Wilfrid Owen’s Legacy: A Casualty of War

1 December 2012

Dan Leigh on the curious immortalization of war poets

The immortal words of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ form the powerful, universal condemnation of the horror of the First World War: no one will forget “the old lie”. The body of Owen’s work is generally regarded as a memorial to the atrocities of war.

Poems like ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ convey the intense futility of it all, for “what passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”, whilst he evokes the disturbing psychological impact of the fighting in works like ‘Mental Cases’ where “these are the men whose minds the Dead have ravaged”. The canonization of such works has preserved Owen as a symbol of the First World War and a reminder of its horrors. However, this legacy has put aside the man that was Wilfred Owen; it is easy to forget that he too was a person fighting in the trenches, with his own hopes and fears, uncertainties and complexities.

In recent years much work has been done to restore Owen’s humanity, most notably the late Dominic Hibberd’s 2002 work Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, which, whilst clearing up other details of Owen’s life, confirms that he was actively homosexual. Facts like this could cast some of his poetry in a new light, with particular regard to the vivid and sometimes shocking sensuality and even excitement that is undoubtedly present in poems like ‘The Sentry’, where “thud! flump! thud! down the steep steps came thumping/ And splashing in the flood, deluging muck”. An idea of the attractiveness and lure of war could possibly develop from this interpretation, particularly as Owen, like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, returned to the front line after absence. This is just one example of Owen’s intricacy and complexity that is lost by the reductive perspective of him as this anti-war herald.

Owen is not the only poet of the war era to suffer this arguable ‘dehumanisation’. Edward Thomas has been constantly labelled as symbol of a lost England, a poet who invokes the beauty of the pastoral country ravaged by war. As there are elements of this in his poetry, such as in ‘As the team’s head-brass flashed out’, it again becomes easy to overlook the details and, certainly in Thomas’ case, true importance of his work. It would even be too simplistic, and in many ways inaccurate, to call Thomas a ‘war poet’, for his most important contribution to the literary world came outside his involvement in the war effort. With his dear friend Robert Frost, who explored and developed the idea of a natural cadence, the ‘sound of sense’ (as dubbed by Frost), giving poetry, in Thomas’ own words, “that intimate effect ‘as if he had been talking’. Rhythm is the essence of a sincere expressive style”. This is overtly present in Thomas’ poetry, particularly evident if heard aloud, and has had such an influence on subsequent writers that Ted Hughes has described him as “the father of us all”. Again recent work is helping to regain the true importance of the man and the poet, and Matthew Hollis’ 2011 Now All Roads Lead to France provides a powerful account of both his friendship with Frost and his contribution to the war effort.

Of course it is important to recognise what these figures reveal about war and its impact, but we must not lose sight of the men behind the symbols and thereby rob them of their humanity. When we remember those who have lost their lives, our thoughts must be of the men, not the memorials.