The poems that made Wilfred Owen famous were mostly published after his death in action a week before the end of the First World War. Powerfully influenced by Keats and Shelley, he experimented with verse from childhood, but found his own voice after joining up in 1915 and serving as an officer in the later stages of the Battle of The Somme. In April 1917 he was blown into the air by a shell and was invalided out with shell-shock and trench fever. His stay in Craiglockhart War Hospital brought him into contact with his fellow officer Siegfried Sassoon who gave him crucial support, encouragement and advice on the development of his poetry.

One of the first poems Owen showed to Sassoon was a first draft of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, written in angry reaction against a complacent foreword to a collection of contemporary poems with its ‘bugle-call of Endeavour and passing-bell of death’. The same anger is expressed even more fully in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, where the conventional acceptance of death in war releases nightmare memories of his own actual experience of the trenches.

After his discharge from hospital he had time for recuperation and writing before he rejoined his regiment and returned to France. This was a period of huge creative energy producing the great poems for which he is remembered. ‘Exposure’, written in February 1918, recreates the experience of fighting at the front, and puts the reader right there. We are led across the salient, cowering from the merciless east winds, but eventually to be frozen where we are: ‘eyes are ice’.

‘Strange Meeting’ takes its title and theme from Shelley’s ‘The Revolt of Islam’, where the speaker imagines meeting the man who speared him. Owen’s tone is no longer indignant, though full of despair at needless loss. The narrator, in a dream of hell, meets the man he killed. His victim speaks to him in friendship and compassion of the loss of the life he would have lived and the witness he would have been able to bear to the pity of war. It is remarkable in its exploration of the meaning of death in war and was one of Owen’s poems chosen by Britten in his 1963 ‘War Requiem’.

‘The Send-off’ was almost the last poem written before Owen’s return to the front in September 1918. Its gentle surface is disturbed by bitter ironies; the tone is bleak, ‘like wrongs hushed up’. On November 4th Owen, aged twenty-five, was shot while helping his battalion to cross the Sambre canal. The news of his death reached his parents as the Armistice bells were ringing.

Poems by Wilfred Owen

The Show

Read by Simon Armitage
The Show - Wilfred Owen - Read by Simon Armitage

Anthem for Doomed Youth

Read by Andrew Motion
Anthem for Doomed Youth - Wilfred Owen - Read by Andrew Motion

The Send-off

Read by Andrew Motion
The Send-off - Wilfred Owen - Read by Andrew Motion

Strange Meeting

Read by Andrew Motion
Strange Meeting - Wilfred Owen - Read by Andrew Motion
Wilfred Owen in the Poetry Store

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Books by Wilfred Owen

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