Culture House Daily

Is Wilfred Owen’s poetry any good?

18 March 2014

Wilfred Owen, the poet whose work epitomises the horror of the First World War for most people in modern Britain, was born in Oswestry in the Shropshire Marches, close to his Welsh ancestral homeland, one hundred and twenty-one years ago today.

His brief life ended just a quarter of a century later, on November 4th 1918, when he was cut down by a German machine gun as he heroically led his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in the sort of suicidal attack that his poetry had implicitly criticised. Famously, the telegram announcing his death arrived at his parents’ home in Shrewsbury at the exact moment when the bells were ringing out to celebrate the Armistice ending the war.

Though a tragedy for his close-knit family, and particularly for his over-doting mother Susan, the circumstances and timing of Owen’s death in action was perfect for building his posthumous reputation as our premiere ‘poet of pity’ for the casualties and waste of the war. Owen had even defined his role and written his own epitaph in the preface he had sketched out for the poems he intended to publish himself post-war: ‘My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Pity recurs again in his most famous poem ‘Strange Meeting’ when he writes of ‘the pity of war, the pity war distilled’.

Though the building of ‘little’ Owen’s reputation (as his mentor and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon patronisingly called his diminutive  5′ 4″ hero-worshipping friend) to its current giant status was a slow burn, his poetry, passing through successive issues edited by his fellow war poets Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, had,  by the end of the 1960s, come to define the war itself in the minds of most people born after, say, 1950.

Thanks to books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys and films such as Oh, What a Lovely War! the attitudes of Owen’s poems – that the war had been a wicked conspiracy of the old against the young and that it would have been far better not to resist what the influential German historian Fritz Fischer (writing in the same year as Clark) called ‘Germany’s grab for world-power’ – became the dominant British groupthink.

Modern pacifist Owenites tend to overlook the fact that both their boy and his even more militantly pacifist mentor Sassoon, having made their protest against the war – Sassoon publicly, and Owen privately in his verses – chose to return to the front and fight. Owen, who had been hospitalised at Craiglockhart on suspicion of lacking moral fibre, emulated Sassoon’s heroism on his return, also winning a Military Cross for turning a captured machine gun on fleeing Germans.

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The seal was set on Owen’s secular canonisation when no less an authority than Jeremy Paxman proclaimed: ‘For me he is  the greatest of all the war poets … the author of some of the most stunning poetry of the twentieth century – and the voice of a generation’.

Historians of the war can – and the vast majority do – lament the fact of Owen’s near deification, pointing out that the war poets were atypical of most soldiers, and their pacifism the viewpoint of a tiny and despised minority at the time. The plain truth is, however, that in contemporary Britain the Great War is Wilfred Owen’s war, and he is today a far better known figure than soldiers such as Douglas Haig or statesmen like Asquith or Lloyd George.

So how justified is Owen’s towering reputation? And just how good are his poems as poetry? There have always been heretics among Owen’s poetic peers who do not share the near-universal adulation heaped upon him. Justifying his refusal to include Owen in the 1936 edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse he was editing, W.B. Yeats magisterially pronounced that: ‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’.

More recently, the acerbic poet and critic Craig Raine scornfully remarked that Owen’s ‘tiny corpus’ of significant work was among the most ‘overrated poetry of the 20th century’. He accused Owen of exemplifying ‘Poetry’s greatest weakness – its easy, posturing eloquence’.

It is, therefore, perfectly legitimate to ask whether Owen’s standing would be half as high as it is had he not died when and how he did. For me, moving as some of Owen’s work is (I rate his account of his early ‘blooding’ in no man’s land ‘The Sentry’ and ‘Exposure’ particularly highly) much of it suffers technical faults of clotted language, obscurity, archaisms and a straining after exaggerated effects that would break the back of a mule.

I defy anyone to let lines like this roll smoothly off the tongue or easily tease out their meaning:

‘Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever  suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying..’

(from ‘Exposure’ considered by many to be his greatest poem.)

