Journey from obscurity? : Wilfred Owen’s reception and posterity in France


Wilfred Owen, France, First World War poetry, critical reception, popular reception, translation, posterity.

This paper explores the ambiguities of Wilfred Owen’s reception in France, from the 1920’s to 2020, through the lens of academic and intellectual criticism, literary rewriting and translation.

Cet article explore les ambiguïtés de la réception de Wilfred Owen en France, des années 1920 à 2020, sous l’angle de la critique académique et intellectuelle, la traduction et la réécriture poétique.


I only understand and appreciate the English when they are dead and when a thousand commentaries, published letters, diaries, fine translations and a wealth of details provided by [André] Maurois finally convince me that they are not Martians but fraternal souls. (François Mauriac, Journal, t.II, Grasset, 1937, 16).

             It is a truth generally acknowledged that, in France, “there is no real war poet of the likes of Wilfred Owen in England” (Baert et Viart, 30). War poetry remains indeed a “specifically British affair” writes poet and critic Jacques Darras, pointing to a cultural discrepancy that has often been noted in French academic circles. La Grande Guerre brings to mind a smattering of great names, primarily Charles Péguy, Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, whose fame continues to eclipse that of other, more neglected writers (André Salmon, Charles Vildrac, René Dalize). However, none of the French soldier-poets are specifically memorialized or celebrated for their war production, nor are they officially grouped under the collective name “war poets”. In fact, writes Laurence Campa, “in their vast majority, the French poets of the war remain unknown today. Their poetic work, like much of the poetry written during that period, has been, notwithstanding a few exceptions, progressively neglected then forgotten in the course of the XXth century” (Campa, 11), in an reverse trajectory to the rising star of the English war poets in mainstream British culture. Though France does have its “écrivains combattants”, this classification covers a multitude of writers of the First World War, out of which novelists and memorialists (Henri Barbusse, Roland Dorgelès, Georges Duhamel to name but a few), in short those detaining narrative authority, have emerged with a far greater following and influence than their fellow poets. A “forgotten genre” according to Antoine Compagnon, the reputation of French WWI poetry pales in comparison with that of the Second World War, often conflated with the poésie de la résistance which, in accordance perhaps with the greater and more complex memorialization of WWII in France, the militant agenda of its poets (René Char, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard) and the outstanding quality of their production, has been granted an essential place in the French classroom and literary canon of the twentieth century.

Thus the exceptional status of the WWI poet in Britain seems to the French at best an interesting idiosyncrasy, a form of cultural eccentricity resonant with Britain’s specific poetic insularism. The trifling place granted to First World War poetry in the French canon and national curriculum explains, by extension, the patchy reception of the British war poets in France. Unsurprisingly, Wilfred Owen, the “most famous and most praised of the World War One poets” (Caesar, 115) in Britain, is anything but a household name across the Channel. Though translated for the first time in 1934 by angliciste Louis Bonnerot, the writer Julien Green still has cause to remark in his diary entry of July 1962 that “Wilfred Owen is without a doubt the best of the English poets of 1914-1918 but who has heard of him in France?” (Green, 310). Known to English literature academics who were the first to promote his works, he remains relatively unknown to the general public. Perhaps the best indication of this oversight is Frédéric Mitterrand’s (then Minister of Culture) candid note in his journal, on being asked to inaugurate the Maison Forestière d’Ors in October 2011: “[I have been asked to] inaugurate the Maison Forestière where Wilfred Owen was billeted in the autumn of 1918 and for which the little township of Ors, a village of more or less a hundred souls, has moved heaven and earth over the last years to restore and turn into a site a memory. Wilfred Owen who?”(Mitterrand, 300).

The contrast between the overly laudatory terms with which he is presented in the French media when the occasion arises (“second author in Britain after Shakespeare” [1]) and the frequent misspelling of his name (most commonly “Wilfrid”, in the French manner, or “Wilfried” in the German one, he is also misnamed as “Wilfred Sorley” and “William Owen”), the false attribution of his works and erroneous biographical data, reveal France’s difficulty to grasp Wilfred Owen’s stature and position in the British canon. To emerge as an individual poet from a foreign “war poet” group, to stand out of the shared spotlight and gather an authority and renown separate from Siegfried Sassoon’s and Rupert Brooke’s, presented indeed one of the major obstacles to Owen’s individual recognition in France. It is only relatively recently, in the wake of his (re)discovery in the 1960’s, that he began garnering enduring critical and public attention. Replacing the long-standing myth of Rupert Brooke (bolstered by André Gide in the first half of the century), Owen became the embodiment of a young, sacrificed Edwardian manhood which holds an undeniably romantic appeal to the French audience. His “seared conscience” and rebellious figure, his anti-militaristic poems, homoerotic themes and religious questioning, all work towards forming a specific icon of sensitive, tortured youth sanctified by death, in some ways reminiscent of the national poète maudit, Arthur Rimbaud.

