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Owen, Wilfred (1893-1918)  

English war poet Wilfred Owen combined the latent in the elegy tradition with precise observation of the horror of trench warfare.

Owen was born and brought up chiefly in Shropshire, England. After failing to get into university, he worked for a vicar and then in France as an English teacher before enlisting at the beginning of World War I at the age of 21.

Much of Owen's earliest poetry is in the homoerotic tradition that includes Shelley's "Adonais," Tennyson's In Memoriam, and A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad: poems that simultaneously celebrate and mourn the beauty of a dead young man.

Owen tried initially to combine this tradition with the religiosity of his upbringing. In "The Time was Aeon," Jesus Christ is depicted as a beautiful, suffering boy. As he grew older, Owen cared less and less for organized religion. "Maundy Thursday" describes churchgoers kissing the cross during a service; the narrator kisses the hands of the boy who holds the cross.

Ultimately, it was war poetry that was to give him a socially acceptable way to express his erotic feelings for other men.

Owen went to France as an officer at the end of 1916. In June 1917, he was sent back to England suffering from shellshock. He went to a hospital near Edinburgh, where he met the bisexual poet Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon encouraged Owen to think of himself as a poet. It was perhaps at Sassoon's suggestion that Owen reread "Adonais" and read the Greek elegies.

Sassoon also gave Owen an introduction to homosexual literary circles in London. Through him, Owen met Oscar Wilde's friend Robbie Ross, the poet Osbert Sitwell, and Charles Scott Moncrieff, the translator of Proust.

Owen's use of consonance and near-rhymes, possibly adapted from Gerard Manley Hopkins's experiments in technique, had been one of the distinctive features of his poetry since well before the meeting with Sassoon. Furthermore, Owen had already begun to combine the homoeroticism latent in elegy with precise observation of the horror of trench warfare.

Poems like "Anthem for Doomed Youth," "Greater Love," "Strange Meeting," "Dulce et Decorum Est," "Arms and the Boy," and "Disabled" are written in the elegiac mode but also contain details that ground the poetry in the daily experience of the poet and of his comrades.

Just as Owen's prosody and diction are based on traditional models that they then subvert, so Owen's best poetry takes the elegy as its point of departure only to finish by being both more personal and more political than the traditional elegy. Owen never forgot that he was writing about real boys and men dying all around him every day. He tried to write in a poetic language that would retain the Keatsian style he admired while it vividly expressed violence, sorrow, and rage; in his best poems, he succeeds brilliantly.

In the end, Owen became one of the boys he wrote about. He returned to France at the end of August 1918. In early October, he participated in an attack for which he received the Military Cross. Wilfred Owen was killed on November 4, 1918; the news reached his parents as the bells rang to celebrate the Armistice.

Owen published only five poems in his lifetime. Within a few years of his death, he had come to be regarded as one of the best of the war poets; he has only recently begun to be discussed as a homosexual poet. At the end of World War II, Benjamin Britten used some of Owen's poems in his War Requiem; the requiem was filmed in 1988 by Derek Jarman.

Stephen Guy-Bray


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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  War Literature

From ancient times, homoerotic writing has been a notable part of the literature of war.

literature >> Hopkins, Gerard Manley

In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian period, the sexually-repressed Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine.

literature >> Housman, A. E.

A. E. Housman's poetry is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history.

literature >> Jarman, Derek

In both his films and his writings, Derek Jarman's explicit project was to celebrate gay sexuality and imagine a place for it in English culture.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

literature >> Sassoon, Siegfried

For war poet and memoirist Siegfried Sassoon, the grueling years of World War I left an indelible impression of devastation and futility that colored his entire life.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Backman, Sven. Tradition Transformed. Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1979.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War." Signs 8 (1982-1983): 422-450.

Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. London: MacMillan, 1986.

_____. Wilfred Owen: The Last Year 1917-1918. London: Constable, 1992.

Kerr, Douglas. "The Disciplines of the Wars: Army Training and the Language of Wilfred Owen." Modern Language Review 87 (1992): 286-299.

Larkin, Philip. "The Real Wilfred." Encounter 44.3 (1975): 73-74.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. "Wilfred Owen and Abram." Women's Studies 13.1-2 (1986): 49-61.

Owen, Harold. Journey from Obscurity. 3 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1963-1965.

Parfitt, George. English Poetry of the First World War. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Silkin, Jon. Out of Battle. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. London: Oxford University Press and Chatto and Windus, 1974.

Taylor, Martin, ed. Lads: Love Poetry of the Trenches. London: Constable, 1989.


    Citation Information
    Author: Guy-Bray, Stephen  
    Entry Title: Owen, Wilfred  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 10, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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