Even Owen’s supposed major contribution to poetic technique, his ‘invention’ of the half or para-rhyme as in:

‘Wisdom was mine and I had mystery,
Courage was mine and I had mastery’

(from his masterpiece ‘Strange Meeting’) had been used by other poets before him such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. Owen’s frequent use of alliteration is also a characteristic of Welsh poetry such as in Dylan Thomas.

It is, of course, unfair to attack Owen for a possibly inflated posthumous reputation puffed up by others (though there is much evidence that Owen was eager and hungry for the fame that only his ghost enjoyed). And it is as impossible to predict in which direction his talents would have taken him had he survived that fatal canal crossing as it is to say what his hero Keats would have accomplished had the TB bacilli not got him at around the same age as the bullets got Owen.

There is also the possibility that Owen’s long shadow has blocked the place in the sun deserved by equally talented but often overlooked poets – Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, for example. It is probable that a reputation as high as Owen’s now stands can only go in one direction: down.

Nigel Jones is a historian, biographer and First World War specialist. His Peace and War: Britain in 1914 is published by Head of Zeus. His biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth appears in a new edition in November. He guides tours to the western front with

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  • hi


  • hi

    how old

  • hi

    how old was he when he died

  • David J McDonagh

    I’m not an expert on WW1 but this is my understanding of why Owen and Sassoon returned to the front, despite their opposition to the war: Today it’s seen as a contradiction to oppose a war while willingly taking part. After all, the stance taken by US opponents of the Vietnam War was often to ‘dodge the draft’ or refuse to fight, and to become a conscientious objectors. However, during WW1, I think many opponents of war joined up in order to be able to report on the horrors at close hand (Owen and Sassoon may be counted in this category) or, perhaps, to encourage mutiny from within. The American poet E E Cummings is reported to have opposed the war but insisted on fighting, as he did not see why his privileged background should free him from the horrors suffered by working class soldiers.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Perhaps Wilfred Owen saw himself as a kind of rapper. Most young men do. But I don’t think he’s as good at it as Gerard Manley Hopkins – with his Kingdom of the daylight’s dauphin -and all that.

  • Kunty Kunterson

    Funny that you should criticise Owen’s views on war, and then praise poets such as Gurney and Rosenberg, who had a less than favourable view of the conflict. One could even place them in that “despised minority” you deride earlier on.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Gurney and Rosenberg are rather lower order poets.

      • Kunty Kunterson

        Yes, I never suggested they were. Do you have trouble reading?

  • Fencesitter

    No mention of Dulce et Decorum est or Anthem for Doomed Youth, arguably Owen’s two best known and best loved poems. Perhaps someone could help me out here, but my understanding is that both works benefited from Sassoon’s comments and feedback. When it comes to literature, two heads are often better than one. Just look at the boost Philip Larkin’s feedback on Lucky Jim gave Kingsley Amis…

    • Fergus Pickering

      You are right about Sassoon, though Owen didn’t always go with his comments.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Nope. You are talking nonsense. He has been overrated but that is hardly his fault. He wrote at least a dozen god poems, Robert Graves, another trenches man, is a far better poet.but that doesn’tmean Owen is worthless.

  • The Bellman

    Read Guy Cuthbertson’s recent biography instead. And there was a good review by Philip Hensher of the limits of Craig Raine’s criticism in the Spectator recently.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Craig Raine likes to epater les bourgeois. It is one of the very bourgeois things about him. Bright fellow. No good as a poet in my opinion.

  • justejudexultionis

    I would stick with Spenser, Sidney and that bloke from Stratford. Or why not try some Ronsard, Louise Labé or d’Aubigné? Our illustrious Renaissance predecessors outdo us in just about everything…

  • K.R

    Very poorly written and poorly argued article. The author quotes two poets’ views – Yeats and Craig Raine – and manages to quote only a few lines of Owen’s poetry which he thinks do not work as well as they should. However, it is his analysis of these lines, and indeed any of Owen’s lines, which is particularly shocking and lacking within an article which claims to ask whether Owen’s poetry is any good. Due to the lack of proper analysis to build a substantial argument, perhaps the title of this article should not be ‘Is Wilfred Owen’s poetry any good?’ but rather ‘Is Nigel Jones’ criticism any good?’ The answer, of course, would be a resounding NO!

  • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

    Yes it’s good, and he’s amazing. Mandy Thursday is a wonderful poem written before he ever went to the front. That the upper class fascist Yeats disliked him doesn’t surprise me.

    It is of course even more tragic that had he survived he, like Turing, would most likely have been persecuted by the country he loved, because of the people he loved.

    • Fergus Pickering

      How do you know that? Lots of homosexual poets about the place, then and now. Wilde got it in the neck but he did rather ask for it.

      • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

        I consider having to hide who you are under constant threat of imprisonment or torture to be persecution, even if the punishment is never actually visited.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Oh come. My Scottish school had its full quota of gays pre 1967 including my good friend Ian Charleson. I assure you they did not hide their lights under any bushels. I am sure it is better now but it wasn’t exactly the Gulag then.

    • Kunty Kunterson

      Would you care to substantiate your claim that Yeats was a “fascist”?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Well, he was very keen on an old fool called General O’Duffy. I think they were Green shirts. Padraig Pearse, the leader of the Easter Rising, was certainly a fascist, and de Valera preferred Hitler to Churchill, or indeed pretty well any Englishman. However, nobody reads Yeats for his ridiculous politics.

        • Kunty Kunterson

          So, he was friends with someone who was a fascist? And that makes him a fascist?

          • Fergus Pickering

            O’Duffy was a fascist leader, albeit a pretty stupid one. Yeats supported him politically. That makes him some sort of fascist, doesn’t it? But Shaw supported Stalin. And Eliot…. It was all a long time ago. Oh, and Larkin didn’t like immigrants. Nowadays of course…

      • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

        That he was a mystic and opponent of democracy in favour of some georgic idle governed by an aristocratic elite.

  • anncalba

    Dear Nigel, when you can write as well, then maybe your comments will be worth considering.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Journey from Obscurity – the autobiography of brother Harold Owen is worth a look.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      Harold’s destruction of many of Wilfred’s letters is unforgivable.

      • Kunty Kunterson

        Or perhaps understandable. Letters tend to be private.

        • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

          That I understand why a man who never got over his brother’s greatness or sexuality would destroy his letters, doesn’t mean I need to forgive him.

  • Kitty MLB

    I am not familiar with his poetry to be quite honest. I am ashamed to
    say apart from a little Rudyard Kipling that I know, I tend to stay away
    from such poetry. but the few words have shown are very moving and beautiful.
    I am not qualified t make a judgement, but why should he not deserve his place.

    • Robertus Maximus

      Do give it a try, Kitty, whether it be Owen’s poems on their own or as a Great War anthology so as to sample the work of Rosenberg, Gurney and Sassoon.

    • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

      I like Kipling, largely because many people of a delicate sort take umbrage at him as some apologist for imperialism, when in truth so much of what he wrote is secretly pointing out how ridiculous the whole affair was.

      • Kitty MLB

        I am not that familiar with Kipling either, just a little.
        I am more of a s Shelley and Yeats person really and
        what is ‘ a delicate sort’ those who took umbrage or something else.

  • allymax bruce

    Owens work is good; it’s his own style, and he’s darn good at it.

  • Robertus Maximus

    I think Owen deserves his place as a foremost poet, whether of the Great War or not. I fail to see why Owen’s status should impinge on the tragic Rosenberg, whose achievements are even more admirable due to his physical frailty and background. The same goes for Gurney, whose mental sufferings were agonising. Each of the three are more than worthy of the highest praise and admiration, but it is not a competition – each of them brings their own individual ability and insight to convey the horror of that abominable war and each are to be treasured for doing so.

    PS Shame Paxman’s name was deemed worthy of inclusion in this article – now that DID impinge on the subject matter as far as I’m concerned.

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