Remaining, throughout the century, a difficult poet to “de-mob”, which is to say, to appreciate beyond his appeal as witness to a horrific war, his reputation has undeniably suffered from his association with political and occasional poetry, a genre that is historically disregarded in France. Long remaining an “academic’s poet”, exerting more fascination over professors than the general readership, Owen’s French trajectory was a difficult climb out of revues savantes and university lectures. It is only late in the 20th century, notably after the success of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in France, that Owen was finally discovered by a wider public, intent on keeping his memory alive by reworking his poetry for the 21st century.

“A dark trail in the orbit where you blaze”: the early years (1920-1950)

The posthumous publication of Owen’s Poems in 1920, edited by Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell, coincides in France with a short-lived flurry of interest in the soldier-poets from across the Channel. The earliest – albeit erroneous – mention of Owen in French is to be found in a 1920 edition of L’Art Libre, a pacifist magazine, relay for the Clarté[2]movement in Belgium. Setting the tone for the coming decade, the “courageous and sincere” Siegfried Sassoon is celebrated as the most influential British war poet of his generation, while the obviously unread, portmanteau-poet “Wilfred Sorley” is only mentioned in passing. The French interpretation, or rather recuperation, of Sassoon’s specifically British brand of anti-militarism as a form of internationalist, socialist pacifisme, is confirmed in a 1921 article of the newly established Revue De France. Briefly introducing Siegfried Sassoon, alongside Wilfred Owen and Richard Aldington, the articles presents them as the only pacifist English poets to have taken war as their main subjects.

This assertion will be qualified in 1934 by the more informed Anglophone studies scholars, Louis Bonnerot and Anatole Rivoallan, two of the most important academic mediators of their time. In a special edition of Poésie devoted to “English contemporary poets”, the scholars introduce the “new war poets” beside the already established representatives of the modernist school. Chosen and translated for the occasion and presented as Owen’s most representative poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“Antienne pour la jeunesse condamnée”) remains his most cited text in France. In the same vein, later adopted by English critics F. R. Leavis and C. K. Stead, Bonnerot and Rivoallan praise the war poets’ “contact with the real and the concrete” as well as their “sensibility” which, while great, cannot however compete with the “psychological complexities” and “erudite reminiscence and intelligence” of T. S. Eliot, “true chief of the new school”. [3]

Undistinguished among his fellow war poets, Owen is thus, from his first textual introduction to the French public, presented as part of a group that is excluded from the more radically contemporary modernist chapel. The ideological quarrel in 1920’s and 30’s France between the communist war-veteran writers of the group Clarté and the all-powerful cénacle of the Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), won by the latter, will push war literature into a political niche. Favouring “cultural demobilization” by giving a platform to “la littérature pure”, the NRF sides with the modernist movement, looking to remove literature from political expression. The growing lassitude of the French public towards war publications (Marcel Proust’s Goncourt in 1919 for À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, signaling the end of the heyday of combatant literature), and the literary exploits of the avant-garde surréalistes, will further obscure the reception of the war poets in France. In 1928, the French reference dictionary Le Larousse Illustré, revealingly omits to mention Owen in its dismissive definition of British war poetry (“the poets of the war form a separate group of writers”), represented by an haphazard choice of names; Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Robert Nichols, Charles Sorley, Rupert Brooke. As in Britain, the “war poets” are by then considered as offshoots of the war and, as such, are marginalized from the modern British canon. This problem of generic categorization will remain inherent to the reception of the war poets in general and of Wilfred Owen specifically, in France.  

The 1930’s however saw a renewed appeal of war writings, both national and international, in part due to the promotion of the Clarté movement and the rise of the fascist threat in Europe. Reviving “literary pacifism” by encouraging translations from the German (notably Ernst Jünger and Erich Maria Remarque), the movement sidelines the English vein of war memoirs, excepting Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, translated in 1936.[4] French academics, on the other hand, especially attentive to contemporary English publications as well as literary trends, begin to notice the rising influence of the veteran war poets. Though still outshone by Sassoon at the turn of the decade, Owen’s reputation is bolstered by Edmund Blunden’s edition of The Poems of Wilfred Owen in 1931.The admiration it garnered from the political poets of the thirties (Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Louis McNeice), deepened in turn the interest of French academia, keen to keep up with the new generation of British poets. In 1931, in a paper published in the Revue Anglo-Américaine (most important platform for French Anglophone scholars of the time) discussing Edmund Blunden’s poetry, Louis Bonnerot concludes: “M. Blunden is one of the greatest […] of the war poets and probably the one with the most diverse work. He is only surpassed, in breadth of emotion and thought, by Wilfried [sic] Owen of whom he has just re-edited the poems, and Mr. S. Sassoon whose greatness is without compare”.[5] 

Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, Owen’s greatest champions across the Channel are thus two academics: Louis Bonnerot (founder and director of the Revue Anglo-américaine – later Études Anglaises – from 1934 to 1974) and Louis Cazamian, both professors of English literature at the Sorbonne. Gradually promoting Owen over Sassson, they will inscribe him in a larger poetic tradition and lineage, by associating him to the “Pylon poets” of the 1930’s.  This link with Auden, Day-Lewis, Spender and MacNeice singles Owen out from the reductive “war poets” group, giving him a voice of his own among the second generation modernists. In 1933, Cazamian could write, with no mention of Sassoon whatsoever: “Among the writers killed in the Great War, Rupert Brooke is the only one to have remained famous. Wilfred Owen is just beginning to garner attention and exert his influence over the new generation of poets”.[6] In 1935, Owen’s technical performances, in particular his pararhyme or “contre-assonances”, are noted and quoted as a source of Cecil Day Lewis’s innovations in Baruch.[7] For the first time – albeit always in contrast with another poet – analyzed formally and not only thematically, Owen is called “a poet of genius”. The same year, in a comparison of I.M. Parsons and Michal Roberts’celebrated anthologies,[8] F. Mossé rejoices that both anthologists agree on the most important poetic filiation of the time : “One notes with pleasure, the agreement on the essential links of the chain: Hardy, Hopkins, Yeats, Wilfrid Owen, T.S. Eliot”.[9] Wilfrid Owen [sic], still unknown enough to have his first name misspelled (and included), is admitted into an exclusive poetic canon, establishing his authority as an essential link in the birth of British modernism. In 1939, the year of France’s and the UK’s entry in the Second World War, Owen’s “Disabled” is translated by Bonnerot and published in Yggdrassil.[10] More notably perhaps one of the subjects of the agrégation d’anglais (French national teaching exam) in March 1939, is a translation of “Exposure” into French, and an essay on the following topic: “Compare Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen as War Poets” (the comparison would probably, by then, have turned in Owen’s favour). 

The onset of the Second World War hampered publications but also expanded discussion of the war poets beyond specialized academic reviews (revues savantes) and into more generalist literary publications. In a probable homage to their British allies, Les Cahiers de Paris publish in 1940, a special issue devoted to “the English poets of the last war”, giving Wilfred Owen his first article entirely devoted to him in France. However despite the revival of political poetry in France, the war did not give as much new visibility to Wilfred Owen, as it did in Britain. Two years after the end of the conflict, in 1947, Jacques Valette publishes, in the Mercure de France, a comparison between Wilfred Owen, Alun Lewis and Sydney Keys, inscribing Owen in contemporary problematics of writing on war, yet still always in comparison with other poets. The same year, Louis Cazamian’s analysis of Owen’s poetry in his panorama of English symbolism (Symbolisme et Poésie, l’exemple anglais, 1947), draws links between Owen and the Romantic poets, forging his recurring association with Keats in the next decades. This is confirmed in 1949, when Owen is categorized as a “modern romantic” as opposed to the “modern classics” (Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot), in a review of Herbert Read’s Form in Modern Poetry (1948) written by J.G. Ritz. Thus far the work of French scholars during the 1930s and 40’s gradually contributed to “demobilizing” Owen’s work (lifting it out of the unique circumstances of the First World War and away from Sassoon’s influence). From then on he was considered not as the product of a specific context and genre, but as the result of a literary tradition taking its roots in the 19th century. Still regularly undervalued or overvalued, Owen remained, however, difficult to categorize for French scholars.

Despite Owen’s growing visibility in the academic world, he was still strikingly undiscussed in French literary circles and literary magazines of the interwar and war period. This is due, in part, to the early rift between the university and the educated public in France, which opposed the“savant”to the“lettré” and saw the triumph of the “critique de soutien” (written by journalists such as Charles Maurras, and non-academic intellectuals such as André Gide), over the “critique professorale” (written by scholars). Emblematically, André Maurois, one of the most prominent critics of the times, recognized expert of all things British and anglophile author of an eccentric war novel based on his experience in the British Expeditionary Forces (Les Silences du Colonel Bramble, 1918), never once mentions Owen in his public and private writings. The most influential literary circle of the times, dominated by the NRF (“the closest French entity corresponding to Bloomsbury”, Caws, 8), was indeed much more interested in the cosmopolitan, often Paris-based, modernist poets, with whom they had established a rapport since before the First World War, notably through the great passeur Rémy de Gourmont. Jacques Rivière, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Valéry Larbaux, François Mauriac, to name but a few of the era’s luminaries, show no indication of having heard of Owen, although (and perhaps because?) some of them had known and admired Rupert Brooke. Knowledge of one or two English poets seemed to suffice to these French writers still living in the aura of a mythical England: “Claudel knew Patmore and Hopkins, Gide Oscar Wilde. That was enough”(Guérin, 68). The only French intellectual to have expressed an interest in Owen at the time was the Franco-American, bilingual writer Julien Green.

