The best poems of Wilfred Owen selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve selected ten of the best poems about the First World War; but of all the English poets to write about that conflict, one name towers above the rest: Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Here’s our pick of Wilfred Owen’s ten best poems.
‘Futility’. This is a brief lyric that focuses on a group of soldiers standing over the dead body of a fallen comrade, and is one of Owen’s finest uses of his trademark pararhyme (or half-rhyme). Although the speaker and his fellow soldiers seem to think that the ‘kind old sun’ will be able to revive their dead comrade, we readers know that this is hopeful optimism if not naivety on the part of the speaker.
‘Strange Meeting’. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. The poem is narrated by a soldier who dies in battle and finds himself in Hell. There he meets a man whom he identifies as a ‘strange friend’. This other man tells the narrator that they both nurtured similar hopes and dreams, but they have both now died, unable to tell the living how piteous and hopeless war really is. This other soldier then reveals to the narrator that he is the enemy soldier whom the narrator killed in battle yesterday. He tells the narrator that they should sleep now and forget the past. Watch out for another deft employment of pararhyme: Owen eschews ‘heroic’ rhyming couplets in favour of such near misses as ‘groined’ and ‘groaned’.
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. One of the most famous poems written about the First World War, this sonnet sees Owen lamenting the young men who are giving their lives for the war, contrasting traditional funeral images with those the war dead receive: the funeral bell that normally marks someone’s death with solemnity is denied to the soldiers who die on the battlefield – their only ‘passing bells’ are the sound of gunfire. Through these images, Owen argues that there is little glory in the deaths of these young men dying on the Western Front.
‘Arms and the Boy’. Owen’s title, ‘Arms and the Boy’, wryly plays on the opening lines of Roman poet Virgil’s great epic The Aeneid: ‘Arms and the man I sing’. Whereas Virgil’s words usher in a poem detailing high heroic deeds and the founding of an empire (Aeneas was the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome), Owen’s title focuses on the way war corrupts and destroys youthful innocence. And this war will not make a new empire. Indeed, four empires would crumble by the end of the First World War. (Owen wrote ‘Arms and the Boy’ in spring 1918, around eight months before the end of the war.)
‘The Send-Off’. Describing a group of new soldiers departing for the trenches by train, ‘The Send-Off’ muses upon the unknown fates of those men who left for war. Do they now mock the women who gave them flowers to wish them goodwill as they left for the horrors of the Front?
‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’. This is not one of Wilfred Owen’s best-known poems, perhaps partly because it doesn’t deal as directly with his experiences of the First World War as some of the other poems on this list. But although it’s not his greatest poem, it does offer a different take on Owen’s theme: ‘the pity of war’. Based on the Old Testament story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac when commanded to do so by God, this poem draws a parallel between this biblical tale and WWI, with many young men being offered up as sacrifices by their fathers (it was, after all, old men who sent the young to war – war which the older generation was exempt from serving in). The poem also offers a sort of mockery of the sonnet: it ends with the rhyming couplet associated with the English sonnet form, but this comes as an addition to the sonnet’s usual fourteen lines, and the previous fourteen lines of Owen’s poem are unrhymed (albeit with some pararhyme).
‘Mental Cases’. As well as conveying the physical effects of warfare, Owen’s poetry also often gets across the psychological damage wrought by the industrial slaughter on the Western Front. Perhaps no poem better encapsulates this than ‘Mental Cases’, in which Owen describes those ‘men whose minds the Dead have ravished’. This poem also features one of Owen’s most arresting uses of surprising imagery: watch out for the description of how ‘night comes blood-black’.
‘Insensibility’. Divided into six sections, this poem explores ‘insensibility’, or numbness and lack of feeling, of various kinds. Drawing on the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament (‘Blessed are …’), Owen’s poem undoes any idea of blessedness and bliss in battle. There appear to be no ‘peacemakers’, blessed or otherwise, in the trenches of the First World War.
‘Greater Love’. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’: this biblical quotation provided Owen with the title for this powerful but complex poem about male sacrifice on the battlefield. Owen suggests that there is something pure about the soldiers who give their lives in war; the love they represent, and command, is higher than any other kind of love.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. One of the most famous of all war poems and probably the best-known of all of Wilfred Owen’s poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (the title is a quotation from the Roman poet Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori or ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’) was written in response to the jingoistic pro-war verses being written by people like Jessie Pope. Indeed, Pope is the ‘friend’ whom Owen addresses directly in the closing lines of the poem. It remains Owen’s best-known poem and perhaps his greatest statement about the war.
If this list has whetted your appetite for more poetry of the First World War, some of the finest war poems from that conflict are collected in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Penguin Classics). You can continue exploring the world of war poetry with our pick of Edward Thomas’s best poems, some of which were written while he was fighting in the First World War.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.