldiers who are in a peaceful setting and then suddenly called into battle.[31]  Owen’s poem was used to introduce the final movement of the symphony.[32]  This incorporation not only showed how Owen’s message collided with that of Bliss, but also hints that there may have been budding public interest for Owen’s poetry.  A true marker of Owen’s progress was the admittance of some of his manuscripts into the British Museum in 1934.  The museum reported Owen to be “one of the most remarkable poets of the war period.”[33]

In the admiration of Owen’s poetry also came pity and disappointment.  As many critics reflected on Owen’s talent and influence, they sometimes also remarked on the misfortune of his death.  In a review of a “War Poems” anthology published in The Guardian in December 1930 , the author agreed with the creator of the anthology that Owen was “the greatest of all poets, not only potentially but in actual achievement” and that it was “too tragic to reflect that had the Armistice come only a day or two sooner the poetry of to-day would be incalculably enriched.”[34]   In discussing a new edition of Owen’s poems, a journalist in The Observer in 1931 remarked that his “loss definitely impoverished English poetry.”[35]  These responses display the remorse felt by British citizens for the lost generation.  Even though many of Owen’s poems survived, British poetry could have gained even more had Owen been able to return to continue to tell his journey of war and continue to develop as a poet.

With this disappointment of Owen’s death came interest about Owen’s life.  In July 1930, The Guardian published an article, “Mr. Harold Owen’s pictures,” which opened up an outlet for more information.  This article encouraged admirers of Owen to explore the oil paintings of Wilfred’s younger brother, Harold and suggested that they had “qualities which they will find familiar” between them.[36]

The Owen family’s eagerness to promote Wilfred’s poetry eventually led to Harold Owen, also a WWI soldier, to reveal family memoirs in 1963 and later letters that would reveal Wilfred’s history of writing and his situation during WWI.  Harold Owen’s agenda in writing the memoirs, Journey from Obscurity, was to explain Wilfred Owen’s background that went along with his letters that Harold published in 1967.[37]  Despite how Owen biographers used these sources in the twentieth century, more recently they have been consulted as a tool rather than a legitimate source.[38]  This is due to the fact that Wilfred’s letters were edited and published by Harold and that Harold cannot account for some of the times that he describes in the memoirs.[39]  There is also suspicion that the family has tried to cover up parts of Owen’s life that would be deemed shameful, such as his apparent homosexuality.[40]  The fascination and obsession with Owen’s life show how the British public was fixated on attaching a name, face, and story to the words that illuminated the truth of war.

Although Wilfred Owen’s backstory later added to the British public’s understanding of his experience during the Great War, the initial responses to his poetry during the Interwar period suggested that Britons were searching for answers during a time of confusion.  While Owen’s themes and language within his poems already spoke the cruelties of war, his death emphasized his main ideas and gave Britons a large perspective for which they could summarize the war.  Despite how the lost generation did not impact Britain economically, it served as a perception that would remind Britons of the futility of World War I.  Overall, Owen’s works and his death added to the British collective memory of World War as being a devastating event that was to be interpreted with regret.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Primary Sources

 

Owen, Harold. Journey from Obscurity: Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

 

Owen, Wilfred. Collected Poems. Edited by C. Day Lewis. London: Chatto & Windus, 1964.

 

The Guardian. “A World for the Wild Men.” September 16, 1921.

 

The Guardian. “Anthology.” January 29, 1934.

 

The Guardian. “Modern Poetry.” January 11, 1926.

 

The Guardian. “‘Morning Heroes,’ the New Choral ‘Symphony on War’—International Relay.” March 25, 1931.

 

The Guardian. “Mr. Harold Owen’s Paintings.”  July 11, 1930.

 

The Guardian. “New Books: Wilfred Owen’s Poems.” December 29, 1920.

 

The Guardian. “Poems of To-day.” July 25, 1922.

 

The Guardian. “War Poems.”  December 23, 1930.

 

The Observer. “Books and Authors.”  January 25, 1931.

 

The Observer. “War Poems for the Museum: MSS. of Wilfred Owen.” April 15, 1934.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secondary Sources

 

Brophy, James D. “The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Osbert Sitwell: An Instructive Contrast.” Modern Language Studies 1, no. 2 (1971): 22-29

 

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

 

Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

 

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred Owen : A New Biography. 1st American ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.

 

Norgate, Paul. “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 40, no. 160 (1989): 516-30.

 

Silkin, Jon. Out of Battle:The Poetry of the Great War. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

 

 

White, Gertrude M. Wilfred Owen. Twayne’s English Authors Series. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969.

 

Wilson, Ross J. Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain. Heritage, Culture, and Identity. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013.

 

Winter, J. M. The Great War and the British People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

 

 

 

[1] Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, 1st American edition, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 1.

 

[2] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 108, 139.

 

[3] Jon Silkin, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War, 2nd edition, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 198.

 

[4] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 188.

 

[5] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 244.

 

[6] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 366.

 

[7] Dominic Hibberd, Owen the Poet, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), 149.

[8] Ross J. Wilson, Cultural Heritage of the Great War in Britain, Heritage, Culture, and Identity. (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), 131.

 

[9] Wilson, Cultural Heritage, 131.

 

[10] Wilson, Cultural Heritage, 132.

[11] J. M. Winter, The Great War and the British People, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) 97.

 

[12] Wilson, Cultural Heritage, 131

[13] Wilfred Owen, Collected Poems, Ed. by C. Day Lewis. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964) 55.

 

[14]  Owen, Collected Poems, 44.

[15] Owen, Collected Poems, 44.

[16] Gertrude White, Wilfred Owen, Twayne’s English Authors Series. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969) 57, 131.

[17] James D. Brophy, “The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen and Osbert Sitwell: An Instructive Contrast.” Modern Language Studies 1, no. 2 (1971): 23.

[18] Hibberd, Owen the Poet, 148.

 

[19] Paul Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets.” The Review of English Studies, New Series, 40, no. 160 (1989): 518.

[20] Norgate, “Wilfred Owen,” 518.

 

[21] White, Wilfred Owen, 107

[22] White, Wilfred Owen, 107.

[23] The Guardian, “New Books: Wilfred Owen’s Poems,” December 29, 1920.

 

[24] The Guardian, “New Books: Wilfred Owen’s Poems,” December 29, 1920.

 

[25] The Guardian, “A World for the Wild Men,” September 16, 1921.

 

[26] The Guardian, “Poems of To-day,” July 25, 1922.

[27] The Guardian, “Modern Poetry,” January 11, 1926.

[28] Owen, Collected Poems, 35-36.

[29] The Guardian, “Anthology,” January 29, 1934.

 

[30] The Guardian, “‘Morning Heroes,’ the New Choral ‘Symphony on War’—International Relay,” March 25, 1931.

 

[31] Owen, Collected Poems, 52-54.

[32] The Guardian, “‘Morning Heroes, March 25, 1931.

[33] The Observer, “War Poems for the Museum: MSS. of Wilfred Owen,” April 15, 1934.

 

[34] The Guardian, “War Poems,” December 23, 1930.

 

[35] The Observer, “Books and Authors,” January 25, 1931.

 

[36] The Guardian, “Mr. Harold Owen’s Paintings,” July 11, 1930.

[37] Harold Owen, Journey from Obscurity: Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918, (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), ix.

 

[38] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, xviii.

 

[39] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, xviii.

 

[40] Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, xix.