Wilfred Owen and the Harsh Reality of the First World War

Term Paper

21 Pages



1 Introduction

2 Great War Poetry

3 Georgian Movement

4 Wilfred Owen
4.1 Details About His Life
4.2 Analysis of Poems Written by Owen
4.2.1 Content
4.2.2 Language and Structure

5 Conclusion

6 Appendix
6.1 Dulce et Decorum Est BY WILFRED OWEN
6.2 Strange Meeting BY WILFRED OWEN
6.3 Exposure BY WILFRED OWEN
6.4 Anthem for Doomed Youth BY WILFRED OWEN

1 Introduction

In the beginning of the twentieth century some relevant historical events like the First and Second World War were happening. Because of completely new technological and industrial possibilities at that time the First World War was a new kind of war with atrocities that had never been experienced in any war before. This cruelty, the number of victims, and the extent to which the new weapons concerned the “normal” soldier produced a lot of experiences. These experiences were used by poets to write a special type of poetry. Some wrote their poems as an answer to those writers who glamorized the war and wanted all young men to join the war. This term paper will deal with the poetry in First World War. Particular attention will be paid to the British war poet Wilfred Owen. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)1 wrote many poems to process experiences he made while fighting in the trenches. Most of his poems were published posthumously.

In the first part of the term paper some characteristics of English poetry from the Great War will be identified. At that time the so-called Georgian movement was distinguished. Consequently in the second part the main aspects of this movement will be clarified, and it will be shown how Owen was influenced by the Georgians. In the third part some details about Wilfred Owen and his short but excellent poetic career will be given. Poems of Wilfred Owen will be analyzed regarding how he conveys the harsh reality of war in his poems, and his attitude towards war. Owen was one of the persons who were diagnosed with the so called ‘shell shock'. Therefore, his mental illness and being part of the war had a significant impact on his poems. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), another well-known English war poet, had a huge influence on the writings of Owen, too. They met at hospital to recover from shell shock. That is why there will be references to Sassoon in the term paper.

The overall results will be summed up in a conclusion. The question(s) from the beginning will be answered and there will be a short view on potential future research topics.

2 Great War Poetry

Poetry itself plays a significant role in the First World War. Walter states: “Nowhere is this explosion of creativity more evident than in the hundreds of thousands of poems written and published during the First World War” (2006: ix). There were two “groups” of poetry. On the one side, a lot of propaganda was made with the help of poems printed in the newspaper. The government wanted to entice men into volunteering to sign up for the war to defend Britain. Vivid and graphic imagery were used to give the reader of the poems the feeling that the country needed him. On the other side, many poets wrote poems to deal with their war experiences. These poets were called “trench poets” (Walter 2006: xvii). During the war a new poetic language developed. Simple and natural language was used to outline the life as a soldier (cf. Walter 2006: xvii). According to Kendall war poetry “is attracted to pain, and makes artistic capital out of it” (2009: 2) and “[a] war poem represents the partial victory of unholy joy over shame” (2009: 2). Furthermore, it can be mentioned that war poetry can make the misery experienced look beautiful (cf. Kendall 2007: 2). Referring to this, Johnston emphasizes a poet in times of war can only warn the people by being honest and telling the truth about the trenches (cf. 1964: 164).

Kendall explains that poets like “Owen, Gurney, and Sassoon wrote poems explicitly stating the need to forget events on which the poems themselves dwell” (2007: 2). Today Owen, Sassoon and Brooke are some of the best-known poets of the First World War (cf. Johnston 1964: 78). There is a huge impact of World War I upon the development of poetry. The poets focused mainly on topics like comradely compassion or criticism against war but there were also some poets who were patriotic and heroic like Rupert Brooke. One can highlight that the First World War gave a lot of potential for poets (cf. Walter 2006: xi). Poetry of that time had an importance that is very different from today. It was part of everyday life and because of that it had the ability to influence its readers. Poetry had an evident impact on people's life at that time.

3 Georgian Movement

There is the Georgian movement which is going to be presented shortly in the following paragraph. The Georgian movement is important to be mentioned because Wilfred Owen was influenced by these people. The movement can be defined as poetry that arose under the control of King George V2. Its poetry is described as a reality-oriented poetry of pastors. There exist contradictory statements regarding to the “truth of life”. The aim of the Georgian poetry is to renew the English poetic language by reducing the size of the poems. Using the colloquial language is one of its characteristics. One can describe it as a Romantic-Victorian poetic language. The lyrical “I” functions as a speaker and carrier of feelings (cf. Seeber 2004: 340)3. The Georgian movement complains about the implausible rhetoric of church and state (cf. Seeber 2004: 340). Lewis highlights that “the Georgians followed classical models and traditional meters in the prewar years; although admired at first by some later modernists, they eventually came to seem as old-fashioned as the Edwardians” (2007: 109).

