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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wilfred Owen, the best of the WWI "War Poets", was born 121 years ago today

I've always wondered what he would have been capable of if he hadn't died in the line of duty at the age of 25. Here's a harrowing excerpt from one of Owens' anti-war poems, the final stanza of "Dolce Et Decorum Est": 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sack of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from the Roman poet Horace's Odes (III.2.13). The line can be roughly translated into English as "It is sweet and fitting to die for your country." Kenneth Branagh reads the poem here:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

- Citation for the award of the Military Cross to Wilfred Owen, 30 July 1919

Today is the 121st anniversary of the birth of English "war poet" Wilfred (Edward Salter) Owen (1893-1918) (wiki) (online archive) (BBC History), whose verse forms much of the text of the celebrated War Requiem (wiki) of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Born in Oswestry and raised in Shrewsbury, Owen became the "lay assistant" to a vicar in nearby Dunsden in 1911 and later tutored English in France. After the outbreak of World War I, he returned to England to enlist and eventually served on the Somme. Severely "shell-shocked," he was invalided home in May 1917, but after a posting to the small northern cathedral town of Ripon, he returned to active duty in France in August 1918. Owen was awarded the Military Cross posthumously for gallantry in an action two months later, but he was killed, at the age of 25, by German machine-gun fire while leading an attack on the Sambre-Oise canal just a week before the Armistice in November 1918. His extraordinary verse was first published in an edition by his friend Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) in 1920 and expanded into a complete edition in 1931 by fellow war poet Edmund Blunden (1896-1974). 

A BBC production on Owen's life entitled Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale (2007):

The source for the above is Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email. If interested in being added to his distribution list, leave your email address in the comments.

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