‘Image and Reality’ – the writings of Wilfred Owen and his role in Britain’s changing attitudes to the process of War

Keeping with our multi-disciplined nature, here is an essay by English Literature student Dawn Redman.

Wilfred Owen grew in stature posthumously, to become the most widely recognised spokesperson for his generation of First World War poets. Initially published by contemporary poet and mentor, Seigfried Sassoon together with editor Edith Sitwell, his work drew withering condemnation, analysis and critical support in the years that followed his death. The lexicon of commentaries, stretch from the immediate post-war years, to the writings of the twenty-first century Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, confirming the equality and continued relevance, of both the poet and the critique. The secondary sources reviewed will therefore span some ninety years.

In a cruel irony that paralleled Owen’s realist verse, he was unable to secure publication in his own lifetime. The poet’s work contrasted sharply with the more valedictory, jingoistic clarion of war, viewed in the work of Brooke and Pope, running contrary to the necessary recruitment messages, issued by the British Government, in support of Field Marshall Haig, the later discredited commander of allied forces in France. Owen’s death, in the final week of The Great War, communicated to his family on Armistice Day, has perhaps served as a beacon towards his work; his life was taken by the violence he abhorred, just before hostilities ceased. Wilfred Owen commented, during his lifetime, on the poet’s duty to warn, (Featherstone, 1995, p. 7), a warning that for him came too late.

Kendall’s ‘The Pity of War?’ particularly focuses on Motion’s opinion that “all poets since Passchendaele had been staunchly anti-war” (Kendall, 2003). He stresses the importance of Owen’s realistic and perhaps ground-breaking poetry, which conveys “pity” and “truthfulness,” together being the “crucial ingredients” in writing about a war. Owen’s honest, yet gruesome imagery throughout his works enabled others to try to understand the true nature of warfare, as he quoted, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”  (2003). Motion believed that Owen’s poetry was a turning point for writings of this epoch and the eras that were to follow, as he stated that “Towards the end of the First World War, amidst the squalor and tragedy of the Western Front, something fundamental changed” (2003). The transition from the victorious glorification of war, portrayed in poetry such as Brooke’s sonnet sequence ‘1914,’ to Owen’s innovative realism, enhanced the pity that Owen desperately wanted his readers to feel.

It is not a surprise as to why only a “few of Owen’s poems were published during his lifetime” (Featherstone, 1995, p. 126), as editors and publishers alike would have felt the necessity to publish poetry which painted an idealistic image, like that of Brooke, rather than Owen’s condemnation of war. There would have been a resistance of publishers during the war to prevent his poetry from demonstrating such sordid reality. Millions of soldiers died in this brutal war, and the government would have needed to continue recruiting in order to replace these vast numbers of deaths. The idealistic, patriotic poetry would have therefore inevitably encouraged men back home to enlist in the war effort in order to make their country proud.

Jessie Pope, one of the most well-known female war poets, wrote jingoistic, motivational poetry, highly suited to a recruitment drive. She attempted to promote war as something exhilarating and exciting, by urging men to join up and fight for their country: “Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played, / The red crashing game of a fight?” (Khan, 1988, p. 19). Pope’s refusal with the reality of war was against everything that Owen’s work stood for. Although widely published during the war, Pope’s literary reputation began to decline sharply, as awareness of Owen’s anti-war poetry grew. Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est,’ epitomises his denouncement of those who preach the values of war, his view is accurately reflected by Kendall, insisting that “war poetry is, or should be, a matter of experience” (2003).

Joyes has stated that Owen’s “posthumous publication has made him pre-eminent among British First World War poets” (Joyes, 2009). Owen’s poetry was published in 1920 by Chatto & Windus, with an introduction by Siegfried Sassoon, one of Owen’s closest friends and mentor. Sassoon edited Owen’s poems, needing the objective editorial aid of Edith Sitwell (Cooke, 1996, p. 28). Sassoon, as a combat poet, held similar views to Owen on the subject of war, particularly in opposition to the political nature of warfare, affirming that, “I am not protesting against the military conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed” (Sassoon, 2005, p. 161). Sassoon’s influence on Owen encouraged him to continue writing realistic poetry when they met at Craiglockhart War Hospital and Campbell, the author of ‘Combat Gnosticism,’ qualifies that Owen and Sassoon “wrote poetry which privileges direct combat experience whose ostensible purpose is to educate an ignorant civilian populace of brutal realities it would prefer to ignore…” (1999, pp. 209-210).

