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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. 

“England one by one had fled to France”: French and British Imaginaries in Wilfred Owen’s poems


Wilfred Owen, sonnet, imaginary, cultural transfers, Verlaine, heterolinguism, ecopoetics

This paper challenges the idea of Wilfred Owen as a British literary orphan who had to set himself under French poetic influences. Relying on the concept of imaginary, this paper shows how French landscapes are but a vague, land-disconnected support for the poet’s idiosyncratic meditations and how the sparse use of French words in his poetry is not directly connected to any imaginary of France proper. A comparison between Owen’s “On a Dream” with Verlaine’s “Mon rêve familier” goes further in nuancing any clear French influence on the English poet. Finally, a comprehensive analysis of the sonnets’ rhyming schemes throughout Owen’s work underlines how any suggestion of French influence must be understood through broader aesthetics of variety.

Cet article discute la thèse qui voudrait que Wilfred Owen soit un orphelin littéraire britannique, qui aurait trouvé sa place au moyen d’influences poétiques françaises. En utilisant le concept d’imaginaire comme prisme d’analyse, on étudie l’évocation de paysages français et l’usage restreint du lexique francophone, guère reliés chez Owen à un imaginaire de la France elle-même. Une comparaison de « On a Dream » avec « Mon rêve familier » de Verlaine permet de nuancer davantage l’influence de la poésie française sur le poète anglais. Pour finir, une analyse exhaustive des schémas de rimes employés par Owen dans ses sonnets souligne à quel point cette influence ne peut être comprise qu’au sein de l’évocation plus large d’une esthétique de la variété.


As a comparatist scholar of the sonnet, I was first driven to reading Wilfred Owen through his diversified use of the form, which led me to discover a poet in the fullness of the term. The sonnet form has functioned as a gateway to the study of his work, which has led me to formulate a few hypotheses related to Owen’s poetic relation with France, which I find ambiguous.

 Owen Knowles has already noted (Knowles 7) the inner contradiction between Owen’s perception of himself, in January 1913 (Owen 1967, 172), as a literary orphan and his use of the sonnet – a form inherited from the Victorians and Georgians – that starts immediately afterwards: the poet is one of the most prominent renovators of the British sonnet during the First World War.

My assumption is therefore that, although Owen did read French literature and to a certain extent set himself in the French landscape, in both a literary and a literal sense, the sonnet can function as a touchstone of the primarily English nature of his work during his sojourns in France.

In order to assess that specific nature, I will use the notion of imaginary, meaning all the pre-formed representations of the world and of all ideas which help an individual project his mind towards the superior dimensions of life – as Bonnefoy puts it, an imaginary is all the figments of imagination on which literature flows (Bonnefoy 103). It is also, on the other hand, an assessment of the unknown by superimposing upon it one’s personal set of representations, fascinations, underlying ideological prisms, in a way that both prevents from looking at the world the way it is and helps to develop an idiosyncratic relation with it (Houdebine), even turning it into a piece of art when it comes to a poet.

I will first look at a few of his depictions of French landscapes, both before and during the War, then I will focus on his sparse use of French words in his poems, which tends to reveal the marginal presence of France proper. I will finally try to show how the variations of the sonnet form in his work relate more to an English tradition than to French poetry.

French Landscapes: between allegory and realism, a myopic perspective

The most obvious influence of France on Owen’s poetry is the presence of French landscapes, from the relatively happy days before the War when he lived in the South-West of France to the Northern forests and mud of the Western Front.

He repeatedly offered realistic depictions of the French countryside. “From my diary, July 1914” for instance contains some pretty allusive references to a characterisation of the Pyrenees – set between “upland” and the “peak” of the Pyrénées, the scorching July “heat” is definitely French. However, Owen reduces his experience to fragments and flashes, and who is to say boys jumping in an “ebony pond” are specifically French? This myopia – or short-sightedness – is characteristic of Owen’s talent: he depicts war and the world through a highly subjective and narrowly focused lens. And this, as we will see later, tends to lead him to inscribe his realistic depictions in the expression of a universal experience, thus revealing his rather loose attachment to the world. Besides, the poet writes with England in mind and ear, and thus spells “Pyrenees” in English – which here rhymes with “trees”.

Later on, during the War, he offers depictions of the French frontline, although quite imprecise and without much reference to France per se, as for instance in “The Sentry” and “Miners”. The former focuses on an “old Boche dug-out” that gets filled with the ever-present mud, in a vivid depiction of the living conditions on the frontline: “mud”, “clay”, “murk of air”, “slush”, “waterfalls of slime”, etc., all tend to evoke a sort of liquid hell, full of “fumes of whizz-bangs” and the “curse” of enemies who have been rotting too long in their underground “den”. Although the rendering is realistic, there is little recognizable as France. The war here rather becomes its own country of elemental tortures, far from Sassoon’s “radiant forests” in his heavenly “France” (Sassoon 4). Owen thus composes an amazing poem rooted in an English situation (written in Scarborough, early in 1918) and moving towards the landscape of the trenches: the initial domestic setting leaves room for reminiscences and fantasies of the war, all coming through the allegory of mining. Once again, the frontline appears as its own primal, partly underground, country. Neither of these poems, which start in rather realistic situations, actually refers to anything specifically French, and they show the war to be its own country, one of elemental dystopia and human nightmare.

There is a tendency, in Owen’s poetry, to turn what could be realistic depictions into allegorical or mythic landscapes.

One of its most striking examples is the sonnet “Hospital Barge at Cérisy” [sic]: the depiction of a French village on the banks of the Somme, a dozen kilometers from Quivières (whose name is incorrectly spelt, since it probably is “Cerisy”, without an accent this time) gives way to a Celtic imagery, or rather imaginary for there is little image and only nominal abstraction. Marc D. Cyr notes the probable influence of Tennyson (Cyr, 1994, 6). The longing could also be associated with the Welsh hiraeth, a Celtic equivalent of Portuguese’s famous saudade, as it evokes both homesickness and a yearning for what is out of reach – the past, the dead, the dream, the end of strife, etc. The realistic “sluggard ripples of the Somme” and sound of “engines” of the first lines move into “fairy tinkling” as the octave of the sonnet progresses, before any kind of grounded gaze upon the world leaves place, at the end of the sestet, to a dream of “Avalon” or the Fortunate Isles, that is to say, myth. This mythical imaginary is rooted in English poetry and culture, for in a May 1917 letter to his mother (Owen 1967, 457), in which he talks about his going down the Somme on a barge alongside a wounded soldier, he uses passages of The Faerie Queen to describe his peculiar experience.

 Furthermore, it is to be noted that in that very letter, the evocation of Arthuriana ends on the threat of the “Saxon”, with the real-life Owen using the common, jingoistic lexicon of the time: different situations of writing lead him to draw from different linguistic imaginaries, quite expectedly so for a poet who tries to make sense of the immediate war context. Here, the poet’s sight is not myopic anymore but rather focused on a far-flung target, one that stems from his mind rather than from the actual world.

In “At a Calvary near the Ancre”, the only indication of an actual scenery lies in the title with the mention of the French stream that flows near Albert. It then disappears from the body of the poem. If the calvary is a specific landmark of rural Catholic France, its depiction quickly blurs the limit between the representation of Jesus’s end and the surrounding landscape, itself a vanishing presence. The first stanza evokes “shelled roads” that refer to First World War landscapes without evoking anything particularly French, unless one considers again – not unjustifiably – that the war constitutes its own country and that the British troops sent to the front cannot possibly experience any part of France as much as they do this hellish place. The poem’s second stanza shifts towards a more allegorical landscape, with biblical Golgotha along which “stroll many a priest”, a quite unlikely sight in 1918-Jerusalem, thus showing how Owen systematically strays from what he sees in order to link it to a wider perspective. The final evocation of “soldiers” can refer to the Roman legionaries guarding Jesus’s last ordeals as much as Owen’s companions: the way the poet weaves his poem makes it necessary for the concrete world around him to be superimposed with a timeless meditation, that turns out to be quite the opposite of realism here.

The “Ancre”, on the banks of which two battles took place in 1916 (October and November), is therefore just a French word in the title. France here is just some kind of geographical notation as in a letter or a diary, not an actual landscape. It is the scene of rêverie, not its object as the Somme might have somehow been.

