Wilfred Owen was born near Orwestry, Shropshire in 1893.The eldest of four children born to Thomas Owen, a railway stationmaster, and Susan Owen, Wilfred showed particular affinity for poetry from an early age and was particularly enamoured with Keats.
In 1911, he sat the matriculation exam for the University of London. Although he passed, he did not receive the necessary ‘First’ needed for a scholarship. His parents were unable to afford to pay for his tuition, and he instead travelled to work as a lay assistant to a vicar in Reading. This lead to his increasing disillusionment with the Anglican church, and he departed England for France to work as a language tutor in 1913.
He still lived there at the advent of the First World War in late July, 1914, and remained there for a further year before returning to England in October, 1915, to enlist in the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps. In 1916, he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant of the Manchester Regiment.
In 1917, he was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated by Dr. Arthur Brock. It was here that he met the established war poet and decorated Officer, Siegfried Sassoon, who had been sent there as a result of his public anti-war declaration.
Sassoon was to make a marked influence on the life of Wilfred Owen, encouraging him not only to write poems about the war, but also introducing him to a wider literary circle which included figures such as H.G. Wells, Robbie Ross, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden. In turn, he aided Wilfred in the editing of his early poems, and lent him the idea for the title of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.
In August 1918, Wilfred returned to the front, and in early October was recommended for the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He did not live to see his award gazetted. He died exactly a week before the end of the war on November 4th, 1918 while crossing the Oise-Sambre Canal. His parents received news of his death on November 11th amidst the Armistice Day celebrations.
Only five of Wilfred’s poems were published during his lifetime, and to no great success. In 1920, Siegfried Sassoon gathered, edited, and published his poetry on his behalf. Wilfred Owen is now considered the greatest of all the poets to emerge from the First World War. He is commemorated, along with sixteen other poets of the Great War, in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The memorial bears the words of his preface:
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.