Tuesday, 18 March 2014

On this day...

...Wilfred Owen, 'war poet' and so much more, was born in 1893.

Although we now know him through his war verse he was largely unknown and unpublished in his (short) lifetime (he was killed in action on November 4th 1918 - just days before the guns fell silent). A mere five poems appeared in print before his death and the world would have to wait until 1963 for the Collected Poems (edited by Cecil Day Lewis) to appear.

But although work may have been slow to gain recognition, having done so it stands as the ultimate expression of 'war and the pity of war' (as Owen himself said). Thanks to its ubiquity on English exam papers, Owen's work has come to define what generations actually think of the war, even though his own views are slightly more ambiguous.

There's no doubting his horror and utter rejection of all the barbarity and inhumanity of trench warfare. But Owen the man was keen to fight; he wrote home to his mother about the glory and honour of battle; he won the Military Cross.

But it's his poetry that defines the 'lions led by donkeys' tragedy that is still our dominant view of the Great War. It has come to tell us what we ought to think, without any of the doubts and contradictions that Owen's wider views on the subject express.

It's as if his work has been seized by the futility brigade, as if the man himself with all his mixed-up emotions about the conflict has been appointed post-mortem spokesman for the pacifist union.

He deserves better. He knew the horrors and wrote memorably about them.

But he also knew why he was fighting.

1 comment:

  1. Thankyou for the reminder of Owen's powerful poems. I just read 'Dulce et Decorum est' for the first time in many years. It seemed appropriate reading given the situation here...


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