Biography of Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen is considered one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century, and certainly the most memorable and vibrant voice of the calamitous First World War. He is often compared to John Keats, and critics speculate that if he had lived longer than his twenty-five years, he would have gone on to act as a bulwark of great traditional English poetry in the face of Modernism.

On March 18th, 1893, Owen was born to an Anglican family in Shropshire. He was interested in poetry at a very early age, reading Keats and Shelley in his childhood. After graduating from Shrewsbury Technical School he was accepted to London University but his family could not afford the tuition; thus, he took a job as a lay assistant to the Reverend Herbert Wigan in Dunsden. During this time he became critical of the church's role in society and developed a prevailing compassion for the poor. When the war broke out in 1914, he was teaching at the Berlitz School of English in France. He explained that visiting a war hospital made him want to enlist, and he did so in England in 1915.

Owen became an officer in the Artists' Rifles in 1916. He was present at the Battle of the Somme. By 1917 he appeared to be suffering from shellshock and was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment. There he met the poets Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon; the latter was particularly influential on Owen's writing. Most of Owen's poetry for which he is known was written in a massive creative burst during a one-year period beginning August 1917. Some of his major poems include "Dulce et Decorum est", "Arms and the Boy", "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Disability", and "Futility". Owen famously remarked "the poetry is in the pity".

On New Year's Eve of 1917 Owen wrote to his mother, "I go out this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it...I am a poet's poet." Only five of his poems were published during his lifetime, however; two in the hospital newsletter he edited, the Hydra, and three in the Nation. That year Owen was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens.

Owen died on November 4th, 1918 trying to lead his men across the Sambre Canal at Ors - one week before the Armistice was signed. Sassoon published the first edition of Owen's work in 1920 after his death; the volume included 23 poems and a 24th was added the next year. This slim volume established his inestimable reputation, and he was seen to be as influential as Eliot and Yeats.


Study Guides on Works by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen does not have a particularly large body of verse, but many of his poems are considered among the best war poetry ever written in the English language. He is often compared to Keats and Shelley, and was influenced by Tennyson and...