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 Byron. He began writing at a young age, showing interest in conventional subjects, but demonstrating a keen sense for sound and rhythm.
In 1915 Owen enlisted in the British Army Reserves during WWI. His own experiences would largely influence and inform his verse. He wrote of endless marches, the terror of the howling shells, the mire of the trenches, and the surprise attacks of poison gas. His constant letters to his mother detailed the horrors that he witnessed, but his poetry captures the spirit of the war in its irrationality and brutality. Most of his greatest work was written during the summer of 1917 when he was convalescing from shellshock at Craiglockhart Hospital. In the last few years of the war Owen was exposed to the work of his fellow war poets as well as the great poems of Yeats and Houseman.
Owen's sessions with a psychiatrist helped him confront the major issues he was dealing with, some of which would be expressed in his poems – his disillusionment with women, his ambivalence about Christianity, his desire for brotherhood and camaraderie. Similarly, his friendship with fellow poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon led to a burst of creative energy. Both men believed the war needed to end, and both identified strongly with the nameless young men sent by greedy rulers to die on the battlefield for the specious cause of nationalism. While similar in outlook, Owen's poems are more lush, more sympathetic, and more lyrical; the Poetry Foundation's account of Owen's skill explains, "he revealed a technical versatility and a mastery of sound through complex patterns of assonance, alliteration, dissonance, consonance, and various other kinds of slant rhyme - an experimental method of composition which went beyond any innovative versification that Sassoon achieved during his long career." Sassoon did introduce Owen to Robert Ross, a London editor, who in turn introduced Owen to other literary luminaries such as Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, and Edith Sitwell. Owen was pleased to be part of a literary community, and his work was received well by critics.
The poems from his fertile period include, notably, "Anthem for Doomed Youth", "Dulce et Decorum est", "Strange Meeting", "Disabled", and "Futility". The poems' major themes include the surreal, irrational nature of war; the respect and love for fellow soldiers; the poet's role in writing about atrocities; the problematic relationship between church and state; the repression of emotion vs. being alive to the carnage and the confusion of battles and death; and the immorality of the war. Owen rarely wrote specifically about his own experiences, preferring to impart a more universal message. The critic George Stade wrote, "this is as near as Owen would come to a theory of modern war poetry; its sense of pity and revulsion should be transpersonal and directed outward toward the condition of war and not toward one's own feelings." The disabled soldier in "Disabled" could be any of the millions of injured and impotent young men, the encounter in "Strange Meeting" the grappling that every soldier must face about the truth of war and the acts one committed.
Owen was particularly talented at using structure, meter, and rhyme to evoke a mood or an atmosphere. He was famed for his "pararhyme", a half-rhyme with vowel variation within the same consonant pattern. He also was known for using sonnets but manipulating them to impart his message.
Killed in battle, most of Owen's poems were not published in his lifetime. Sassoon brought out an edition of Owen's work in 1920, two years after the poet's death.