Selected Letters

Selected Letters

Selected Letters

Selected Letters


This selection from the full 1967 edition of Owen's letters includes some early examples, but concentrates on the last seven years of his short life. His letters--almost all to his mother--constitute his self-portrait.


Wilfred Owen, the first of the four children of Tom and Susan Owen, was born at Oswestry in Shropshire on 18 March 1893. He was four when the family moved to Birkenhead, where Tom Owen had a post on the railways, thirteen when they moved to Shrewsbury, and eighteen when he passed the University of London Matriculation examination in 1911. A university could not be afforded, and in October of that year he accepted an unpaid post as lay assistant and pupil to the Vicar of Dunsden, near Reading. After fifteen increasingly troubled months he determined to break with evangelical religion and returned home where, exhausted, he fell ill with congestion of the lungs. After a long convalescence, he tried for a scholarship to the University of Reading; failing it, he took a post teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, arriving there in the autumn of 1913. When war came, he was in the French Pyrenees, on holiday with a Bordeaux family as a private tutor; back in Bordeaux, he became tutor to two English boys cut off by the war from going back to school. Returning home in September 1915, he joined up in the Artists' Rifles, and in the following June he was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment.

On 1 January 1917 he was in France to report to the and Manchesters at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme; four months later, shell-shocked, he was invalided home, arriving at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh in the early summer. Here he met Siegfried Sassoon, and over the next few months, as he gradually returned to light regimental duties--first at Scarborough with the 5th Manchesters, and then with Northern Command at Ripon--Sassoon helped to introduce him to the literary world in the course of short leaves in London.

Pronounced fit for general service again, he rejoined his battalion at Amiens in September 1918, was awarded an immediate Military Cross for gallantry in the field, and was killed in the dawn of 4 November while attempting to get his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal. A week later, the war was over. News of his death got to Shrewsbury as the church bells were ringing in celebration. He was twenty-five. Five of his poems had appeared in journals. Sassoon and Edith Sitwell organized the posthumous volume that was published thirteen months later, the collection of only twenty-three poems from which, in Osbert Sitwell's words, 'his name has gathered a continual accretion of fire'.

Collected Letters was published in 1967, the way to that volume having been uniquely prepared by the poet's brother Harold, whose three- volume story of the Owen family had been published between 1963 and 1965. Since the letters came out, there have been three significant contributions to our knowledge of the poet and his poetry. In 1973 came . . .

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