Julien Green and Wilfred Owen

Julien Green (1900-1998), half-French, half-American writer of the écrivain catholique school, great friend of Gide and Mauriac, was an author of considerable repute in the mid-century (perhaps the most convincing testament to his notoriety is the impressive eight tomes Pléiade edition of his complete works). His discovery of Wilfred Owen’s poetry during the Second World War, and his deepening interest in the poet’s life in the following decades, is faithfully chronicled in his Journal. Praising the British war poets for their “burning, living poetry”[11] of which he finds no echo in France, he is, as a fervent admirer of Keats, particularly drawn to Owen who reveals, according to him, a remarkable linguistic and symbolic kinship with the young Romantic poet. Reading Owen’s more political war poems during WWII, he commends his “vision unadulterated by literature”: “He saw the war without illusion, without literature, he saw it as it deserved to be seen: with horror”.[12] This prompts him to take Owen’s defense upon discovering that Yeats had deliberately excluded him from his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) : “What to say of the anthology of modern poets published by Yeats other than that it shows the dwindling critical faculties of old men?”[13]

Progressing from Owen’s poems to his biography and correspondence as they are published in the 1960’s, Green’s discovery of the man behind the works, leads him to romanticize the young poet “who knew the power of his strange smile”.[14] No longer reading him in political terms, his passionate, if distant, appreciation of Owen turns into a fascination tinged with erotic fantasy. As a conflicted Catholic, he admires Owen’s courage and rebellion against “official Christianity”,[15] which he attributes to Owen’s passionate temper, brimming with sensuality: “He was a man of strong sexuality, with a dangerous irritability which didn’t exclude the extreme and seductive sweetness of his smile”.[16] Projecting his moral and religious dilemmas on the young poet, Green reads rightly behind the lines of Owen’s own repressed homosexuality. His appreciation of Owen’s “painful, burning calling”, is expressed in quasi-Decadent terms: “He sacrifices himself to poetry with the fervor of a Roman seminarian, giving himself up to celibacy”.[17] Julien Green’s infatuation is not uncommon among readers of Wilfred Owen, often more interested in the emotional and sensual appeal of his character than in his writings per se. Julien Green’s passionate devotion to the young war poet is shared by many of his later readers and no doubt, greatly contributed to promoting the myth of Wilfred Owen, in France as in the UK.

Towards celebrity? (1960-2020)

Since the 1950’s, thanks to his frequent appearance in French anthologies of British poetry and in the Bulletin des Langues anglaises, Wilfred Owen is now considered, by most scholars, as one of the “known voices”of the British canon. Mentioned regularly in publications destined for school and university students (such as André Maisonneuve’s anthology Present and Past, Floris Delattre’s Feux d’automne, or René Lalou’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise), he is now part of the canonical history of British literature.

As in Britain, it is the 1960’s that consecrate Wilfred Owen as the most important and recognized poet of World War One whose name has become almost synonymous with war poetry. The 50th anniversary of World War One, together with the rise of the movement against the Vietnam War and a new, popular, interest in “protest poetry”, contributed to Owen’s rising star in Britain, which in turn shifted the tone of the discussion in France. Georges Bas’ important review of the 1964 edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury reveals a clear shift in taste and sensibilities: “But the reversal of hierarchies is manifest in certain marked preferences: Meredith and Swinburne only have two poems to their name […] where Hopkins has fourteen, Hardy eleven, Yeats fifteen and DH Lawrence seven. Rupert Brooke’s absence from the collection while Wilfrid [sic] Owen features five poems shows how the latter’s reputation has never ceased to rise”.[18] The 1960’s saw indeed a flourish of important publications devoted to Owen in the Anglophone world, including the first critical study devoted to Owen (D.S.R. Welland Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study, 1960) Cecil Day Lewis’s new edition of his poems in 1963 (The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen), Harold Owen’s major biography (Journey From Obscurity, 1963-65), Gertrude White’s presentation to the American public (Wilfred Owen, 1969), as well as the publication of his correspondence (Harold Owen co-editor, The Collected Letters of Wilfred Owen, 1967). These publications drew French academic focus away from the texts to the poet’s life and personality, ushering in the era of biographical and psycho-criticism. In light of the new revelations shed on Owen’s youth, the romantic meta-narrative of his life definitely takes over Rupert Brooke’s lingering legend. The most recurrent key-words attached to French studies of Owen underline his sensibility, his humanism, his Christ-like passion, in such articles or chapter headings as: “The Passion of Wilfred Owen”, “The Messianism of Wilfred Owen” or “Wilfred Owen’s Lament”. “Emotion”, “revolt”, “tenderness”, “love”, all these characterize the “rebellious” Wilfred Owen (“poète révolté” is particularly used in those days of social unrest in France), an emphasis on emotional traits which did not help Owen’s intellectual reputation in France in the heyday of structuralism and formalist critical reading.

