An author’s context always has a substantial influence on the text’s they write. We will also find this holds true for poetry, if not more so. Poetry is often considered a collection of emotions generated from its writer and we can see this by not only analysing a poem, but by taking into consideration the poet’s life as well. One such example is Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poetry has been greatly influenced by his context, and not only by his involvement in World War 1 but the friendships he made in that time. Through knowing Owen’s context we can interpret how the social, political and historical climate of the world influenced his poetry.
Wilfred Owen was born in March, 1893. The course of his life changed many times before he went to war. After finishing school he became a parish assistant before abandoning religion and finally becoming a professor of English. It has never been clearly stated why he abandoned Christianity but we will look into how it has effected his poetry later. In 1910 Owen met Christoble Coleridge, daughter of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their friendship, together with his skills as an English teacher, is how Owen’s passion for poetry began.
It was not long after England declared war on August 4th, 1914, that Wilfred Owen enlisted with the ‘Artists Rifles Regiment’ as a cadet. In 1915 Owen was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant of the ‘Manchester’s Regiment’, and in 1917 was sent to the front line at the battle of Serre. At some stage during that battle Owen was concussed and spent several days in a bomb creator with the corpse of a fellow officer. Whilst recovering at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Owen met the poet Siegfried Sassoon who became the greatest influence in Owen’s work.
In August 1918 Owen returned to the war where he was killed in action on the 4th November, 1918. When the poetry of Wilfred Owen is read there are many instances where we can see direct parallels to events in his life. Let’s consider Owen’s becoming an apostate. There are many parts of his work that indicate an abandonment of religion, the best example being “Le Christianisme”. The very first line, “So the church of Christ was hit and buried”, is symbolic of Owen deferring from Christianity. However the rest of the poem, in particular the second stanza, can be interpreted as Owens’s resentment of such a change.
We can see in other poems this ‘resentment’ and perhaps also indication that Owen converted back to religion during the war. In “Strange Meeting” Owen writes “by his dead smile I knew we were in hell. ” It clearly illustrates that Owen was aware of the consequences of disbelieving in God and believed war to be his punishment, his “hell”. Quite often in Owen’s work, God is seen to symbolise death. The first line of “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” speaks of how he “saw God through mud; the mud that cracks on cheeks”, meaning he saw God in the face of the dying.
We consider this use of “God” to mean death because very often in Owen’s work he claims o see death in the eyes of man. Finally, in “Greater Love” one line gives us a good example of how Owen felt about God. “Where God seems not to care. ” There is one poem which is almost an account of an event from 1917. Whilst leading his platoon in the battle of Somme, Owen captured an abandoned German bunker in no man’s land. The sentry who was posted was blinded during a raid. This also happens to be the theme of the poem “The Sentry”, and we can already see the evidence in the title.
After reading the poem we get a much better picture of what actually happened. The first line, “We found an old Boche dug-out” already indicates the finding of a German bunker. Further into the poem Owen has used the onomatopoeia “whiz-bang” to describe the sounds of rockets. Following a final attack, another onomatopoeic line depicts a man falling down stairs. “Thud! Flump! Thud! Down the stairs… ” The man to fall down the stairs is referred to as the sentry, and n regaining consciousness he cries “O sir – my eyes – I’m blind.
This is said to have actually happened and gives us a good example of just how real Owen’s poetry is. Apart from resembling events in his life, Owen’s poetry strongly reflects his views and attitudes towards war and other issues. Perhaps the most profound trend across his work is the criticism he gives to the glory of war. Let’s consider “Dulce et Decorum est”. The very title is Latin for “noble and heroic to die for ones country”, but the poem itself has a very anti-war approach in which Owen tries to depict the true image of war.
The first stanza describes the state of the soldier’s and what they have to endure. The line “men marched asleep” is describing how they no longer care, how what was once considered extra ordinary is now boring them to sleep. The last two lines’ emphasises this giving the impression they don’t care for their lives and that death no longer perturbs them. “… deaf even to the hoots, Of gas shells dropping softly behind. ” The second stanza describes the fitting of gas masks during an attack. It is interesting to note the use of the word “ecstasy” with ecstasy meaning pure delight.
Again this resembles how war can desensitise a person, so much so that a struggle for life is considered pure delight. It then goes on to describe the death of a solider not quick enough in fitting his mask. The final lines of this second stanza describe how the experience of war has affected his dreams. We make the assumption “my dreams” is literally referring to Owen’s dreams. The true meaning of this poem is written into the final stanza. The final stanza is a reflection of what Owen feels about war. He writes about the possibility that if we ever saw what he had we would not describe war “with such high zest”.
It is blatantly saying that we do not and cannot have any notion of what war is truly like and how devastating it is. “Children ardent for some desperate glory” and hence war is depicted as glorious when in fact it is not. Owen’s attitudes towards this is best summed up by the last lines of this poem “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. ” We can derive other meanings from Owen’s works by looking at the extent to which the symbols blood and death have been used. Constant use of blood as a symbol is clearly a reflection of the violence of war.
In the third stanza of “Strange Meetings” blood has been used as a symbol not once, but four times. “Yet no blood reached there… ” “… boil bloody, and be spilled” “… much blood had clogged… ” “Foreheads of men have bled… ” In many of his poems, the words blood, pain, die, dark, killed and hell are continuously used. This adds a very dark and evil feel to the poems and our notion of war. It is a technique in which Owen has successfully portrayed war for what it is. In “The Next War” Owen has personified death to create an enemy for the next war, the war for life.
Out there we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death; Sat down and eaten with him… ” In the poem, Death is described as a friend, “Death was never an enemy of ours! ” It is exploring the notion that men at war did not fear death and did not try to avoid the war they would inevitably succumb to against him. It is also significant that “we” has been used as opposed to “me”. This could be referring to all soldiers, but in taking the first stanza into consideration we get quite a different meaning. “War’s a joke for me and you, While we know such dreams are true.
Siegfried Sassoon. ” This puts a new meaning to the poem. It now reads as Sassoon and Owen facing death together, and is symbolic of the strength of their friendship. If the war was half of Owen’s influence to write poetry, then Sassoon was the other half. Sassoon, already a poet himself, met Owen while he was in hospital. Sassoon read through Owen’s work and helped him develop new techniques, of which we see in his own work regularly. After Owen was killed on the 4th November 1918, Sassoon made it his personal endeavour to publish all of Owen’s work.
If it had not been for Sassoon we would never have known about Wilfred Owen and his poetry. Sassoon once said, “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, and this we take for truth. Not only does memory of Wilfred Owen live on through these poems, but the fatal mistakes made by humanity in going to war. In illustrating what war was really like, and exposing the false glory, Owen has left future generations a warning not to let history repeat itself. May his words live on forever, “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est. “