Today in Literary History – March 18, 1893 – poet Wilfrid Owen is born

The great World War I poet Wilfrid Owen was born on March 18, 1893 in Shropshire, England. Owen was 22 years old and teaching English and French at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France, when the First World War broke out. Owen hesitated about his commitment to the war but eventually returned to England and enlisted in the army.

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Owen spent the first six months of 1917 in the trenches in France and experienced horrific depravation and terror. He was sent to a military hospital in Scotland, originally for a head injury, but was then diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia, then known as shell shock, what we would today call PTSD.

During his time back in the UK Owen composed most of the poems that made him famous after his death. His poetry was not of the patriotic style then popular and far from glorifying the war effort, it portrayed its cruelty and senselessness in angry terms.

While recuperating in the military hospital Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow patient who was also writing fiercely angry and realistic war poetry. Owen and Sassoon were also both gay men and through Sassoon Owen was introduced to a group of mostly gay writers with whom he bonded and who encouraged him in his writing.

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Owen could have remained on home duty indefinitely because of his diagnosis but chose instead to return to the front, against Sassoon’s strong objections. He was killed on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the Armistice was signed.

Owen only published five poems during his lifetime. Most of his best known poems — Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “Futility,” “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young” and “Strange Meeting” — were published in posthumous collections. Today he is considered by many critics to be the pre-eminent First World War poet.

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