Although the poet and translator Jacques Darras wrily notes that his master’s thesis on Wilfred Owen made no waves at the Sorbonne in 1963, Owen had become by then a more fashionable subject, as attested by the growing number of academic articles published about him in 1960’s France (as a point of comparison, we only find one German work on Wilfred Owen in the period from 1920 to 1960[19]) and culminating in Roland Bouyssou’s thèse d’état published in 1974 – first French thesis to be devoted to the war poets in France, and which gives a central place to Wilfred Owen. Since the 1970’s a steady stream of articles devoted to Wilfred Owen appear in French academic journals. However, while Owen’s works were becoming a prominent area of study in Britain in the 1980’s-1990’s,[20] French academics did not contribute any full-length studies, biographies, or conceptual breakthroughs to this critical resurgence. If he is alluded to in Dans l’aventure du langage , written by writer and poet Georges-Emmanuel Clancier in 1987, as one of the forgotten forefathers of modern English poetry (“The ‘father’ of modern English poetry is, unquestionably, T.S. Eliot, preceded only by a few poets who, through their use of language as Yeats, or their inspiration as Wilfrid [sic] Owen, had something new to offer”, Clancier 239), he remains an admired but foreign phenomenon in France, still often considered as an overpraised minor poet.

Recent university manuals reveal perhaps more than academic articles, the manner in which the war poets, and Wilfred Owen specifically, are still, always briefly and often disparagingly, introduced to French students. Still stuck in the mire of war and presented as a literary parenthesis in a 20th century marked by modernist giants, the war poets invariably act as historic background to T.S. Eliot, Pound and Yeats. Grellet and Valentin’s fifth edition (2013) of An Introduction to English Literature (reference for all undergraduate students and most widely circulated university handbook), only mentions “W. Owen Poems (1920)” in a list of publications of the 20th century, but doesn’t bother with a page to his name or a biography. The only other mention of his contribution to literature is to be found in a paragraph on “imperfect rhyme” (rather than pararhyme), with examples taken from “Exposure”.[21] In 2013, Elizabeth Angel-Perez’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise quotes “Strange Meeting”, and mentions Owen at the end of a page devoted to the war poets which appears under the revealing heading “Conjectural and political poetry”. In Laroque, Regard and Morvan’s Histoire de la littérature anglaise, the war poets are given more page space but are considered according to their potential, what they could have been rather than what they effectively achieved (“What would have been the face and the fate of English poetry had these men reached their artistic maturity, it is impossible to say”). Thus Owen, and the war poets in general, still suffer from the disinterest of the more generalist reader or critic, for reasons particular to French poetic and academic taste: the humanist emotion underpinning Owen’s poetry is not particularly admired by French formalist criticism (“niaiserie sentimentale”, as André Breton used to say of Barbusse’s humanism), while occasional poetry (poésie de circonstance) is still considered a suspicious genre by critics influenced by the long-standing debate (revived by Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1950’s) on the “impurity” of political and historical poetry.

Recent trends

The centenary of the First World War, as well as of Wilfred Owen’s death, has renewed academic interest and fostered popular enthusiasm in his life and works. In April 2014, Le Monde des Livres devoted an article to the reputation of the Great War in Britain, as did the Revue des Deux Mondes. However, it is the construction of the Maison d’Ors in 2011, an architectural novelty discussed in numerous regional papers, which truly paved the way for a more popular recognition of Wilfred Owen, grounded in regional politics of commemoration. Owen’s last stop in Ors is consecrated by its first fictional appearance in politician Jacques Attali’s rather surprising 2017 thriller, Premier arrêt après la mort (First Stop after Death). The novel’s Owen-centric plot (a murderer signs his deeds with lines from Owen’s poems) takes place along the “Wilfred Owen memorial route”where Inspector Fatima Hadj investigates the murders. This is not the first time Owen appears in a Francophone novel, even detective fiction, as the greater public had already discovered him in Xavier Hanotte’s Barthélémy Dussert detective mysteries. Since the construction of the Maison d’Ors, Owen has indeed received more press coverage than ever, from being a recurring subject in Le Courrier Picard and La Voix du Nord (a widely-circulated regional daily, with a a distribution of 1 million) to a brief documentary on France 3 Haut-de-France (“Wilfred Owen, The Poet of Pain”). Though his memory, relied at first, in the North of France, entirely on British visitors and the incredible motivation of a few French locals, the Maison d’Ors has favoured public engagement and a renewed academic interest and investment. An issue of the review Nord, devoted entirely to Wilfred Owen: poète de la guerre et des tranchées (2014), as well as the first French PhD thesis to be written on him (albeit in conjunction with Keats) and a selection of recent scholarly articles, confirm the renewal of interest in recent years. Several exhibitions featuring or working around his poems (“Les poètes-soldats britanniques et la mémoire de 1914” at the Université de Vincennes Library, 2014, “Résonances”, an art project on Wilfred Owen’s afterlife, Université Hauts-de-France/Centre d’Arts Ronzier, 2018), as well as a show (“Vous pouvez le faire savoir via Owen-Owen” by Anthony Vienne and Cedric Henninot, 2014) and several documentaries (among which Anne Mourgues’s La Plume et le Fusil) testify to a greater appreciation and recognition of the poet in France and show that Owen’s name has become, at least in the North of France, synonymous with the Great War.

