Untold lives blog

02 December 2020

Wilfred Owen: One Hundred Years of His Poems

One hundred years ago, the first edition of Wilfred Owen’s Poems was published and established Owen as the enduring lyricist of the Great War.  Some of these poems have seeped deeply into the nation’s psyche.  Poems such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ are staples of remembrance ceremonies every year.  They resonate through the decades; they expose to school children, via their English literature curriculum, the pity and devastation of war.  Owen’s contribution to our collective understanding of the Great War has meant his words and image have been referred to, or explored, in all sorts of cultural outputs: in biographies, in novels, TV series and film.  He will be forever remembered as one of our greatest war poets and his premature death will always be used as an example of the ultimate sacrifice.

Photograph of Wilfred Owen in military uniform 1916

Photograph of Wilfred Owen by John Gunston, 1916. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence
   NPG P515


Owen’s published poems have been well discussed over the century that followed their publication, but the manuscript drafts of these poems held at the British Library offer even more insights into the motivations and inspirations behind these poems.

These manuscripts held at Add MS 43720 and Add MS 43721 include Owen’s notes, including this fascinating page that collates the themes and threads that run through the series of poems.

Poem notes by Wilfred OwenPoem notes by Wilfred Owen, Add MS 43720. f.2. Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Owen carefully curates his collection through these notes, selecting poems that highlight the themes he wishes to present.  These themes include the inhumanity, the deceptiveness and the impact of war, as well as the idea that future generations will forget the suffering of these men.

Wilfred Owen's handwritten quote from W B Yeats

Add MS 43720, f.9.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

The manuscript volume also contains quotes from W. B. Yeats’ poems, including this from 'The Shadowy Waters'.  This poem is a telling of a supernatural journey to the end of the world and life, where the narrative seems to disappear into the mist and murk of the imagery.  This quotation precedes Owen’s poem 'The Show'.  In this poem, the narrator seems to float from above in the mist and the dank, watching the trails of soldiers below, all journeying on towards the end.  Owen also admired Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley, as well as Laurent Tailhade, poet of the Decadent movement whom he had met whilst teaching in France before the war.  He would meet many contemporary poets and writers, including Robert Graves, H G Wells and Robert Ross whilst in recovery from shellshock in 1917.  This combination of influences means Owen’s work finds itself at a number of intersections: between the Romantic and the Modern, the heroic and the pessimistic, and between established and the transgressive.

Draft of Anthem for Doomed YouthDraft of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Add MS 43720, f.17.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.


However, the relationship that perhaps most influenced Owen’s poetry was that with Siegfried Sassoon whom he met in 1917.  Sassoon assisted and encouraged Owen.  He helped Owen channel the horror of his memories into visual material in his works.  Sassoon’s hand in Owen’s poems can be literally traced through Owen’s drafts.  Sassoon has annotated the poem in pencil.  Sassoon edited this and other poems when Owen showed him his drafts at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in September 1917.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

Untold lives blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs