Why we now know the pity of war
Headstones of fallen soldiers from the First World War. Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty   

In his 1987 book The Old Lie: the Great War and the public-school ethos, Peter Parker wrote: “Before the Great War there was no war poetry as we now conceive the term… Instead there was martial verse.”

This was true even after the start of the war. Even months after hostilities had commenced, everyone was still writing as they had before. Rupert Brooke, for example, opened his sonnet sequence “1914” with the line:

“Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour.”

Even a young George Orwell (admittedly only 11 years old in 1914) was writing a poem entitled:

Awake! Young men of England.”

There was no special shame in this. Back then, such was the vernacular of poetry about war: celebratory, nobly commemorative, heroic, jingoistic.

The shift in tone, when it came, was permanent. As Geoff Dyer pointed out in his 1994 book, The Missing of the Somme, the young Orwell was simply relying on “received sentiment”. In exactly the same way, an 11-year-old writing 50 years on could, in similar circumstances, come up with a heartfelt poem expressing the horror of war – while also relying solely on received sentiment.”

The reason the “received sentiment” changed is not just because of one war, but because of one man: Wilfred Owen.

Of all the centennial occasions commemorated over the last four years, one of the smallest yet most saddening was at the beginning of this month, just days before the anniversary of the armistice. Wilfred Owen was killed just a week before the end of fighting, in 1918, during an attack at the Sambre Canal in the village of Ors.  The telegram announcing his death arrived at his mother’s house in Shrewsbury on armistice day as the bells were ringing out to celebrate the news of the end of the conflict. He was 25 – the same age his idol, Keats, was when he died.

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In Owen’s lifetime, only five of his poems had been published – two of them anonymously in the journal Owen edited while temporarily invalided at Craiglockhart hospital in 1917. It was there that Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, one of the many friends and family members who would make it their mission to publish Owen’s work posthumously. From the moment that the poems started to be released, they changed not only poetry, but also the mindset of their readers.

Edmund Blunden’s 1931 edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen was picked up by WH Auden and his contemporaries and Owen’s work infused that circle. In 1939, Christopher Isherwood wrote in his diary:

“Growing up in the postwar world, I learnt – from my history master, from Noel Coward, from Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – to loathe the old men who made the war. Flags, memorials and uniforms made me tremble with rage.”

Isherwood specifically rebelled at the staff at his school who “tried to make me believe in a falsified and sentimentalised view of the 1914 war”. For a generation who had all suffered their own losses (Isherwood lost his father in the war), Owen seemed an emissary who could be trusted. The poetry reeked of truth in a way that instantly smashed aside anyone still trying to write in the old style.

For a time during the war, and in its aftermath, Siegfried Sassoon had seemed to be the poet of the war. But Sassoon’s reputation fell away as Owen’s grew. If there is one reason for that, it is because Sassoon’s war poems were mostly polemics: sharp, devastating and unavoidable. But their point was made on first reading, after which they couldn’t improve. Owen’s, on the other hand, had a strange mixture of attributes.

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Foremost among them was his poetic ear, unequalled since Keats in its ability at half-rhymes. If the war had not come along, Owen might still have become a great poet. But the meeting point of that Keatsian sensibility and the actual hell on earth of the Western Front is what makes his poetry something which, once encountered, never leaves your system. Just as it has never left the system of the culture.

In the century since Owen, “war poetry” can no longer be the celebration of battle. Nobody will have it, and nobody believes it. Real war poetry is epitomised by work such as “Dulce et Decorum Est.” But these poems are not simply about the horrors of war. They also contain an invention which seems to encompass almost everything. Consider the image after the gas attack in ‘Dulce’:

“…. An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”

The vividness of Owen’s descriptions does more than turn the reader off war. Any sharp-eyed polemicist might do that. The specific of Owen’s descriptive genius is that there are things there which shouldn’t be. For instance, what is “ecstasy” doing in that line? It is not just that all of human death is there, but all of what used to be human life too.

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Just as the great practitioners of martial verse made people who had never been near a battlefield feel some valour transmitted on to them, so Owen made his readers feel as though part of the horror and (to use his phrase) the “pity of war” had passed into them as well. This process of transmission has run in a remarkable way through each of the generations that has followed.

The famous lines that Owen hoped to inscribe at the front of that book of poems he never lived to see published ended up – among other places – on the frontispiece of the score of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”, written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Britten’s harrowing, inventive work – which interweaves the Latin mass for the dead with a number of Owen’s poems – likewise embedded a new perspective.

After “War Requiem” it became almost impossible to listen comfortably to a work like Edward Elgar’s memorial to the fallen of the same war, “Spirit of England“. If the sentiment of Elgar’s work didn’t seem exactly false, then it no longer seemed able to recognise the sheer enormity of what Europe had just done to itself – particularly its younger generation. “War Requiem” was just one example of Owen featuring prominently in the decades after his death. Three decades after that masterwork he became one of the central figures in the Booker Prize winning Regeneration Trilogy (1991-6) of Pat Barker, which was turned into a film.

Owen’s biographical life has been on an uncommon journey of its own. For years after his death, the Owen family remained understandably fierce guardians of his legacy. His younger brother Harold in particular worked devotedly on his brother’s reputation, editing his letters and writing a three-volume biography, Memoirs of the Owen Family: Journey from Obscurity. Wilfred Owen: 1893-1918 (1961) as well as Aftermath (1970).

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It was only after the immediate family died that certain other aspects of Owen’s life emerged. It became clear that Harold had, over the years, tried diligently to hide references that might reveal his brother’s homosexuality. Portions of the diaries and letters has been scrupulously expurgated. But even before recent works by Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: a New Biography (Phoenix) and Guy Cuthbertson, Wilfred Owen (Yale), painted a fuller picture, this aspect of Owen had probably been guessed at by many of his readers. There is something in the physical pain he expresses at witnessing the destruction of his comrades that was always a fraction of a pitch above what might be thought (terrible term though this it is to use in these circumstances) usual.

In “Futility“, for instance, there is his line describing “Limbs so dear achieved”. Likewise there is something in the undertow of a passage like this from “Disabled“:

“Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.”

These, to me, are among the most hauntingly beautiful lines ever written. Not least because of that use of “mothered”, only a fraction of  an inch away from becoming “smothered”.
The flood of new information in recent biographies means that Owen’s readers have got to know him better, the further their distance from him. Modern readers are now in the position of knowing Owen better than almost any of his contemporaries did.

His poetry is deeply and firmly embedded in national life as well as in our national outlook. Almost none of it is easy reading, and Owen is certainly not the sort of poet whose work you return to like an old friend. Even when he is saying something that could be consoling, he couches it – as Philip Larkin later would – in a manner that warns you that although you may wish a thought to be true, it doesn’t follow that it is.

In one passage in “Spring Offensive” he writes:

“Of them who running on that last high place
Breasted the surf of bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.”

As at the end of Larkin’s “Arundel Tomb” he places a similar hope before the reader – as great and deep a hope as anybody could have. And like Owen before him, he qualifies that hope.

Because what we have learned cannot be unlearned. What has been discovered cannot be forgotten. Beyond the poetry itself, this remains Owen’s remarkable achievement. To have seen Hell and to have described it in a way that means a century after his death, he is still telling us: you never saw this, but you will never forget it.