Revived in translation

Owen’s longstanding lack of recognition in France can be attributed, in part, to the dearth of comprehensive translations of his work. From 1920 to the 1990’s, only isolated poems of his are translated, preventing the benefit of a full collection which would have revealed the poet in all his complexity, from juvenilia to mature years. This is compounded by the fact that Owen’s poetry never caught the eye of a star-translator such as Pierre Leyris (celebrated translator of Hopkins), a name which would have probably ensured Owen a standing in Gallimard’s prestigious and popular “Poésie NRF” collection. As for poet-translators Pierre Jean Jouve, Jean Mambrino, Yves Bonnefoy or Jean-Yves Masson, they were seemingly occupied by greater (re)discoveries and (re)translations from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, such as Eliot, Yeats, Hopkins, Lawrence, or Shakespeare.  

Throughout the century, translations of his poems and, later, his correspondence, by passionate academics such as Louis Bonnerot, Gérard Hardin and Roland Bouyssou, contributed to keeping Owen’s writings alive in French. However these translations were confined to learned journals, as a topic more suited to the academic world and the classroom than to general consumption. As a canonical poet, Owen however regularly appears in anthologies, starting with Louis Cazamian’s Anthologie de la Poésie Anglaise (1947) and later in more specialized editions such as Roger Asselineau’s Poètes anglais de la Grande Guerre (1991) or Roland Bouyssou’s Anthologie des poètes anglais de la Grande Guerre (2008). The reference Pléiade anthology, Anthologie bilingue de la poése anglaise (1995, re-edited in 2005) also features three of Owen’s poems. Thus Owen was, for most of the century, a poet of wide-ranging anthologies and learned journals, recognized for his more militant purple-patches but rarely as a career or fully-fledged poet.

One of the greatest mediators of his work in the educated French public was, albeit unwittingly, Benjamin Britten. It is through him, rather than in books, that creators, poets and artists alike, discovered Owen and contributed to giving him a new life in French. Britten’s War Requiem, which premièred in France in 1963 (and was performed again in 1967 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele[22]), introduced the French music-loving public[23] to Wilfred Owen’s poems through the Requiem’s libretto. While it did not deeply modify the poet’s reception, it does explain why Owen’s best-known poems in France are not necessarily the ones favoured by an English public (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” is indeed very popular, while “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which does not feature in the libretto, is not as appreciated as in the UK). Today still, the poems most translated by amateurs on French internet sites and fora are extracted from Benjamin Britten’s libretto. Unsurprisingly, the first book-length translation of Owen’s poems, by poet and publisher Emmanuel Malherbet (also translator of Siegfried Sassoon), was Poèmes du War Requiem de Benjamin Britten, Alidades, 1995),translated in reaction to the poor quality of the French version of the poems offered in the libretto. This late – and confidential – publication came a few years after the 1992 representation at the Salle Pleyel, which signed the beginning of the War Requiem’s real notoriety in France. Malherbet later came back to Wilfred Owen with a more comprehensive collection of the Poèmes de Guerre de Wilfred Owen, (Éditions Cazimi, 2004), presenting Owen as one of the great English poets, forgotten by the French public, in a subtle style, both elegant and idiomatic and very close to Owen’s voice in English: “[The collection] offers a most poignant point of view on the horrors of war and human suffering and constitutes a great lesson of poetry. Though he was mowed down in the flower of his youth, Owen undoubtedly deserves a place among the greats”.[24]

His 2004 edition however came after the much more publicized translation of Owen’s poems, by Belgian novelist and translator, Xavier Hanotte (also a long-time President of the French Wilfred Owen Association). Published by the well-known French poetry publishing house, Le Castor Astral, Hanotte’s Et Chaque lent crépuscule (2001, republished 2012), was very well received as revealed by the reviews in Le Monde and Mediapart. Presented as a “forgotten classic”, it is Owen’s first real introduction to the larger French audience. Like Owen’s first translator Malherbet, Xavier Hanotte first encountered Owen through Britten’s War Requiem. Since discovering him in 1984, Xavier Hannotte has consistently dedicated his literary career to Wilfred Owen, through his novels in which he is a recurring character, and through the character of his detective-translator Barthélémy Dussert, the fictional translator credited in the Castor Astral edition of Et Chaque lent crépuscule. Hanotte’s novels and translations undoubtedly brought Owen a larger audience in the Francophone world. Like Malherbet before him, Hanotte worked on modernizing and pairing-down Owen’s voice in French, still hampered by the slightly stilted, classical translations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the years 2000, new isolated versions of poems appear online (in particular Anne Mounic and Jean Migrenne’s translations in the poetry magazine Peut-être), as well two new full translations in much smaller publishing houses, by ardent fans of the poet: Claude Dandréa’s Poèmes choisis de Wilfred Owen (Brumerge, 2018) and Bernard Frouin’s Poèmes de Guerre (Desvoj, 2018). Other poets have produced creation-translations, as for example Jacques Darras (Grand Prix de poésie de l’Académie Française) in his striking “cursive/discursive poem”, Je sors enfin du Bois de la Gruerie (Arfuyen, 2014), which integrates, alongside extracts of memoirs, documentation and Pierre-Jean Jouve’s poem, his different translations of Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Edward Thomas. In a similar manner, Marie-Hélène Prouteau’s Le Cœur est une place forte (La Part commune, 2019) quotes Owen alongside Paul Celan, in a poetic memoir of her family.

