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In Our Time/Wilfred Owen

One of my favourite wireless programmes is In Our Time presented by Melvyn Bragg at 9-00 on Radio 4 every Thursday.

The topic varies weekly and Bragg assembles a team of academics well-qualified to discuss it.

Yesterday’s programme featured the World War poet Wilfred Owen.

My connection with Wilfred Owen goes back to school.

Our English teacher ordered us to learn by heart one of two poems by Rupert Brooke or Wilfred Owen.

His idea was then to generate a discussion on patriotism versus the horrors of war.

In asking members of the class the reasons for their choice the stock reply was that they had chosen the shorter one.

I felt sorry for the teacher but – looking back on it now – perhaps it would have been better to read out the two poems in class, give his views and assuredly a discussion would then follow.

It was particularly interesting to learn from the programme of Owen’s life up to his death in World War One.

He was born in Oswestry in March 1893 in comfortable surroundings, the family living in his grandfather’s home.  After the death of his grandfather the family suffered straightened circumstances, moving to first Birkenhead, then Shrewsbury as Owen’s father was a stationmaster.

The young Owen was educated in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury Institutes. He had a facility for languages and became a teacher for Berlitz. He was working for them when War broke out.

He enlisted and was a good soldier, winning the Military Cross.

His ambitions to become a poet were aided when, after suffering concussion and shell shock, he went to Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh where he met Siegfried Sasson, who became his mentor.

He died on 4th November 1918 – the week before the end of the War – aged only 25 and one of his most poignant writings read out on the programme was a letter to his beloved mother who probably received and read it after his death.

He only had 5 poems published in his lifetime.

Like many, his talent was recognised posthumously – for example, by the anti-Vietnam War writers in the 1960s.

Our English teacher was correct as his poetry stands in total contrast to Rupert Brooke’s, who did not die in the trenches but in a French hospital ship on his way to join the Gallipoli campaign.

This – and Owen’s valour and acumen as a soldier – are the ironies of the two poets.

Rupert Brooke, who was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros, was commemorated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey and the inscription was written by Wilfred Owen:

My subject is War and the pity of War.  The poetry is in the pity“. 

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About Henry Elkins

A keen researcher of family ancestors, Henry will be reporting on the centenary of World War One. More Posts