Wilfred Owen: Overview

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Date: 1994
From: Gay & Lesbian Literature(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 632 words

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Wilfred Owen was born in the village of Oswestry in Shropshire, England, in 1893. He began composing works of poetry at the age of ten, and continued writing to become recognized as one of the world's most eloquent war poets. Only five of Owen's poems were published during his lifetime. Three were published in the Nation magazine and two appeared anonymously in Hydra: Journal of the Craiglockhart War Hospital. Owen's work was featured in the latter publication as he recuperated from injuries suffered in combat during World War I. It was at Craiglockhart Hospital that he met and befriended Siegfried Sassoon, who drew out Owen's poetic instinct.

Owen composed most of his poetry in slightly more than one year. This verse was written from the summer of 1917 to his death in the fall of 1918. Much of his work was published posthumously. Owen described his verse as depicting the pity, shame, and horror of World War I and battle in general, rather than the glory, honor, and majesty which is typically displayed. His poems were written without a nationalistic bias.

Owen's private life still remains an enigma and is open to much speculation. To a large extent his life and poetry were influenced by his domineering mother. Following the poet's death, his family continually guarded and restricted access to his personal life and denied inferences of Owen's latent homosexuality. But through a close scrutiny of themes, leitmotifs, and imagery in Owen's poetics, some readers have observed homosexual tendencies. Some critics point out themes such as patriarchal blood lust, narcissism, injustice collecting, hostility and distaste of women, troop love, antagonism toward God, and masculine imagery. Others cite an underlying current of latent homosexual symbolism in many of Owen's poems. However, in volume three of his Journey from Obscurity: Wilfred Owen, Harold Owen discusses the issue of the poet's alleged latent homosexuality and disinterest in women, stating that Owen's drive and work as poet forced him to remain celibate.

While there is no definitive evidence Owen was an active homosexual, there is high degree of homoeroticism in his juvenile and later poetry. Homoerotic elements can be found in three non-war poems and several unpublished verses, most notably "To Eros," "To the Bitter Sweetheart, A Dream," "To—," and "Maundy Thursday." "To Eros" describes the boy he worships, and in the second poem Eros seduces the speaker in a dream, while taking him to his girlfriend. Later, the lover dismisses the girl. In "To—" two boys become sexually aware of one another while running.

Homoerotic elements are also found in Owen's only definitive love poem "To a Friend (with an Identity Disc)" which implicitly avoids the use of masculine or feminine terms in addressing the friend. In this poem and in some of his other work, Owen includes eroticism that is idealized, romantic, and platonic. His homoerotic tendencies are further detailed in a sonnet dated 10 May 1916, recalling Owen's parting with the de la Touche boys. He writes to his mother that he parts with three of them regretfully, two of them sorrowfully, and one of them most painfully. In various poems, Owen also describes eloquently the beauty of the male physique. Some of the most intimate passages are found in "The Ballad of a Morose Afternoon," which indicates an adolescent infatuation for another young boy. No suggestion is given of its recognition or reciprocation by the other.

Although Owen's private life remains a mystery, a careful analysis of his imagery, themes, and technical style reveals much about his persona. A poet who has left a mark for many generations to come, he is primarily remembered for his revealing depictions of the human suffering of war. He was killed in combat at age 25, just one week before the end of World War I.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420006218