Owen’s first poem to be translated into French (Louis Bonnerot, 1934) the very classical sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, has become over the years his most representative – the poem of a lost generation closely connected to France’s “génération sacrifiée”. The numerous translations of this particular poem, the fertile variation on its title, reveal the persistent fascination for the slightly foreign yet familiar conception of the war revealed through Owen’s eyes. Starting with Bonnerot’s 1934 “Antienne à une jeunesse condamnée”, with its interesting choice of the word “antienne” reminiscent of Verlaine’s Romances sans paroles, “Anthem for Doomed Youth” was long translated in the pseudo-archaic symbolist style. It remains his most quoted work today and has, notably given its title to Xavier Hanotte’s 2001 Et Chaque lent crepuscule – “each slow dusk”, echoing the last line of the sonnet. The choice of Owen’s poems in the Pléiade’s Anthologie bilingue de la littérature anglaise, though limited, features in first place “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“Chant Funèbre pour une jeunesse condamnée”, the rendition of the word “anthem” presenting once more a complication for the French translator who seems here influenced by Britten’s Requiem), followed by the canonical but relatively unloved – at least in France – “Dulce et Decorum Est” and the more surprising choice of “Disabled” (“L’Invalide”, first translated by Louis Bonnerot in 1939). Revealing the striking evolution in taste that has taken place in France over the century, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney are the only other war poets to be featured alongside Wilfred Owen in the anthology, while Sassoon is revealingly absent from the selection. All in all, Owen has had many more translators into French than Sassoon (Bernard Le Floch in 1987 and Emmanuel Malherbet in 2005), revealing a discrete but renewed admiration of his work and a constant wish to reactivate the richness and strangeness of his language in French.

From the “European war” to an European poet

Despite a century of articles and translations, Owen remains a relatively confidential poet in France, interesting artists, historians and students alike, yet remaining in the shadow of his greater modernist counterparts. Often less read than he is admired for (and preceded by) his legend, Owen’s reputation in France remains in that no-man’s land between relative notoriety and oblivion, depending on the region where he is encountered. Contrary to the United Kingdom where Owen’s ever-increasing popularity stems mainly from his historical association with the First World War, his lack of serious literary and academic recognition in France is undoubtedly due to the enduring stigma of occasional literature, as well as Owen’s idiosyncratic mixture of poetry and politics. Already associated in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the pacifist movement and recuperated for his political convictions, he is once again taken up today in an internationalist, pro-European discourse, in an effort to unite Europeans around common history or “values”, as exemplified by the principal of a French lycée telling his students in 2011 “Wilfred Owen constitutes an example for European youth, as a poet and as a man who fought for our values”[25] (which values exactly remains to be seen). Recent years have indeed seen a flourishing of manifestations and books on the European theme, in which Owen is held up next to his German and French counterparts in an attempt to promote the idea of a “Europe of Poets”. Still hailed as a political model and as an example to future generations a hundred years after his death, Owen has become, if not exactly a “fraternal soul” in Mauriac’s meaning of the word, an enduring symbol of fraternity among those nations who once “trekked from progress”.


Frank Baert, Dominique Viart (eds.). La littérature française contemporaine : questions et perspectives. Louvain, Leuven University Press, 1995.

Caesar, Adrian. Taking It Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993.

Campa, Laurence. Poètes de la Grande Guerre, Expérience combattante et activité poétique. Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2010.

Caws, Mary Ann, Wright, Sarah Bird. Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends. Oxford, OUP, 1999.

Clancier, George-Emmanuel. Dans l’aventure du langage. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1987.

Darras, Jacques. “This Side of the Somme”, English Literature of the Great War Revisited (ed. Michel Roucoux), Amiens, Presses de l’UFR CLERC-Université de Picardie, 1989.

Guérin, Jeanyves. “John Bull et Marianne”, L’Angleterre à contre-courant, Esprit, 7/1985.

Green, Julien. Œuvres Complètes. éd. Jacques Petit, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, t.IV, V.

