Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC, English soldier and poet, died on this day 97 years ago. Owen was killed exactly one week before the end of hostilities, taking part in the operation to cross the Sambre-Oise canal with his regiment, the 2nd Manchesters. The position was heavily defended and although the assault marked one of the last Allied victories of World War One, it came at a heavy cost.
Whether that cost includes the loss of further lasting poetry from Owen is difficult to estimate. No one is more closely associated in terms of subject matter with the war than Owen. Indeed, W.B.Yeats dismissed Owen as ‘unworthy of the poets’ corner in a county newspaper’ and excluded him (along with other war poets) from the Oxford poetry anthology he edited, claiming that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’. And Owen famously wrote that his subject was ‘war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ Without war, therefore, there may not have been more poetry anyway.
But what we have from Owen’s short life is a unique and memorable legacy. He prepared a volume of his poetry for publication shortly before returning – for the last time – to the Western Front. He was based in Ripon, and hired a room in a small cottage a short walk from Ripon south camp in order to secure some peace and privacy for the task in hand.
The proposed volume of thirty poems included all the work that was to establish Owen’s reputation – Dulce et decorum est, Strange Meeting, The Chances, Miners, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. But as he assembled the poems and put them in order, writing a preface (‘my subject is war and the pity of war…’), his recovery from the neurasthenia that had hospitalised him earlier in the war was hastening. By August 1918 he was back in Etaples. Three months later he was dead.
What kind of poet he would have become is, of course, a tantalising question. But as Harry Ricketts says in his book Strange Meetings, ‘Owen’s lost poems, of whatever kind, matter less than a cancelled future in which, had he lived, he might have been happy.’