There are speculations that Owen was part of the Georgian movement. Referring to Hibberd the Georgian poets like Sassoon, Monro and Graves influenced Owen in becoming a poet (cf. 1979: 38-40). Owen was influenced by the Georgian movement, because Johnston stresses “Owen's apparently ingenuous remark about being “held peer by the Georgians” may have been merely a way of indicating to his mother a sense of pride in Sassoon's friendship and assistance” (1964: 162).

4 Wilfred Owen

4.1 Details About His Life

To start with, one can claim that Owen wrote anti-war poems. He belongs to the true war poets (cf. Johnston 1964: 165 f.) and his poems still resonate today.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), born in Shropshire wrote some of the best-known British Poems during First World War. At the age of seventeen he started writing his own poems. He wanted to go to the university to improve his writing skills, but he was not able to afford it. For a while Owen helped a vicar to raise a little bit of money. Owen had a close relationship with his mother who was very religious. The evangelic Christianity influenced Owen in his writings. In the beginning of his career as a poet, he criticized that many people had to live in unprivileged and dispossessed circumstances. Later he enlisted himself to fight in the First World War. First, he was sent to Essex to train for the war. His first battle was fought in Etaples in France in 1916. Owen received the Military Cross for his achievements in war. In 1917 he got seriously ill and was sent back to Great Britain. Owen was one of the persons who were diagnosed with the so called ‘shell shock' which was the posttraumatic stress disorder that was caused by war experiences (cf. Stallworthy 2013: 6-31). About 80.000 soldiers suffered from shell shock. The people who suffered from this mental illness had different symptoms. For instance, they had undefinable anxiety or uncontrollable movements of their bodies. Shell shock was a new phenomenon in the medicine, especially for the psychologists (cf. Loughran 2017: 5 f.). There were a lot of poets who also suffered from this illness like Siegfried Sassoon. In the Second World War, shell shock was specified as PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder). Therefore, Owen's mental illness and being part of the war had a significant impact on his poems. In time of recuperation at the Craig Lockhart hospital, Owen met Sassoon.

Owen wanted to share the experiences he made in war by writing poems. He realized how cruel the war was and wanted to tell the public the truth and that his “subject is War, and the pity of War. / The Poetry is in the pity” (Lewis 2015: 111). Perhaps to be clearly understood by his readers he wrote more eloquently than the other war poets. It can be claimed that through Sassoon and Owen satire and the ugliness of war gain access into poetry.

In addition, it is not clear if the fact that Owen was homosexual caused a special sensitivity towards the dying of young men in his poems (cf. Das 2006: 137 f.). Furthermore, Das emphasizes that “[t]he erotic undertow complicates the political but also gives it a lyric intensity” (Das 2006: 151).

4.2 Analysis of Poems Written by Owen

4.2.1 Content

Owen wrote diverse types of poems. All his poems have in common that they are against war. In the following paragraphs some of his war poems are going to be analyzed by looking at the content first and looking at the language second. Johnston states:

“[Owen's] poetry is conditioned by an inescapable awareness of himself as a participant and a spokesman; he felt it to be the duty of the “true poet” to disclose the truth of war-a truth compounded of ugliness and suffering, of brutality and horror, of ignominy and death.” (1964: 155)

The quote underlines that Owen was incredibly good at writing poems. He wanted to show his reality of the war to his readers. Owen portrays how bad the conditions were for the soldiers in times of war. With the help of his talent to translate the experiences he made into poetic language, Owen tries to convince his readers that war is not as glorious as it might seem. In a lot of his poems the body plays an important role, one can say that Owen “‘turns to facial expressions and bodily gestures' to reveal to us ‘the truths he found in war'“ (Das 2006: 154) like “‘the chest and sleepy arms' in ‘Asleep', the ‘eyes, huge-bulged' in ‘The Sentry', the face and forehead in ‘Exposure', the ‘drooping tongues' in ‘Mental Cases'” (Das 2006: 153 f.). Furthermore, Owen was homosexual, and it could be asked if “Owen's shimmering homoeroticism [that] colours the experience, or is it one more example of a decadent aesthete struggling to portray harsh reality through the Victorian language of sensation?” (Das 2009: 86).

The poem ‘Exposure' written in 1917 is based on experiences he made in the freezing winter of 1917. ‘Exposure' “with its haunting verbal and descriptive beauty, provides the reader with a wonderful example of his mature craft” (Knowles 2002: 15). In the poem a lot of references to nature can be found. Owen wrote a lot of poems that refer to nature. In ‘Exposure' the cause of so many deaths are natural causes like the “merciless iced east winds that knife us” (l. 1). The soldiers are captured in no-man's land where a gruesome image is shown. In line 7 Owen uses a simile to show this disturbing picture: “Like twitching agonies of men among the brambles” (l. 7). He asks a question like “What are we doing here?” (l. 10) and “Is it that we are dying?” (l. 30) to summarize the circumstances and to make the reader think about the situation in which the soldiers were trapped. In another poem of Wilfred Owen which is called ‘Spring Offensive' “[t]he troops [...] see the blessing offered by nature, standing ‘like trees unstirred' until the order to attack comes like a chill wind” (Hibberd 1986: 187).