 “Spring Offensive” also provides an unreal depiction of a war landscape, where violence is systematically attributed to an elemental force – sky or earth. Since the title may yield two different meanings, either an attack led in spring, or the season itself attacking, this presentation of nature as the enemy is no surprise. Owen grew increasingly disenchanted with patriotism and the very idea of good sides, hence this blurring of the human dimension of killing: it is the war, not soldiers, that kills. It is probably important to link this abstraction of war with his own growing implication in killing, such as his daring, or desperate, part in a killing spree on October 1st, 1918 that led him to be awarded the Military Cross.

French words, French imaginary?

While he studied French at school and college in Reading, Owen grew acquainted with French literature mostly as an autodidact: he writes about reading in French in 1911, while in Torquay (translating an excerpt from Daudet to his mother). When the First World War breaks out, Owen is trying to make a living in Bordeaux. In a postcard to his mother, dated September 30th, he writes about studying French literature, with no further detail (Owen 1967, 286). It is interesting to see how this most Francophile of all the War Poets uses French words, and overall French language, throughout his work, as he steers between superficiality and interlingual dialogism.

A conclusive grasp – if not mastery – of French within a poetical context comes when Owen mimics the British soldiers’ poor grasp of French as he addresses the issue of verbal communication with his fellow fighters. In a note added to the first seventeen lines of what would be his last poem, “Spring Offensive” (begun in Scarborough in July 1918 and revised in France in September), he asks Sassoon (who received the lines on September 22nd):

Is this worth going on with? I don’t want to write anything to which a soldier would say No Compris! (Owen 1983, 193)

Less poetically, he peppered his letters with French words or sentences: “Adieu mon petit. Je t’embrasse” (Owen 1967, 446), or, earlier, like in 1912 when he distinguishes reading “à bas” and “à haute voix” (Owen 1967, 161) while “à voix basse” would be the correct French formulation.

A specific focus on his poetry does not belie this general picture of a rather loose relation to France. Some poems just have a French title: “Le Christianisme” and “À Terre” are both vivid pictures of life – and death – in the North of France. In the former, the “Virgin still immaculate”, a probable statuette or icon still standing in the rubble of a church in “Le Christianisme” is typically Catholic, if not specifically French. However, in the specific context of British troops engaged in the First World War, the imaginary this poem builds does gesture towards France, if only merely with its title – a minimalism that fits the brevity of the eight-line poem. More important is the fact that this effigy too is doomed to hell, which shows how strongly the poem tends towards the metaphysical rather than the documentary.

As for the other poem, “À Terre”, it does not reflect much on anything French, rather on an English soldier’s expression (“pushing up daisies”) and a line by Shelley. Besides, while its title does sound standard French, meaning both “downtrodden” and “having thrown oneself to the ground”, it seems that the most fitting French wording to define what the poem puts forth may rather be “En terre”, as in “Buried in/under the ground”. Indeed, the speaker’s state is one of near-death, explicitly in the second stanza and in the sixth on. Furthermore, most of the moments when the speaker dreams of being “à terre”, downtrodden or humiliated, it is in a dialectic relation with a death impulse, one of being “en terre”. The speaker’s dreams of social humbling in the fifth stanza come from the comparison of being a lower-class worker or simply dead, while his ironically literal take on Shelley leads to the post-mortem dissolution of the material self. Not only has “À Terre” very little to do with France and everything with the English language, its French title is actually misleading.

Owen’s most famous use of French, or French-related words, are probably to be found in his Sonnet, “On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action”:

 Yet, for men's sakes whom thy vast malison
 Must wither innocent of enmity (vv 9-10) 

Here, “malison”, for “curse”, comes from old French (where it is a variant of maleiçon), while “imprecations” in the first stanza stems from Latin and is similar to its French cognate, which is rather more common in literary French (with which Owen grew familiar thanks to his friendship with the great imprécateur Laurent Tailhade) than in English.[1]

However, this praise of the cannon in sophisticated, French-sounding English is but a decoy for the final cursing he directs at war. French thus becomes an element of irony, such as the pastiche of Biblical speech and the use of archaisms. It should be noted that the last line,

May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

not only is a shining example of a ten-words pentameter, but also one where every single word comes from Middle or Old English, and then from Proto-Germanic languages, without a single Latin influence. Nothing patriotic there, naturally; this difference only emphasizes the abrupt fall of long-worded, crafted pentameters into this clanging, crude final curse.[2] It seems nonetheless noteworthy that from a French-shaped presentation, the curse turns out to be absolutely not French as it erupts in a most English way.

            The hypothesis of every supposed French imaginary being actually erased under a British imaginary thus seems more acceptable. Any direct influence of French poetry can be equally disputed: for instance, when Dominic Hibberd perceives Verlaine’s influence in « On a Dream » (Hibberd 41). If Owen has actually transcribed « Mon rêve familier », it may be the general tonality that might be reminiscent of Verlaine, for direct imitation is definitely not obvious:

On a Dream     I leaned, blank-eyed, in lonely thoughtless thought, Upon the night, athwart my threshold stone; When there came One with hurried, frightened moan, With tear-drained eyes, wild hair, and hands distraught, Who fell about my knees, and swift besought Help and my love, for she was all alone For love of me; and from her world out-thrown. I knew that lovely head; her hands I caught;   For hours I felt her lips warm on my cheek, As through the vast void of the dark we fled. For precious hours her limbs in mine were curled, Until with utter joy I tried to speak: And lo! I raved with fever on my bed, And melancholy dawn bestirred the world.My familiar dream     I often have this strange and absorbing dream Of an unknown woman, whom I love and who loves me And who each time is neither exactly the same Nor quite another, and who loves and understands me.   For she understands me and my heart, crystal-clear For her only, alas! ceases to cause trouble For her only and my brow’s moist fevers Only she knows how to balm with her tears.   Is her hair brown, blonde or red? I do not know. What about her name? I only recall it to be soft and sonorous, Like those of the beloved ones Life has cast away.   Her gaze is like the gaze of statues; As for her voice, remote and calm and low, it has The lilt of dearest voices that fell silent.

It is hard to notice any kind of direct correspondence here – I have translated Verlaine’s sonnet, if clumsily, rather literally in order to highlight how little and vaguely Owen borrows from the French. The only rough equivalent I have been able to notice is the solitary woman’s tears (doubly underlined here), although they are set in two totally distinct systems of sadness: the woman in Owen’s sonnet comes dishevelled in a dream to seek solace on his side, while Verlaine’s speaker is the one who wishes for the oneiric comfort this polar opposite of a woman, soothing and motherly, could bring. In Owen’s sonnet, her loneliness makes her need a man, while in Verlaine’s it is he who erects her as a lonely, Platonic lover figure he is desperately in need of. It might be true that both evoke a dream revelatory of a lonely, masculine existence; this similarity, present in so many poems haunted by dreams, somehow falls short of demonstrating a concrete translingual influence.

One could arguably see Owen’s attempt at speech, bringing the feverish realization that the visit was but a dream, as inspired by different moments at the end of Verlaine’s octave and sestet, although there is no such consequential, Orpheus-inspired logic in the French sonnet.

Besides the differing stanzas layout, the rhyming pattern also differs from one sonnet to the other, Verlaine’s being distinctly French:

  • Owen’s “On a Dream”:                       ABBAABBA CDECDE
  • Verlaine “Mon Rêve familier”            ABBA  ABBA  CCDEDE

The French sonnet originates from the mid-16th century, around the time of Surrey and of the first appearances of what will become the Elizabethan sonnet: it is one where the sestet starts with a distich. French studies quite commonly distinguish between two varieties of French sonnet: when the sestet ends with enclosed rhymes, it is named à la Marot (from the probable introducer of the form in French) and when it ends with crossed rhymes, it is à la Peletier, from Peletier du Mans, mentor and companion of the Pléiade poets and the first to consistently propose this scheme.

This specific sonnet is quite often overlooked by Anglophone criticism, or roughly categorized as continental or Italian, even though this feature is thoroughly avoided by Petrarch and the Italians, as noticed by Jacques Roubaud (Roubaud) or John Fuller (Fuller 3-4). Owen may not have been familiar with these subtle pattern characteristics of the sonnet, although one may assume that a poet is generally aware of the effects of the rhyme. I have here tried to assess precisely whether his rhyme schemes prove any kind of influence from the French form.

A rhyme scheme recension: the prevalence of the Elizabethan sonnet

TYPO-GRAPHY  Rhyme SchemeSonnet TITLE (date & place, according to Jon Stallworthy)
Elizabethan  ABAB CDCD EFEF GGMy Shy Hand (drafted Craiglockhart, revised Scarborough)
Italian, French or otherABBAABBACCDEED   ABABCDCD  EEFGGF ABBAABBA  EFEFGG     ABBAABBA CDDCEE ABBAABBA  CDECDE   ABBAABBA  EFGEFG ABBACDDC EFGEFG ABBACDDC  EFEFGG   ABBA  CDDC  EFGEFG   ABBA CDDC EFEFGG ABBAACCA  EFEFAA ABABCACA EEFFGG   ABABACCA  EFEFEF ABABACAC EFEFGG ABABCDCD EFEFGG     ABABCDCD EFFEGG ABABCDCD EFEFFE ABAB  CDCD  EFEFGG     AABBCCDDEFGEFG AABBCCDD  EFGEFG   ABBACDDC EEFFGG ABAB  CDCD  EEFFGGThe Sleeping Beauty (Bagnères-de-Bigorre, August-Oct 1914 – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) Happiness (Abbeville, Feb 1917- revised Craiglockhart) A New Heaven (September 1916); Sonnet (On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought into Action) (begun July 1917? revised Scarborough May 1918) 1914 (France, late 1914? – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) Hospital Barge at Cérisy (December 1917) ; Perversity (?- revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough); On a dream (?- revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) Autumnal (?- revised Craiglockhart) The Next War (late 1917 – revised July 1918); Purple (?, September 1916 – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) The Unreturning (draft late 1912/early 13 –revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough, end 1917/early 18) Storm (October 1916) To – (London, 10 May 1916 – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) Maundy Thursday (Shrewsbury, 1915? from a recollection from Mérignac, 1914? – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) “The city lights along the waterside…” (?- revised Craiglockhart); How do I love thee? (May 1917?) The Peril of Love (?- revised Craiglockhart); Sonnet (To a Child) (December? 1917 at Craiglockhart) ; The Fates (Craiglockhart, 31 June/1st July 1917) Anthem for Doomed Youth (September 1917 at Craiglockhart) On my songs (Dunsden, 4 January 1913 – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) To Eros (after May 1916); Music (October 1916- revised Craiglockhart); To my Friend (with an Identity Disc) (23 March 1917- revised Craiglockhart) The Poet in Pain (? – revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough) “Whither is passed the softly-vanished day?” (Shrewsbury 1911-12? –rev. Craiglockhart/Scarb.) The One Remains (?- revised Craiglockhart October-November 1917) The End (begun late 1916? revised Craiglockhart/Scarborough)  
DUBIOUSABABCDCD EFEFGG   ABABCDCD  EFEFGE GE  HIHIJKJKLMLM   7+7 4+4+8some stanzas of the ode “Uriconium”   Dulce et Decorum Est (October 1917 at Craiglockhart – revised Scarborough 1918/Ripon March-1918)     Futility (Ripon, May 1918) Inspection (Craiglockhart 1917)

The first column addresses the typographical disposition, as common during Owen’s life – with different stanzas separated by a blank line.

I have underlined the occurrences of a final Elizabethan distich and doubly underlined those of a French sestet. The comparison reveals the overwhelming presence of the English distich, compared to the French one. There are five of the latter, if only two corresponding to a common French pattern (“The Sleeping Beauty” and “Happiness”, which mixes an Elizabethan octave with a French sestet), as the succession of distiches is neither common nor much sought out throughout the history of the French form. This rare appearance of a clear French, Marot-style sonnet is quite striking and may lead to a new hypothesis: as “The Sleeping Beauty” was written during the earliest stages of the war, while Owen was still living in the South-West of France, he may somehow have been influenced by his readings and the language he was hearing all day long.

So the poet quite likely knew about the French form, and – one may assume – chose not to use it after 1914. The reasons I could propose for such a tiny, though not insignificant, renouncement, could be either a desire for formal diversity or Owen’s return to an English frame of mind, corresponding with his enrolment in the Artists’ Rifles. His return into English society and his defence of patriotism would then be manifest through an adherence to the English sonnet formal canon, or at least its major defining feature: the final distich.

This allegiance, unsurprising on Owen’s part, is not straightforward. Not only does the poet considerably vary his rhyme schemes – 24 out of 31 indisputable sonnets – but he also tries unconventional, if not experimental, formal varieties, such as “Futility” or, famously and arguably, “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Within all this diversity, the poet lets only one in twenty undisputable sonnets espouse the canonical Elizabethan form, both in terms of rhyme (three quatrains of different crossed rhymes followed by a final distich) and typography: “My shy hand”. Seven others follow the Elizabethan rhyme scheme, although not its formal layout on the page, four (“When late I viewed the gardens of rich men…”, “The Peril of Love”, “Sonnet (To a Child)”, “The Fates”) divided between octave and sestet and three (“To Eros”, “Music”, “To my Friend (with an Identity Disc)”) between quatrains and sestet. “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, one of Owen’s most noteworthy sonnets, comes very close to an Elizabethan structure (with a third quatrain of enclosed rhymes).

All in all, the Elizabethan final distich permeates the rhyme structure of a majority of his sonnets: 19 out of 31 clear sonnets. It is as though, by renouncing to set the last distich apart, Owen was trying not to appear visibly English, while two thirds of his sonnets still end with this specific feature of English poetry. For all his complex relationship with his native land, Owen still dies under its colours and still writes using its forms, to which he pays homage in his Shakespeare-influenced sonnet “How do I love thee” – obviously ending on an Elizabethan distich.

Though the hermeneutics of form are always tricky, especially when it comes to systematising an interpretation, I will nonetheless propose an interpretation of this feature of the sonnet. I have wondered whether Owen drew on the sententious tone that this English specificity usually conveys in order to better achieve obvious conclusions to his sonnets. This rather subjective assessment has led me to believe that six sonnets (“1914”, “Storm”, “To my Friend (with an Identity Disc)”, “The End”, arguably “The Peril of Love” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth”) out of nineteen do use the final distich in some kind of funereal, epitaph-like closing sentence. This proportion is not insignificant and tends to reveal Owen’s poetic inspirations, from “England one by one had fled to France” to be buried “under France” (words from “Smile, smile, smile”). Yet, at the same time, this relatively small number tends to confirm the variety of Owen’s aesthetics, leading to love (many final distiches are devoted to love) and in the end, to life.


In a ground-breaking paper, Peter Howarth shows that the War Poets’ pretention to realism does not mean they do not use classical forms, nor experiment with rhythm and form in a sometimes conspicuous way. The critic, as a keen student of the meaning of form, underlines how it was considered as a reflection of a cosmological order: “what we see in much First World War verse is the struggle of older forms with a reality that cannot be ‘contained’ by them, and with which twentieth-century poetics spent much of its time trying to catch up” (Howarth 53).

This stimulating assertion would need to be discussed within a broader frame of reflection about the sonnet, as in the 19th century the form was adapted to a new world and thought order, from Wordsworth and Shelley in England to Baudelaire and Verlaine in France. Nevertheless, Howarth is probably right about Wilfred Owen: as I have tried to suggest here, Owen’s use of the sonnet both reflects the disordered, un-conventional world of War, which turns out to take place in France, and it inserts itself in a heritage that is mostly British – in layout and sounds – and has little to do with France.

Thus, the proto-modernist Owen is, from a British perspective, all but an orphan – here is a poet who discusses overtly with Keats and Shelley, who mentions Shakespeare and Spenser and who is influenced by Yeats and Tennyson. He might have something of the exile, though, or even of the orphelin of French literature, an orphelin in the adopted land where he was bound to die: long unable to either abundantly draw from it, or be fully recognized there – a fact I hope this volume will help to change.

Works cited

Bonnefoy, Yves. L’autre langue à portée de voix. Paris, Seuil, 2013.

Cyr, Marc D. “Formal Subversion in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Hospital Barge’ ”, Style 28.1 (Spring 1994), 6.

Fuller, John. The Sonnet. London, Methuen, 1980.

Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. Athens (Georgia), The University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Howarth, Peter. “Poetic Form and the First World War”, The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War. Santanu Das ed., New York, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp 51-65.

Houbedine, Anne-Marie (dir.). L’Imaginaire linguistique. Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.

Knowles, Owen. « Introduction », Owen, Wilfred. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ware, Wordsworth Classics, 1994.

Owen, Wilfred. Collected Letters. London, Oxford University Press, 1967.

– – – The Complete Poems and Fragments. London, Chatto & Windus, the Hogarth Press, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Roubaud, Jacques. Quasi-cristaux, « Description du sonnet français, 1801-1998 ». Paris, Martine Aboucaya et Yvon Lambert, 2013.

Sassoon, Siegfried. The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. Mineola (NY), Dover, 2004.

Verlaine, Paul. Poèmes Saturniens (1866), in Fêtes Galantes, Romances sans paroles, précédé de Poèmes Saturniens. Paris, Gallimard, 2010 (my translation).

[1] Owen uses a similar French-inspired world with “orisons” in “Anthem for a Doomed Youth”, with the same aim of distancing its poetry from the lauding register.

[2] One will find in this issue a paper by Gilles Couderc, containing a more detailed list of the apparitions, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, of words or wordings influenced or inspired by the French language.

Thomas Vuong is an Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne – Paris-Nord, Pléiade. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature. He studied how the sonnet form functions as a major touchstone for poetics and the function of poetry in Western Europe, during the Second World War. His other sonnet-related fields of investigation are XXth-century poetry in France, England and Italy or in Black American poetry. He has also published papers in Translation Studies, especially about Petrarch’s influence or about the concept of imaginaries of translation.

Dire la compassion : le lyrisme de Wilfred Owen


Wilfred Owen, compassion, lyricism, objectivity, hypallage, lyrical subject, enunciation, rhyme, Laurent Tailhade, John Keats.

The French literary tradition associates lyricism with the poet’s personal expression. However, the lyricism evolved in France from the middle of the 19th century. It is especially from Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud that an “objective” poetry imposed itself on symbolists and decadents at the very end of the 19th century: the “I” then fades in front of the evoked object. To what extent did Wilfred Owen’s lyricism become “objective”, partly under the influence of John Keats, then under the influence of French poetry, that the young poet discovered through Laurent Tailhade? Wilfred Owen’s poetry expresses the war with originality by decentering the lyrical subject. 

La tradition littéraire française associe le lyrisme à l’expression personnelle du poète. Cependant, le lyrisme évolue en France à partir du milieu du XIXe siècle. C’est surtout à partir de Stéphane Mallarmé et Arthur Rimbaud qu’une poésie « objective » s’impose chez les symbolistes et les décadents à la toute fin du XIXe siècle : le je s’efface alors devant l’objet évoqué. Dans quelle mesure le lyrisme de Wilfred Owen est-il devenu « objectif », en partie sous l’influence de John Keats, puis sous l’influence de la poésie française que le jeune poète découvre par l’intermédiaire de Laurent Tailhade ? La poésie de Wilfred Owen témoigne avec originalité de la guerre grâce à un décentrement du sujet lyrique.


My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. 
Wilfred Owen

La poésie au tournant des XIXe et XXsiècles se détourne du mythe de l’intériorité, hérité d’une longue tradition lyrique et particulièrement exacerbé pendant la période du romantisme. Cette poésie moderne est dominée en France par un débat littéraire encore largement polémique sur le symbolisme (« le cas » Mallarmé) et privilégie l’objectivation du réel, sans s’affranchir totalement de la subjectivité.[1] L’ouverture au monde transforme le lyrisme au point de réinventer le statut du poète empathique. Comme l’écrit Michel Collot, Arthur Rimbaud utilise en premier l’expression « poésie objective » dans sa correspondance. Il ne s’agit pas pour le poète des Illuminations d’« éliminer le sujet lyrique » mais de le « transformer » (Collot 51). Les poètes symbolistes puis décadents comme Laurent Tailhade raréfient en conséquence l’emploi du je.[2]

Comme l’a montré Dominic Hibberd, Laurent Tailhade a initié Wilfred Owen à l’esthétique symboliste et décadente lors de leur rencontre en 1914 : il initie entre autres le jeune poète anglais au Mallarmé impersonnel et à Verlaine prince des poètes musicaux. C’est alors que le jeune Wilfred Owen a pu saisir l’importance de décentrer l’expression du sujet lyrique. Dominic Hibberd écrit ainsi que « Wilfred Owen could have had no better introduction to Aestheticism and its offshoots, Decadence and Symbolism » (Hibberd 70).

Les lecteurs d’Owen attendent une forte implication énonciative du poète-soldat, dans une sorte de « pacte autobiographique »,[3] alors qu’il s’agit en réalité d’un « pacte lyrique » selon la définition du poéticien Antonio Rodriguez.[4] La poésie d’Owen répugne en effet à l’effusion lyrique alors que celui-ci prône la compassion. À partir du paradoxe d’une poésie qui s’ancre totalement dans l’expérience du sujet en temps de guerre, mais qui raréfie l’expression personnelle, je souhaite montrer combien l’objectivité renouvelle dans cette œuvre le pacte lyrique établi entre le poète et ses lecteurs, tout en évaluant certains choix stylistiques. Je montrerai notamment que la description des atrocités de la guerre est autant objective qu’empathique pour généraliser l’expérience vécue et laisser une trace indélébile à la faveur de la postérité.

Autrement dit, quelles conséquences la recherche d’un lyrisme objectif, au tournant des XIXe et XXe siècles en France, a-t-elle pu avoir sur l’écriture empathique d’Owen en temps de guerre ? Dans quelle mesure le poème, plus objectif que subjectif, évite-t-il néanmoins l’effet de reportage ? Je répondrai en relevant quelques effets de style sur les plans énonciatif et phono-sémantique, et je montrerai in fine toute l’originalité de la poétique d’Owen, au début de l’ère moderniste de la poésie anglaise.[5]

Dans un premier temps, j’établirai quelques influences et affinités littéraires qui ont déterminé le style objectif du jeune poète, en particulier la poésie de John Keats et sa poétique du caméléonisme avant l’influence de la poésie française « fin de siècle », puis je rappellerai combien Laurent Tailhade a été pour Owen un passeur des théories symboliste et décadente. Enfin, j’analyserai certains choix phono-sémantiques dans le discours compassionnel de Wilfred Owen pour démontrer que les traces du sujet lyrique y sont consciemment déplacées et objectivées.

Influences et affinités lyriques de W. Owen

On peut remonter le cours de l’histoire littéraire et trouver des signes précurseurs d’une poésie objective au début du XIXesiècle en Angleterre, précisément chez le poète romantique John Keats (1795-1821) qu’Owen a toujours admiré de son propre aveu. Adolescent, Owen a en effet pu très vite s’identifier au poète romantique pour plusieurs raisons : tous deux partagent une même interrogation sur la mort ; la mort précoce de Keats à 25 ans, alors qu’il révélait tout juste son potentiel littéraire, a également fasciné le jeune Owen qui mourra lui-même le 4 novembre 1918 au même âge ; enfin, Keats, en marge des autres romantiques, prône la dissolution du moi poétique, précurseur d’une nouvelle modernité telle que des poètes comme Baudelaire l’ont également pensée en France. 

Keats définit quant à lui le poète comme un « caméléon » dans sa célèbre lettre à Richard Woodhouse datée du 27 octobre 1818. Le sujet lyrique s’efface en s’identifiant au monde qu’il perçoit :

What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet.  […] A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity ̶  he is continually in for  ̶  and filling some other Body.[6]

John Keats éprouve le besoin d’« évaporer » son moi poétique dans le monde, grâce à l’exercice de son imagination, pour reprendre ici l’expression bien connue de Baudelaire quelques décennies plus tard dans Mon cœur mis à nu (1887). Le jeune poète anglais supprime par exemple totalement l’expression du je dans son « Ode à l’automne ». On lit par ailleurs dans l’ « Ode au rossignol »  quelques vers qui fondent une « poétique de l’indétermination » selon  l’expression de Valérie-Angélique Déshoulières[7] :

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known

À ces vers feront encore écho la poétique du « voyant » d’Arthur Rimbaud, d’abord dans sa lettre du 13 mai 1871 à l’attention de Georges Izambard :

Sans compter que votre poésie subjective sera toujours horriblement fadasse. Un jour, j’espère, — bien d’autres espèrent la même chose, — je verrai dans votre principe la poésie objective.[8]

Puis dans la lettre écrite à Paul Demeny datée du 15 mai 1871 :

Il est chargé de l’humanité, des animaux même ; il devra faire sentir, palper, écouter ses inventions ; si ce qu’il rapporte de là-bas a forme, il donne forme : si c’est informe, il donne de l’informe.[9]

La connaissance poétique passe donc chez Keats, comme plus tardivement chez Rimbaud ou Owen, par une projection mentale dans la réalité, aussi extrême soit-elle dans le contexte de la première Guerre Mondiale. Nous prendrons le poème « The Miners » comme exemple.

La recherche d’objectivité est en effet manifeste dans ce poème en dépit de l’emploi de la première personne du singulier sur le plan énonciatif. Owen compare un fait-divers qui le choqua profondément (une explosion au fond d’une mine, « The Minnie Pit disaster », avec cent cinquante-six mineurs morts, dont une quarantaine d’enfants, le 12 janvier 1918) et le massacre de toute une jeunesse sur le front de guerre. Ce poème fut écrit en janvier 1918 à Scarborough, lorsque Owen réintégra son bataillon après sa convalescence à Craiglockhart War Hospital. Le jeune poète, fier de sa composition, et avide de reconnaissance, envoya  aussitôt « The Miners » pour publication dans The Nation le 26 janvier 1918. Ce poème figure donc parmi les rares poèmes publiés par Owen de son vivant. 

Dans une première partie (les trois premières strophes), le sujet lyrique rêve d’une vie paradisiaque aux origines, jusqu’à l’apparition d’un homme devant un feu de charbon. Un je s’exprime tout en écoutant le murmure du charbon dans l’âtre pour recevoir une belle histoire (« tale »). Mais dans une deuxième partie (les quatrième et cinquième strophes), le sujet lyrique découvre le récit du drame de l’explosion dans une mine de charbon. Pointe alors un reproche contre ceux qui ne se souviennent pas (« And few remember »). Dans une troisième partie (sixième strophe) : le je établit une analogie entre le fond de la mine et le front ; le sujet lyrique prend conscience de la réalité, loin de son confort initial au coin du feu. Dans une quatrième partie (septième et huitième strophes), la voix du poème s’identifie aux jeunes soldats (passage de la première personne du singulier à la première personne du pluriel) : la dénonciation du drame est aussi empathique qu’ironique. Owen souligne le danger ultime d’oublier la guerre par excès de confort, dans un futur éloigné. 

L’évocation du charbon est alors révélatrice, justifiant le recours stylistique à une énonciation impersonnelle. Rappelons que le jeune poète collectionnait des minéraux dont des fougères fossilisées voire des insectes fossilisés dans de l’ambre. Il connaissait donc très bien l’origine du charbon. Celui-ci lui a d’abord inspiré la première partie du poème avec l’évocation du temps des origines, mais le charbon lui permet ensuite d’évoquer symboliquement l’oubli de ceux qui ont été sacrifiés à la guerre pour notre confort. L’énonciation subjective, explicite au début de ce poème, tend donc à s’effacer à deux reprises : lorsque le sujet lyrique cède la parole au charbon (« I listened for a tale of leaves […] But the coals were murmuring of their mine ») avec le souci d’objectivité de Keats, mais aussi en s’évaporant dans un « nous » collectif sous l’effet de la compassion (« By our life’s ember » dans l’avant dernière strophe« With which we groaned et But they will not dream of us poor lads » dans la dernière strophe).

Plus radical, un poème comme « Anthem for a Doomed Youth » est totalement privé de la première personne. L’émotion y est pourtant bien présente, indissociable de l’intention poétique de persuader et de dénoncer. Ce poème a été écrit à Craiglockhart Hospital, entre septembre et octobre 1917. L’expression « the bugle-call of Endeavor, and the passing-bells of death » a inspiré le premier vers interrogatif du poème : « What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? » Les deux interrogations rhétoriques aux vers 1 et 9 dynamisent le ton élégiaque du poème (soutenu par de nombreuses répétitions comme l’anaphore « only the », la répétition sonore « no / now », tout en détournant ironiquement le genre de l’oraison funèbre (« orison », v. 4) : voilà pourquoi le sémantisme des rimes privilégie l’antithèse entre le sacré et le profane (« guns » vs « orisons » ; « bells » vs « shells »). Le message d’Owen est clair. Les soldats ne recevront aucun rite funéraire chrétien digne de ce nom malgré leur sacrifice, comme des bêtes sur le front (« cattle », v. 3) : pas de cloches, sinon le bruit des canons, pas de cierges, pas de linceul, sinon le front pâle des jeunes filles à l’arrière, seulement le clairon sonné à l’arrière. La seule oraison qui rende hommage aux défunts soldats est donc le bruit des armes sur le champ de bataille. Les derniers vers servent de chute au sonnet : sorte d’épitaphe inventée par le poète pour faciliter le deuil. La conclusion du sonnet constitue bien un devoir de mémoire.

La personnification des armes (« anger of guns », « choirs of wailing shells ») s’oppose à l’animalisation des soldats, assimilés à du bétail directement envoyé à l’abattoir (conformément à la rime cattle / rattle). Celle-ci se combine à des effets sonores pertinents pour faire justement entendre le bruit de l’artillerie (« Rifles’rapid rattle » : allitération en [r] et assonance en [a]). La rapidité du massacre est encore soulignée par l’emploi fréquent de mots de deux syllabes qui soutiennent le rythme du pentamètre iambique. Et « hasty » s’oppose précisément à « slow » à la fin du poème alors plus solennel. 

L’absence de je suggère bien ici à une poésie objective, qui s’origine dans l’expérience du monde au point de s’y volatiliser par mimétisme avec le bruit des armes. Le thème de la mort, si fréquent chez Owen, entraîne avec une grande humilité l’effacement de la première personne du singulier. La rhétorique, surtout les répétitions lexicales et sonores, mais aussi la versification, en particulier les associations ironiques à la rime, assurent l’assomption d’une autre forme de subjectivité. L’effacement de la voix personnelle d’Owen n’est évidemment pas l’absence de subjectivité, la parole poétique restant toujours fortement polémique et engagée.

L’effacement du sujet lyrique

Lorsqu’il s’établit dans le sud de la France afin de gagner son indépendance vis-à-vis de sa famille, d’abord à Bordeaux, puis à Bagnères-de-Bigorre à partir de juillet 1914, Owen rencontra le poète Laurent Tailhade par l’entremise des époux Léger qui l’employèrent comme précepteur. Nouant une certaine amitié avec le vieux poète symboliste, il put dès lors découvrir les débats esthétiques qui secouaient la poésie française depuis la « crise de vers » initiée par Stéphane Mallarmé, notamment le primat de la musicalité et la critique d’un certain lyrisme hérité du romantisme ̶ et jugé trop personnel. 

L’objectivité symboliste, contraignant au maximum l’effusion lyrique du je autobiographique, se retrouve tout à fait dans le style d’Owen jusqu’à susciter une tension dramatique avec un tu. La poésie d’Owen est d’abord l’expression d’une altérité en se faisant porte-voix de tous les soldats inutilement massacrés. En témoigne entre autres le poème « Futility » qui commence par l’impératif « Move him into the sun », formule qui devient au début de la seconde strophe « Think how it wakes the seeds » : adresse consécutive au lecteur, exhortation pour aider un paysan devenu un triste soldat invalide, et tout à la fois une invitation à l’empathie du lecteur. Le poète emploie uniquement la deuxième et la troisième personne du singulier, celle-ci lui servant à désigner le soldat blessé (he / him) ou bien le soleil par le recours au pronom neutre it. Les questions adressées au lecteur, qui émaillent l’ensemble du poème, mobilisent à nouveau la fonction phatique, tout en remettant en cause la protection divine. C’est notamment le cas avec l’allusion à l’argile qui servit à pétrir le premier homme dans la Genèse : « Was it for this the clay grew tall ? » Le substantif éponyme « Futility » souligne autant l’absurdité du conflit que l’inanité du ciel (« fatuous sunbeams »). Le soldat estropié redevient « a cold star » (une « froide étoile » par opposition au soleil) et l’ultime question qui sert de chute au sonnet suggère tragiquement combien la mort lui aurait été bien plus profitable : «  ̶  O what made fatuous sunbeams toil  ̶  / To break earth’s sleep at all ? »

Le symbole majeur du soleil, pour représenter allégoriquement un Dieu sans réponse et sans reconnaissance, justifie l’absence d’une expression personnelle. Comme l’a souligné le critique Adam Thorpe à propos de ce poème : « Le mouvement alternatif qui, dans un poème, établit un va-et-vient entre spécificité et intemporalité constitue l’une des forces majeures et le caractère unique de la poésie  ̶  surtout sous ses formes les plus brèves et les plus lyriques » (Thorpe 23). Notons enfin dans ce poème l’alternance entre le passé (« once ») et le présent (« now »). 

Le poète a bien l’ambition de déciller les yeux aveugles de ses contemporains et fait œuvre de vérité pour la postérité en dénonçant l’absurdité de la guerre. À l’inverse toutefois des symbolistes, Owen affronte la réalité de son époque et rend ses lecteurs particulièrement sensibles à l’hallucination des soldats dans les tranchées, autant qu’à la vanité de leur sacrifice. Si Owen écrit viscéralement, selon les recommandations de son mentor Siegfried Sassoon, toute l’énergie de son lyrisme tient principalement à ces nombreuses adresses lyriques et à l’emploi raréfié du je au profit d’un « nous » qui évoque les valeurs de fraternité et de solidarité dont fait montre Owen en temps de guerre. 

Remarquons encore le « nous » inclusif dans cette strophe de « Apologia pro poemate meo » : 

Merry it was to laugh there  ̶
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse or murder

La rime absurder / murder montre parfaitement le non-sens de l’engagement collectif et patriotique que souligne l’emploi du pronom personnel we au lieu de I. Dans le fameux poème « Dulce Et Decorum Est », la prédominance de la première personne du pluriel, pour évoquer une attaque au gaz dans les tranchées, est aussi caractéristique du style d’Owen. La description des soldats dans la première strophe, auxquels le jeune poète s’identifie totalement dans une souffrance intimement partagée, a pour objectif de susciter la compassion conformément au but qu’il a assigné à la poésie : « My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity ». Le poète multiplie à dessein les comparaisons pathétiques (« like old beggarslike hags »). Les vers 15-16 de ce poème constituent l’unique trace énonciative du sujet lyrique à la première personne, dans une fonction purement testimoniale et non émotive : 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, chocking, drowning.

L’énonciation dans la quatrième et la dernière strophe du poème se focalise ensuite sur la deuxième personne, laquelle dans ce poème ne correspond plus à l’altérité du lecteur mais au patriote aveugle appelé ironiquement « mon ami » :

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
The old Lie : Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Si la poésie d’Owen aspire à être objective, elle évite néanmoins l’écueil de « l’universel reportage », pour reprendre la célèbre formule de Stéphane Mallarmé. Les affinités électives d’Owen avec le symbolisme français sont historiquement fondées, sans répéter ici la liste des poètes français lus par celui-ci grâce à Laurent Tailhade, comme l’a déjà étudié Dominic Hibberd (Hibberd 170). Et le critique d’ajouter au sujet de cette influence : « These [French] poets and their associates had turned art away from bourgeois reality into a secret, autonomous world of imagination, where the supreme task was to capture beauty in pure form, in a language of crystal and gold » (Hibberd 171). L’objectivité caractéristique du style poétique de Wilfred Owen tient à un déplacement de la subjectivité lyrique dans les poèmes, et ce en raréfiant l’expression de la première personne du singulier, comme dans la poésie symboliste française ou celle décadente de Laurent Tailhade, dont Owen possédait deux recueils.[10]

Le déplacement de la subjectivité

La recherche de l’objectivité n’est pas la négation du sujet, et, conséquence de l’influence du symbolisme au tournant des XIXe et XXe siècles, correspond à un déplacement de la subjectivité sur les plans de la versification et de la musicalité. Je souhaite enfin montrer dans quelle mesure la qualité phono-sémantique du poème d’Owen évite l’effet prosaïque du reportage. La subjectivité s’exprime indirectement par le choix des rimes, et des répétitions sonores. Assonances et allitérations traduisent alors la relation lyrique du poète à la guerre, de même que l’utilisation de l’hypallage.

Le poème « The Miners », déjà évoqué, propose un schéma de rimes innovant avec l’emploi de ce que Owen a appelé des pararhymes : le poète peut remplacer la rime traditionnelle  ̶  fondée sur la voyelle tonique  ̶  par des homophonies consonantiques désignées en stylistique française par le terme de « contre-assonances ». L’alternance dans le poème entre une rime traditionnelle (par exemple dans ce poème hearth / earth) et des pararhymes (par exemple : loads / lids / lads ou bien groaned / crooned / ground) crée une dissonance. L’effusion lyrique devient chez Owen une tension entre les vocables du poème – la voix du poète en basse continue. 

Dans une lettre à son cousin Leslie Gunston, Owen défend la pararhyme ou half-ryhme : « I suppose I’m doing in poetry what the advanced composers are doing in music ».[11] Owen crée donc une musique similaire au son d’une « cloche fêlée » pour reprendre le titre d’un célèbre poème de Charles Baudelaire ; par l’emploi des pararyhmes, il suggère un monde disloqué : « the world out of joint » dont fait état Hamlet.[12]

Le poème « The Hospital-Barge » est un autre exemple pertinent pour comprendre la fonction lyrique des répétitions sonores. Owen, rappelons-le, a subi un traumatisme psychologique en mai 1917. Il est envoyé dans un hôpital près de Cerisy et écrit une lettre à sa mère le 13 mai où il compare un voyage en bateau sur un canal aux obsèques du légendaire roi Arthur. Owen relisait un poème de Tennyson évoquant la mort du roi lorsqu’il se mit à écrire « The Hospital-Barge ». Dans ce sonnet classique, il utilise tous les ressorts linguistiques et rhétoriques pour donner à voir et à entendre la réalité. Les tercets consistent en une réflexion sur le bruit de la cheminée du bateau qui évoque par analogie l’agonie des soldats en 1917, elle-même sublimée par l’image mythique et funèbre de la mort du roi Arthur à la toute fin du poème. Ainsi, on peut relever de multiples allitérations et assonances entre les expressions suivantes : « Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme », ou « slowly slewed […] / […] softly », enfin « fairy tinklings / rumplingbulging amplitude » et « gurgling lock ».

Lorsque Owen efface l’expression de la première personne du singulier dans ses poèmes, il ne manque jamais de donner son point de vue sur la réalité par exemple à travers la vision et la stupéfaction des estropiés dans « Disabled », ou « Mental cases ». La réaction affective du poète au monde chaotique en guerre, et vis-à-vis de ses contemporains (soldats sacrifiés ou civils aveuglés), est toujours sombre et révoltée, lyrique et tragique. L’utilisation fréquente de l’hypallage sous sa plume sert particulièrement un lyrisme objectif : autrement dit le déplacement impertinent d’un adjectif lorsqu’il qualifie un mot inattendu à la place d’un autre. Le procédé met en valeur le tragique de la condition des soldats projeté sur leur environnement. Relevons de nombreuses hypallages, par exemple dans « Disabled » le déplacement de l’adjectif lorsqu’il concerne le lieu : « When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees ». « Light-blue » qualifie les arbres au lieu du ciel crépusculaire. Owen crée ici un certain flou dans l’impression du rêve, à la manière des symbolistes qui évoquent un souvenir. L’hypallage peut concerner le temps : « Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes ». C’est le soldat qui est en réalité malade, qui se bat contre la maladie physique et mentale, après s’être durement battu sur le front. L’adjectif porte à présent sur « years ». Le poète indique ainsi la fatalité qui accable le vétéran sans jugement ni embardée lyrique, mais avec beaucoup de pudeur.

