Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Myth and magic of Wilfred Owen

By Vincent Dowd
Arts reporter, BBC World Service

Ninety years ago this week Wilfred Owen, a young officer in the British army, was killed in battle in northern France. He was 25 and though he had planned to be a writer he had published virtually nothing. Yet today he is probably the best-loved British poet of World War One.

Wilfred Owen with unknown boy
Wilfred Owen (with unknown boy) was heavily influenced by Siegfried Sassoon

Owen was shot dead on 4 November 1918, just a week before the armistice, but his death seemed no more or less significant than any other soldier's.

Other than colleagues and family, only a few dedicated followers of English letters would have known the young man's name: he had published only five poems before he was killed.

Yet today Wilfred Owen's poetic reputation has eclipsed many of those who once were better known, such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke.

A slim volume appeared in 1920 and his reputation grew steadily. It is clear there is something about both his life and work which appeals to readers even now.

His biographer Dominic Hibberd says after his death teachers spotted that Owen's best verse often works brilliantly in the classroom, even with students who don't usually enjoy poetry.

But the major shift came in the 60s and 70s, he says.

It is then that Owen's obvious scepticism about the Great War - and about all war - chimed with a new generation who had not experienced World War II and disapproved of the war in Vietnam.

He'd written a lot of stuff before he ever saw the trenches and in fact when he went there he wrote nothing about them for months
Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen biographer

At the same time, the more obviously patriotic Brooke was losing favour.

People love the legend of Owen as the handsome, slightly callow young writer whose talent was forged in the furnace of war but that is partly a myth, says Mr Hibberd.

"As a teenager Owen set out to become a great poet like Keats or Wordsworth.

"He'd written a lot of stuff before he ever saw the trenches and in fact when he went there he wrote nothing about them for months.

"It was meeting Siegfried Sassoon in August 1917 that started him writing what he's known for now."

Mythical status

Owen and Sassoon met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh where each was recuperating from shell-shock.

Sassoon's verse was already stingingly critical of the war. His influence on the younger man can be seen in the two volumes of Owen worksheets now in the British Library in London.

Its head of modern manuscripts Jamie Andrews has traced in them how Owen's work changed under Sassoon's influence.

Maybe all we really need to know about Owen is in the poems and possibly we are happier anyway with the continuing enigma of Owen's life and death

The famous Anthem for Doomed Youth actually started life as Anthem for Dead Youth until Sassoon intervened.

And the famous line: "Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds" began as "of silent minds".

Beyond Owen's real talent, Mr Andrews says his legend depends on the circumstances of his life and death.

As seen with people from Jimi Hendrix to Diana, Princess of Wales, an early death can secure a myth like nothing else.

The image of Owen gazes out at us now from history books, and remains an enigma.

Mr Hibberd says that mystery makes him more fascinating to a modern audience than, say, Sassoon who died only in 1967.

People have long speculated about Owen's private life. Mr Hibberd says it is clear Owen was gay but acknowledges there probably will not be final proof "until someone finds some letters somewhere, tied up in a ribbon".

But maybe all we really need to know about Owen is in the poems. And possibly we are happier anyway with the continuing enigma of Owen's life and death.

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