Critic Joyes, comments further that the influence and authority of Owen’s poetry is what Samuel Hynes calls the “‘aesthetic of direct experience.’ The idea ‘that only those fought could speak the truth about war’” (Joyes, 2009), indicates that it is solely soldiers who can accomplish compelling and expressive poetry, as their eyewitness accounts truly encompass the reality of war. The sense of realism that Owen portrayed within his poetry, is the antithesis to writers such as Henry Newbolt, who did not fight, yet wrote positive recruitment literature, in which he encouraged soldiers to “Play up! play up! and play the game!” (Newbolt, 2000, p. 26), expressed in ‘Vitai Lampada.” His lack of ‘direct experience,’ along with Rupert Brooke, who’s “experience of war was minimal,” (Featherstone, 1995, p. 14) supports Hynes’ statement in which poetry by those that actually experienced trench warfare, like Owen, were the writers who have created a greater legacy in modern day society, unlike the idealistic and disenchanted poetry in which “writers reacted against Brooke when the true nature of the war became clear” (p. 15). In many ways, Brooke’s view of war was the popular view of deeds of great daring and heroism; he determined the way post-Victorian people felt about war. However, Owen’s succeeding literature was principally concerned with overturning the kind of views Brooke embodied, which is supported by Kendall, who reinforces that “It is now not Brooke’s glory, but Owen’s pity, which ‘everybody feels’” (Kendall, 2003). Despite Owen’s posthumous publication, one notes the substantial shift in the popular view of war from Newbolt’s work of 1897 to Owen’s first publication in little more than a generation.

Some critics would disagree with the idea that it was Owen’s innovative realist poetry that was the turning point in how people perceived the nature of warfare. Yuval Noah Harari argued that “the nature of war changed sometime around 1916, which led to a change in its image” (2005, p. 48). He suggests that writers like Owen did not unmask “war’s eternal face, but simply reacted to technological changes in the nature of war” (Harari, 2005, p. 48), which consequently gave way to the soldier’s transition from hero to victim. Harari puts forward the idea that the disenchanting aspect of war “is a permanent face and universal feature, that may be masked or unmasked, but not changed” (2005, p. 48).

Owen’s poetry had an influence on poets of the next generation, including Cecil Day Lewis, who was sufficiently moved to edit an edition of Owen’s work, commenting that he composed poetry “that will remain momentous long after the circumstances that prompted them have become just another war in the history books.” He praised Owen’s poems in the introduction to ‘The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen,’ for the “passionate nature of the indignation and pity they express” (Day Lewis, 1963, p.11).

Although Owen’s poetry influenced many writers of succeeding generations, W. B. Yeats, as author and poet, was a staunch detractor from Owen. He wrote a “withering damnation” (Campbell, 1999, p. 210) of the latter’s realistic verse in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley. Yeats pointedly omitted Owen’s poetry from his anthology ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Verse,’ in which he stated that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry” (Yeats, 1936, xxxiv). Yeats also chose to exclude the poetry of Rosenberg who was critical of the war, however included various poems by Brooke and Grenfell, both concerned with heroism. It seems quite evident that Yeats believed that poets should be celebrating courage rather than truthfully depicting the horrors of war. He strongly felt that poetry should not be about the ‘passive suffering’ of Owen’s portrayal and held the view that: “If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering” (Kendall, 2003).

Keith Douglas was a World War Two poet who “found Owen’s legacy threatening to his own poetry” (Kendall, 2003). Douglas puts a slightly different spin on Yeats and “insists that if war is necessary, it is best to learn as much as possible from the suffering.” He had sympathy with Owen, as a combat soldier himself. It may be that he extended this view to his duty as a soldier, having abandoned his “safe job as a camouflage officer” (2003) and “head for the front line,” commenting in his prose, “I never lost the certainty that the experience of battle was something I must have” (2003).  Douglas’ admiration was limited. He had little time for predictable attitudes, repetition and long range commentary – although he undoubtedly admired Owen as a soldier-poet, being one himself, he took issue with Owen’s stance about warning, “All a poet can do today is warn,’ stated Owen — but what warning can a poet give now, that has not already been given ad nauseam?… ‘my object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in a line’” (Kendall, 2003).

With vast amounts of research it is evident that throughout many generations there have been detractors of Owen’s realistic verse, like Yeats, who deemed the poet to be “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper” (2001, p. 9) because “he is all blood, dirt, and sucked sugar stick” (p. 9). Whereas, on the contrary, the support of Owen’s truthfulness of the harsh realities of war is also manifested within critics, such as Douglas, who was clearly influenced by Owen’s poetry but also stated that a poet cannot simply just warn. It is interesting to see that he fought as a soldier-poet in World War Two, as he criticises Owen but must harbour enduring admiration. It is sufficiently significant that Andrew Motion, as a former Poet-Laureate, and great writer of our generation, would seem to subscribe to the view that Owen’s honesty and realism was crucial in the understanding of war. As Motion’s whole article on pity, it is clear that he was influenced by Owen, even as a man ninety years out of his generation. Owen left behind a magnificent legacy and this essay has demonstrated how he has been hotly debated critically. In the time that existed between Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ and Owen’s first publication, an entire attitude to war that had prevailed for well over one hundred years during the imperialist era, has shifted almost completely and is never to return. People’s views of his poetry have gradually changed over time, as during the start of the war, whilst he was still alive, little of his poems were published, which is most likely due to the fact that recruitment, motivational literature was more inspiring for people to hear, when compared to Owen’s harsh realism. However, as the war continued, with the hope of the people gradually diminishing, Owen’s poetry appeared to have more of an impact and his readers started to understand the grim nature of warfare. Owen is Britain’s most admired war poet and still to this day is seen as, “not a war poet, he is the war poet” (Dickey; Greiner, 2004, p.244).

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