Regarded as the greatest of First World War poets, Wilfred Owen was virtually unknown at the time of his death, yet our collective vision of the hell of the Western Front has largely been shaped by his writing.
Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1893. Failing to win a scholarship to university, he took an unpaid post as a lay assistant to a vicar near Reading. His interest in the Church would wane, but the language of the Bible would live on in his poetry. He was in France when war broke out, working as an English tutor, and came back to enlist in 1915. After being trapped underground while fighting at the Somme, in 1917 Owen was invalided back to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, suffering shellshock. There he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon who showed Owen how to channel his nightmarish battlefield flashbacks into his poetry. Their meeting has inspired many books including Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Under Sassoon's influence, the romantic poetry Owen had been writing since his boyhood in imitation of John Keats was transformed. His poems now were vivid with flesh and blood detail, and peppered with explosive fragments of direct speech.
Although he could have avoided a return to the front, Owen felt a pressing duty to record the experiences of his comrades. "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful," he wrote. Owen was killed in action a week before the war ended, in November 1918. The telegram of his death reached his parents as the bells were ringing out to announce the Armistice.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
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