Ces hypallages résultent d’une transposition métonymique puisqu’il s’agit de la contiguïté des sensations du soldat avec son environnement, sensations projetées sur sa perception du lieu, du temps et des acteurs. On relève bien ici un transfert de la cause à l’effet (« sick »), qui évolue parfois vers en personnification (dans le cas de « sick years »). Enfin l’hypallage souligne l’inquiétante étrangeté qu’éprouve le soldat blessé à son retour chez lui dans le cas de « light blue trees ». Les hypallages permettent ainsi d’objectiver la subjectivité et d’éviter un lyrisme par introspection ou confession, comme c’est déjà le cas dans la poésie française « fin de siècle » qu’elle soit symboliste ou décadente.[13]

L’objectif d’Owen n’est pas simplement de témoigner d’une réalité historique, au risque de constituer un fâcheux amalgame entre la poésie de circonstances et le reportage, mais d’exprimer objectivement – sans effusion – le « malheur de la Guerre » (« Pity of war »).  Comme il l’écrit encore dans la préface : « Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory ». La guerre devient l’unique source d’inspiration de son lyrisme pour dire autrement une vérité sur l’héroïsme, avec une admirable compassion pour ses congénères. En tant que « war poet »,[14] il donne son point de vue avec une fréquente et discrète ironie contre toute tentation d’une expression purement subjective. 

L’influence de la poésie française, symboliste et décadente, par l’entremise de Laurent Tailhade, après celle de John Keats, a contribué à l’extériorisation et à l’objectivation du lyrisme d’Owen – ce qui ne signifie pas le refus de toute subjectivité : le jeune poète accède à la compassion en se projetant dans la vie des autres soldats. Comme Laurent Tailhade dans ses élégies ou ses satires, où l’expression d’un je est raréfiée, Wilfred Owen ne renonce pas à l’affectivité. L’émotion poétique chez les deux poètes, au contraire de la « confession », ouvre l’expression à l’extériorité d’un monde qu’ils perçoivent de manière hostile.

Le projet poétique d’Owen en temps de guerre fait face à l’extrême : c’est pourquoi la question de la subjectivité dans l’écriture versifiée s’est immédiatement imposée à lui. Avec une énergie qui transcende les circonstances, il exprime toute sa compassion pour ses frères d’armes en leur prêtant sa voix, d’où un lyrisme en quelque sorte ventriloque et très souvent objectif, lorsqu’il ne s’inclut pas lui-même dans un « nous » en gage de sa solidarité. L’expression de la fraternité constitue donc pour Owen un authentique enjeu d’écriture et redéfinit les contours du pacte lyrique. 


Bell, John (ed.). Wilfred Owen: Selected Letters. Oxford, OUP, 1985.

Collot, Michel. « D’un lyrisme objectif », Sujet, monde et langage dans la poésie moderne. Paris, Classiques Garnier, coll. « Études de littérature des XXe et XXIe siècles », 2018, 48-67.

Deshoulières, Valérie-Angélique. Poétiques de l’indéterminé. Le caméléon au propre et au figuré. Clermont-Ferrand, Presses de l’Université Blaise Pascal, 1998.

Hibberd, Dominic. Wilfred OwenA New Biography. London, Phoenix, 2003.

Jenny, Laurent. La Fin de l’intériorité. Paris, PUF, 2002.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le Pacte autobiographique. Paris, Seuil, 1975.

Montin, Sarah. Contourner l’abîme. Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre. Paris, Presses Sorbonne Université, 2018.

Rabaté, Dominique (ed.). Figures du sujet lyrique. Paris, PUF, 2001.

Rodriguez, Antonio. Le Pacte lyrique, configuration discursive et interaction affective. Liège, Mardaga, 2003.

Thorpe, Adam. « La pertinence de Wilfred Owen », Nord, n°52, octobre 2008, 19-28.

[1] Laurent Jenny, La Fin de l’intériorité, Paris, PUF, coll. « Perspectives littéraires », 2002.

[2] Je parlerai plus précisément dans ce cas du « sujet lyrique » selon la théorie française : voir Dominique Rabaté (dir.), Figures du sujet lyrique. Le discours poétique se réfère en effet au réel, à ce que Gérard Genette appelle la « diction » par opposition à la « fiction » de la prose romanesque. Cependant, le je qui s’exprime en poésie, qu’il soit ou non explicité dans l’énonciation du poème, ne correspond pas à la pure réalité biographique de l’auteur, mais à l’existence d’un locuteur plus ou moins « universalisable » : disons « exemplaire » chez Owen, en reprenant la parole du soldat.

[3] Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique.

[4] Antonio Rodriguez, Le Pacte lyrique, configuration discursive et interaction affective.

[5] L’originalité d’Owen réside à mon sens dans ce paradoxe poétique. Avec la même incohérence apparente, le poète s’engage volontairement dans une boucherie héroïque alors qu’il dénonce la manipulation de toute une jeune génération par les politiques de son temps.


[7] Sur le sujet, lire l’ouvrage coordonné par Valérie-Angélique Deshoulières : Poétiques de l’indéterminé. Le caméléon au propre et au figuré.



[10] Notons que l’expression du je assez rare dans la poésie de Laurent Tailhade concerne principalement des verbes d’action et non la fonction expressive du langage. Le poème « Maundy Thursday » serait influencé par le style de Laurent Tailhade. D. Hibberd perçoit une intertextualité dans deux autres poèmes (Hibberd 195, 196 et 308). Les Poèmes aristophanesques (1904) et Les Poèmes élégiaques  (1907) sont offerts à Wilfred Owen par leur auteur avec une dédicace nostalgique. (Hibberd 197). 

[11] Voir sa lettre du 12 février 1918 (Bell 311-2).

[12] Owen affectionnait particulièrement les pièces de théâtre de Shakespeare.

[13] Citons à titre d’exemple la première strophe de « Fenêtres » de Stéphane Mallarmé : 

Las du triste hôpital, et de l’encens fétide
Qui monte en la blancheur banale des rideaux
Vers le grand crucifix ennuyé du mur vide,
Le moribond sournois y redresse un vieux dos,

Ce n’est évidemment pas le « crucifix » mais le « moribond » qui est « ennuyé ». L’hypallage évite les embardées lyriques et romantiques.

[14] Sarah Montin, Contourner l’abîme. Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre.

Jérôme Hennebert is a lecturer in 20th century French language and literature at the University of Lille where he teaches 19th and 20th-century poetry as well as stylistics. He specializes in the study of discontinuity in poetic discourse in the work of Lorand Gaspar, Claude Esteban, Eugène Guillevic and Louis Aragon among others. He has published on modern and contemporary French poetry.

Over “the last Hill”: Wilfred Owen’s “spring Offensive”


Wilfred Owen, Spring Offensive, First World War, War poetry, Border crossings, French landscape, France, Sensuousness, Touch, Romantic Poetry, Conflict

Being the poet’s last completed piece, “Spring Offensive” makes France Wilfred Owen’s last poetic landscape. The article explores the ways in which “Spring Offensive” continuously crosses and blurs the borders between the French landscape and the poet’s English heritage; it also emphasizes the sensuousness of the landscape and of the war experience, so that the bodies of the soldiers and nature fuse and interact. “Spring Offensive” thus comes to reflect Owen’s search for balance, a search of which the French landscape becomes the natural yet symbolic representation.

« Spring Offensive » étant le dernier poème terminé d’Owen, la France devient le dernier paysage poétique de l’œuvre. Cet article étudie la façon dont « Spring Offensive » traverse et dissout les frontières qui séparent le paysage français et l’héritage anglais du poète ; le poème, parce qu’il se concentre sur le caractère sensuel du paysage et de l’expérience de guerre, permet également la fusion du corps des soldats avec celui de la nature. Ainsi, le poème reproduit la recherche d’équilibre de Wilfred Owen : le paysage français en devient la représentation naturelle et symbolique. 


