Wilfred Owen was born and raised in the Shropshire countryside made famous by another poet, A. E. Housman. After Owen was born in Oswestry, his family moved to Shrewsbury for a year and then to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, where in 1900 he entered school. In 1911 he matriculated at London University. According to his friend Edmund Blunden, whose The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931) contains an affectionate and detailed account of the poet’s short life, Owen was a quiet, imaginative boy not given to sports, whose greatest pleasure was to be read to by his mother. One of his important early influences came from his family’s Anglican evangelicalism.
Owen, deep in his earliest love, John Keats, was writing verse by the time he reached London University. Serving in the military in World War I, he was awarded the Military Cross on October 1, 1918, and killed in action on November 4. His life and his poems reveal a highly sensitive, idealistic young man given to aestheticism, who was transformed by the horrors of trench warfare into a quietly courageous leader of men, a biting social critic, and a poet of tough truthfulness and humanity. He is generally regarded as the greatest English war-poet.
As a boy Owen read widely, not only Keats but also Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, and John Ruskin, for whose work he had great respect, except “that Prophet . . . warned us so feebly against the war.” He played the piano, studied botany and archaeology, and in August of 1913 became a tutor in English at the Berlitz School, Bordeaux, France. After some private tutoring he returned to England in 1915 and joined the Artists’ Rifles. His friendship in Bordeaux with M. Laurent Tailhade was his first contact with a genuine man of letters, for despite Owen’s love of poetry, he had never been part of a literary circle. Although he initially contemplated music or perhaps painting as a profession, he was aware that poetry was his first love.
Owen was sent to the front in 1916, shortly after Christmas, with the Lancashire Fusiliers. That spring he fell into a shell hole and suffered a concussion that affected his nerves so that, on June 26, 1917, he was sent back to Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh, where he met and became close to the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a sharp critic of the public illusions regarding the war. It was in the long talks with Sassoon that Owen reached his maturity as a poet.
From that time on his poems–including, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est”–toughened to the task of expressing with both bitterness and deep humanity the conditions and the waste, stupidity, and terror of war. The world changed radically after the war began, and Owen’s poetry, like that of Sassoon, Edmund Charles Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg (who was also killed in action), and others, turned sharply away from Victorian and aesthetic models. In his letters to his mother, perhaps the most vivid record of conditions during the Great War, he describes the fetid mud, “three, four, five feet deep,” the lonely terror of outpost and reconnaissance duty in no-man’s-land, the sensation of being drenched with the warm blood of a man killed by his side. Despite the horrors and realism of his poems and letters, however, and despite the scornful and bitter criticism of those at home who still regarded the war as a sort of holy crusade, Owen expressed a selfless pity and love for his fellows that make his poems–and his life–memorable.