Mitterrand, Frédéric. La Récréation. Paris, Robert Laffont, 2013.

[1]As noted in the 2021 edition of the famous French guide book, Le Petit Futé (Dominique Auzias, Jean-Paul Labourdette, Lieux de Mémoire en France, 2021).

[2] First socialist movement born of the war, created by Henri Barbusse in 1919 alongside his “novel-manifesto” entitled Clarté. Laurent Tailhade, who had met Owen before the war, was part of the Clarté movement, along with Georges Duhamel, Jules Romains, Roland Dorgelès, Charles Vildrac ,René Arcos, Léon Werth, Paul Fort, Pierre Jean Jouve, Anatole France, Paul Vailland-Couturier, Léon Blum, etc.

[3] “Poètes anglais contemporains” (traduits et présentés par L. Bonnerot et A. Rivoallan, Poésie, 13/9, septembre, Paris, Editions la Caravelle, 1934, p. 163.

[4] Mémoires d’un chasseur de renard appears in French in 1936, an early recognition considering Graves’ Goodbye to All That was first translated in 1965 (Adieu à tout cela, trans. Robert Pépin) and Blunden’s Understones of War weretranslated into French in 2018 (La Guerre en demi-teintes, trans. Francis Grembert). Upon its publication in 1928, Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man garnered an admiring review in Le Figaro (1/11/1930), which seems at times significantly vague, appearing to confuse Sassoon and Owen: “Are we going to have a translation of that beautiful work of the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, The Pity of War?”.

[5] Louis Bonnerot, “La poésie d’Edmund Blunden”, Revue Anglo-Américaine, octobre 1930, année 8, n°1, 507.

[6] Louis Bonnerot, “Edward Thomas”, Revue Anglo-Américaine, octobre 1933, année 11, n°1, p.298.

[7] E.M. Reynaud,  “Un poète anglais ‘nouveau’ : M.C. Day Lewis”, Revue Anglo-Américaine, octobre 1935, année 13, p. 408.

[8] The Progress of Poetry, an Anthology of Verse from Hardy to the Present Day (I.M. Parsons, London, Chatto and Windus) and The Faber Book of Modern Verse (Michael Roberts, London, Faber and Faber).

[9] F. Mossé, Les Langues Modernes: Bulletin Mensuel, 34/6, 1936, p. 391.

[10] Yggdrassil, July-August 1939, p. 256-7.

[11] “There is something special in the fact that most of the young Englishman who died at the Front hated war instinctively and expressed themselves with such frankness and brutality that they are still read today. It is a burning, living poetry whose voice cannot be extinguished as it heralds the great massacres to come”. Julien Green, Oeuvres Complètes, éd. Jacques Petit, Paris, Gallimard, coll. “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 22 January 1972, t.V, p. 635.

[12] 14 September 1944, Ibid., t. IV, p. 806.

[13] 21 March 1951, Ibid., t.V, p. 1211.

[14] 28 November. 1969, t. V, p. 539

[15] 8 November 1969, t. V, p. 536.

[16] Idem.

[17] 2 December1969, t.V, p. 540.

[18] George Bas, “Quatrième tentative”, les langues modernes, 61/4, juillet-août 1967, p. 486.

[19] H. Combecher, “Owen : Exposure”, In Die modern englische Lyrik, (ed. H. Oppel), Berlin, 1967.

[20] Among others, Jon Stallworthy’s edition of the Complete Poems and Fragments (1983), Dominic Hibberd’s Owen the Poet (1986) and Douglas Kerr’s Wilfred Owen’s Voices : Language and Community (1993).

[21] This was amended in the 2015 Anthologie de la littérature Anglophone, with two pages dedicated to Owen, quotation in full of “Strange Meeting” and the mention pararhyme.

[22] My thanks to Gilles Couderc for this information.

[23] François Léotard, François Mittérand’s then Minister of Culture (1986-1988), recounts hearing Britten’s War Requiem : “That evening, a concert at the Invalides. A very beautiful work by Britten, created in 1962, is performed. It is built around the text of a young British poet, Wilfrid Owen [sic], who died at twenty-five, a few days before the Armistice in 1918. An admirable piece of work, rarely performed in France and that I listen to with fervor. I have the feeling of participating – in the middle of the musicians – in a conjuration of the war”(Ma Liberté, Paris, Plon,1995, 54).

[24] Presentation on publisher’s site : Retrieved 19 July 2020.

[25] Mireille Gueissaz, “Français et Britanniques dans la Somme. Sur quelques manières de visiter les champs de bataille de la Somme hier et aujourd’hui”, Tumultes, vol. 16, no. 1, 2001, pp. 83-104.

Sarah Montin is Senior Lecturer in literature and translation at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle. She works on classical and contemporary war poetry and has published Contourner l’abîme, Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre (Sorbonne Université Presses, 2018). She has also translated several of the WWI poets into French, including Wilfred Owen, and most notably Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg for the Éditions Alidades.