WILFRED OWEN Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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Wilfred Owen was born in 1893 to a middle-class family in Oswestry in the North           
of England. Two years later, Owen's grandfather, the financial mainstay of the             
family, died almost bankrupt. Owen's parents had to move into rented                       
accommodation in the more urban area of Birkenhead. His mother, in particular,             
resented the family's loss of financial security and its outward signs of                 
Owen began to read and write poetry as a child, and, following his mother's               
interest in religion, started to read the Bible on a daily basis. Owen's family           
could not afford to send him to public school. Nor, when he failed to win an               
academic scholarship to the University of London (not as socially or                       
intellectually exclusive as Oxford or Cambridge) in 1911, could they afford to             
pay for a college education.                                                               
Owen thus had to find an occupation suitable to a young man of his class. In               
1911, he moved south to the village of Dunsden, near Reading, where he worked as           
a lay reader (an assistant to a clergyman) until 1913. He attended classes part-time       
at the University of Reading but, despite encouragement from the head of the               
English department, he again failed to win the scholarship that would have                 
financed full-time study.                                                                 
After falling ill in 1913, he decided to work as a private teacher, a profession           
which required little formal training and which would not compromise his, or his           
family's, social status. He traveled to France, where he worked until 1915. Just           
after the outbreak of the war, he wrote to his mother, "While is is true that             
the guns will effect a little useful weeding, I am furious with chagrin to think           
that the Minds which were to have excelled the civilization of ten thousand               
years are being annihilated - and bodies, the product of aeons of Natural                 
Selection, melted down to pay for political statues." (Quoted in Jon Stallworthy,         
Wilfred Owen: The War Poems (London 1994), p. xxiv)                                       
His comment 'weeding' echoes a common reaction to the outbreak of war, a belief           
that war would cleanse and reinvigorate a society which had, by the early years           
of the twentieth century, grown decadent, narcissistic and wasteful. Owen also             
re-iterates the standard Victorian belief in progress, bolstered by Charles               
Darwin's now-popularized theories of evolution, in his view of the current                 
generation as the culmination of centuries of human and social evolution. Note             
his attention to bodies here, which recurs, almost obsessively, in the poetry he           
wrote towards the end of the war.                                                         
In 1915, Owen returned home and enlisted, in October, in the Artist's Rifles. In           
March, 1916, he began an officers' training course and in June, 1916, the 2nd             
Manchester Regiment commissioned him. Just after Christmas 1916, on 29 December,           
he shipped out to France. Beginning in January, 1917, he spent almost four                 
months with his regiment moving in and out of the front line. After only a few             
days in the front line, Owen wrote to his mother, "I can see no excuse for                 
deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.                           
I have not been at the front.                                                             
I have been in front of it."                                                               
(Quoted in Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (London and New York             
1977), p. 81                                                                               
On 2 May, Owen returned home, diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock and thus 'unfit     
to lead troops.' In June, he arrived at Craiglockhart Hospital, just outside               
Edinburgh, in Scotland, where a small team of doctors treated those suffering             
from the psychological trauma of modern warfare. Siegfried Sassoon arrived in             
July and, within a month, Owen had introduced himself to his already published             
and well-known fellow patient. Soon Owen was showing his work regularly to                 
Sassoon (Remember the handwritten suggestions on the draft of Anthem for Doomed           
Youth). Owen published his work in the hospital journal, The Hydra and he met,             
through Sassoon, several other writers and poets, including Robert Graves.                 
Jon Stallworthy suggests that the most important poetic influences on Wilfred             
Owen before the war were the Bible and the English romantic poets, especially             
John Keats. (The War Poems, p. xxi) In 1915, Owen wrote that the only thing that           
would hold him together on the battlefield would be the "sense that I was                 
perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote." (The War             
Poems, p. xxv) Several writers in class mentioned how the language in the final           
version of Anthem became less romantic but noted that the rhyme and rhythm                 
became stronger. Look at one or two of Keats' poems (Chapman's Homer & Ode to a           
Nightingale). Look at the sensuousness of the language, the patterning of sounds           
and the effects of rhythm in the poems. Look, also, at the vividness of the               
visual pictures Keats creates. Work out for yourself how much of the romantic             
heritage Owen is retaining, and how much he is abandoning, in his effort to               
write about modern war.                                                                   
Sassoon was the strongest of Owen's wartime influences. He encouraged Owen to             
explore the symptoms of shell-shock - flashbacks, recurrent and repetitive                 
nightmares, and his inability to escape an obsessive concern with memories of             
battle - within his poetry. Owen also learned from Sassoon the power of                   
interrupting a poem with direct speech, or colloquial expressions. Think of the           
exclamatory "O Jesus, make it stop" that cuts short Sassoonıs almost-sonnet,               
Attack. Memories surfaced in Owen's letters. Writing to his mother at the end of           
1917, he recalled the base camp in France whence soldiers moved up to the front           
line. It was "a vast, dreadful encampment...a kind of paddock where the beasts             
are kept a few days before the shambles." Think of the 'cattle' image in Anthem.           
He also remembered hearing, "...the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now           
dead and knew they would be dead", an indication of the specificity of his                 
concern for individual soldiers. (Quoted in The War Poems, p.xxvii)                       
Owen returned to his regiment in November, 1917 but did not return to France               
until the middle of the year. However, he wrote extensively during this period,           
revising and rewriting poems already begun, and beginning many new works. He               
published several poems in critically acclaimed literary journals during the               
first half of 1918. In September, he returned to the front line, where he won             
the Military Cross for bravery. He was preparing his first collection when, on 4           
November, he was killed. The telegram informing his parents of his death arrived           
on 11 November, the day the signing of the Armistice ended the war. His first             
collection, introduced by Siegfried Sassoon, appeared two years after his death.