Next, the poem ‘Strange Meeting', written by Owen can be called as a dramatic poem that differs from Owen's previous poems. There is no imagery landscape that exists in nearly every previous poem of Owen. There is no more hope.

The poem is about a man who escapes from the battles of war into hell where he meets a dead soldier he killed before. The dead soldier discusses with the lyrical “I” about the hopelessness of the war and the inability to do something against it. In the end of the poem one gets to know that the soldier is an enemy of the lyrical “I”.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est', written by Wilfred Owen in 1917 is about his experiences while fighting in the trenches in Northern France. Referring to Das “Owen here manages to play three central experiences of the war - night march, a gas attack, and traumatic neurosis” (2009: 84). To begin with, the title ‘Dulce et decorum est' is a line that is taken from the Latin Odes of Roman poet Horace4. It means it is a privilege to die for one's country (cf. Lewis 2007: 111 f.). In Owen's poem one can find out quickly it is anything but sweet and proper to die for one's country. Thus, the title of the poem is ironic. Owen clearly rejected the great enthusiasm serving for one's country in war that many people of the time were feeling. Religion was an important topic for Owen and influenced his writing style. In a lot of poems Owen refers to “the Old Testament, Dante's Inferno and Shelley's visionary poems by which to enlarge the spectacle of war's hellscape” (Knowles 2002: 12).

‘Anthem For Doomed Youth' was written in 1917 while Owen was recovering from shell-shock in Craig Lockhardt hospital. The main theme of the poem is comparing the death of soldiers with traditional funerals. Owen criticizes the fact so many humans die, and nobody really cares, “it enables him to transmit the paroxysm of pain, it also creates a fevered consciousness” (Das 2009: 82). He wants to know why so many soldiers must die in such a cruel way. Owen wants to process his firsthand experiences of seeing so many people dying.

To summarize one can find several types of Owen's poems if one takes a closer look at the lyrical means he uses them to show the harsh reality of the First World War. Most of his poems compare natural events with war events. In Owen's opinion nature is also a reason why people died in the First World War. Owen wanted his readers to know the soldiers were not only fighting in the war against their enemies but also the natural circumstances that made it hard to survive. At that time, the winter was bitterly cold. The body in the poems plays an important role, too. Furthermore, many references to religion are made as well as some references to poets like Dante, Keats or Shelley who influenced him in his writing style. One can conclude that Owen writes poetry of protest. He clearly rejects the war and the heroism.

4.2.2 Language and Structure

In the following some special characteristics of Owen's poems will be presented. A special focus lies on the use of stylistic devices and the use of language. Therefore, not every poem will be analyzed completely. Das stresses that his “constant tension makes his poetry fascinating-linguistically, psychologically, as well as historically- but at the same time ethically disturbing, defying attempts at any consistent, progressive political reading” (2009: 87). Owen was homosexual and because of that it is not clear if the erotic language that is found in his poems make them much more colorful (cf. Das 2009: 86). Another important aspect is that a soldier who writes poems must be part of traumatic experiences and must transform these experiences into language. In consequence the poet must relive these traumatic experiences again and again (cf. Das 2009: 83). It can be underscored that Owen combines beauty and ugliness in his poems (cf. Howarth 2009: 187 f.). One can clarify that Owen was influenced by the Georgian movement, but he created his own kind of poetry (cf. Johnston 1964: 162). Hibberd emphasizes “Owen is a transitional figure between Victorian and modern poetry” (1979: 40). Owen breaks several traditional poetic rules. He makes use of irony and a lot of bitter similes as well as some comparisons to the nature.

In ‘Strange Meeting' Owen breaks with some poetic traditions. He uses enjambments, unusual syntaxes and pararhymes. The pararhyme is an innovation in poetry and can be found almost at the end of every lines in this poem except the last line. ‘Strange Meeting' is written in heroic couplets and consists of forty-four lines. Looking at the structure of the poem there can be found an irregular length of the stanzas. Using the word “sleepers” in line four is ironic, because sleeping is peaceful, but nothing about war is peaceful. There is use of religious language like in the second stanza “[l]ifting distressful hands, as if to bless” or “we stood in hell”. Special about this poem is that there is not much brutal language used. In addition Owen does not use his onomatopoeic style. It seems as if the war has spent Owen's anger about the war. In the end of the poem nothing has changed, war goes on and a lot of men are still dead.


1 cf. Stallworthy 2013.

2 1865-1936.

3 References to Seeber are translated into the English Language.

4 Roman lyric poet.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Wilfred Owen and the Harsh Reality of the First World War
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
wilfred, owen, harsh, reality, first, world
Quote paper
Ann-Theres Schneider (Author), Wilfred Owen and the Harsh Reality of the First World War, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1264826


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