In his recent biography of Wilfred Owen, Guy Cuthbertson observed that if Shropshire was the land of A.E. Housman, the land of Wilfred Owen, which he calls “Owenshire,” would have most likely been located in France (Cuthbertson, 29). France is just as central to Owen’s poethood as England. He grew up in Great Britain where he saw the landscapes and Roman ruins that inspired most of his early poetry. He then lived in France before and throughout the war; his experience on the French Western Front became the inspiration for many of his war poems, which are generally acclaimed as his best and most accomplished pieces. “Spring Offensive” is one such poem: it recalls a real offensive Owen survived in April 1917, but also stands out as Owen’s last completed piece, which in turn makes France the last Owenian poetic landscape. Aside from being Owen’s last completed piece, Santanu Das argues that the significance of “Spring Offensive” lies in its truthfulness (Das, 164) – Owen neither lies about the exhilarating sensations of “going over the top,” which he describes in his letters from France and in the poem, nor does he reject his previous political commitments and beliefs about the war. This truthfulness is reinforced by the sensuousness of the poem, which especially relies on touch and movement to recreate the experience of battle without glamorizing it.

I would therefore like to contend that in “Spring Offensive” the French landscape becomes the natural yet symbolic representation of Owen’s inner struggles and search for balance. The poem maintains a delicate equilibrium between sensations and abstractions and reveals a certain degree of harmony and unity between the soldiers, the French landscape and the poet himself but also unites Owen’s English heritage with his French experience of the war. To expose this argument, I will focus on two main aspects of “Spring Offensive”: border crossing and sensuousness. The opening of the poem blurs the boundaries between the French landscape of war and descriptions of traditional English landscapes. This first border crossing leads to other crossings that become apparent when focusing on Owen’s use of the senses. The poet’s focus on the five senses, but also on movement, makes the soldiers’ bodies interact with nature, which helps explain how Owen creates a sense of balance between sensations and abstraction, but also between a heroic representation of the soldiers and the voice of anger and protest he is famous for. 

Crossing borders in “Spring Offensive”: from the pastoral landscapes of English poetry to the French landscape of war

France is described throughout much of Owen’s poetry and inspired so many of his poems that Guy Cuthbertson locating Owenshire in France accurately places the essence of the poet’s work. The landscape of war is the battered landscape of France – a landscape that bears the traces of battle and reflects the effects of the war on the soldiers’ bodies and minds. In “The Show,” the land is diseased and old, “pitted with great pocks and scabs of plague” (l.5), as if the war itself were an infectious disease afflicting the world. The comparison to the plague and small pock accurately depicts the shell craters that defaced the landscape, but also anchors the horrors of war in the human body, turning the landscape into a metaphor for the soldiers’ physical suffering. The French landscape of war is also one of slime, mud, rain and snow. “Exposure” equates the endlessness of the war with natural impressions of lassitude; the soldiers “only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy” (l.12), as if the whole world had become a never-ending day of rain, abridging all hope for light and peace. The only reference to grass seems far remote in “Exposure,” and appears to be a characteristic of England rather than of France. The soldiers, waiting in trenches in the snow, can only dream of the “grassier ditches” and of the “blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses” they must have once known in England (l.23-24). Again, the landscape of France is described as a battered place of danger and agony, a place much closer to Hell than to the pastoral landscapes of England and of English poetry. 

Yet, in naming the land of Owen’s poetry Owenshire, Guy Cuthbertson also calls up Wilfred Owen’s English heritage, as if Owenshire could stand alongside Oxfordshire, Derbyshire or Yorkshire. Doing so, Cuthbertson merges the France of Owen’s poetry with England and blurs the boundaries that separate the two countries. This, in turn, evokes Rupert Brooke’s famous lines from “The Soldier”: 

    If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam; 
A body of England’s, breathing English air, 
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. (1-8) 

Like the soldier Brooke describes in the sonnet, Owen grew up breathing the air of England, enjoying its rivers and a sun that had not yet lost its nurturing power, contrary to the sun of France the poet appeals to revive the dying soldier in “Futility.” The poet also died in a foreign field, during the crossing of the Oise-Sambre canal, and so became a “body of England’s” buried deep in the soil of France. The borders separating the two countries therefore seem to merge into Owenshire, a land that is a mixture of English heritage and French experience. 

“Spring Offensive” is one of the poems that best represents Owenshire. Its composition was prompted by a real offensive Owen survived in April 1917, which makes France the inspiration for the piece. Jon Stallworthy, however, dates the beginning of the composition to July 1918, when Owen lived in Scarborough, England, and explains the last revisions to the poem were made in France in September 1918. The very writing of the poem therefore crossed the borders of France and England, but still marks France out as Owen’s last poetic landscape. Yet, there is no clear, direct mention of France in the poem, as if France had somehow been abstracted or distilled into poetry. In fact, Owen rarely mentions France in his poetry: aside from a passing reference in “Futility” and another in “Smile, smile, smile,” France is not named. The location of the poems is however hinted at in other pieces, especially in some of Owen’s titles, such as “At a Calvary near the Ancre,” which places the poem in Picardy or “Le Christianisme” and “A Terre,” which both have French titles. Still, to a reader completely unaware of the context in which “Spring Offensive” was created, the first few lines can sound familiar: 

    Halted against the shade of a last hill
They, and eased of pack-loads, were at ease; 
And leaning on the nearest chest or knees
Carelessly slept. 
 But many there stood still
To face the stark blank sky beyond the ridge, 
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world. 
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge; (1-9) 

The lines conjure up the descriptions of pastoral England that shape so many of the spring poems of the late 18th and early 19th century celebrating either the month of May or the beauty and fertility of the season. For example, while the speaker of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” sits “reclined” in the “breezy air” (l.2, l. 18), Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Spring” lets its speaker hear the “busy murmur” of insects (l. 27). These two examples echo “the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge” and the verb “halted against” (l.9, l.1) of “Spring Offensive,” making it sound as if the war could be forgotten for an instant and as though the soldiers were standing on the border between England, their feet still deep in the green grass where insects buzz and fly, and the torn landscapes of France. 

Even closer to the landscape descriptions of “Spring Offensive” are elements from John Keats’s early poem “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill”.[1] The poem opens with the lines “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill, / The air was cooling, and so very still” so that the soldiers of “Spring Offensive” almost seem to mimic Keats’s speaker’s pose. Inspired by the sights of spring, the speaker of “I stood tip-toe” later describes “a bush of May flowers with the bees about them” where “ardent marigolds! / Dry up the moisture from [their] golden lids” (l.29, l. 48-49), much like the buttercups that stick to the men’s boots in Owen’s poem. In his new biography of Wilfred Owen, Dominic Hibberd comments on the composition of the landscape of “Spring Offensive” and notes that the poet relies on his English heritage, both poetic and personal. “Long ago,” Hibberd writes, “in his early enthusiasm for Keats, Wilfred had hoped for a vision like those granted to ‘old dreamers on May Morn’, and his last finished poem is set in a May, Shropshire-like landscape, where Wordsworthian nature is a moral teacher” (Hibberd, 2019). Sleepiness, the month of May, a gentle breeze, long grass and the song of insects buzzing in the speaker’s ears are indeed so many traditional motifs of pastoral and Romantic poetry that Owen draws on to write the description of the landscape of “Spring Offensive”. Nature even becomes a sort of moral teacher in the poem, as the branches hold on to the men’s boots to try and keep them from going into battle. Wilfred Owen’s biographers Dominic Hibberd and Jon Stallworthy also note that the buttercups he mentions line 15 are a memory from a walk the poet took in Shropshire with his brother Harold when they were teenagers. Stallworthy collected Harold Owen’s words; his brother would have then remarked: “Harold’s boots are blessed with gold,” (Stallworthy, 44),[2] a phrase the poet takes up again in close association with the buttercups of “Spring Offensive” as he writes: “where the buttercups / Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up” (l. 15-16). Even though Owen’s poem actually takes place in France, it therefore contains memories of the poet’s British childhood and elements of traditional English and British poetry he assimilated over the years. 

Yet, the landscape of the introduction is also unmistakably French, with its buttercups, warm fields and grassy hills that easily let the reader picture the arable lands of France. After the first few lines, the landscape gradually becomes even more French as it comes to bear the marks of a war that never really touched the British countryside. The landscapes of the Western Front, in the northeast of France and Belgium especially, are indeed characterised by mud, slime, shell holes and fire, and though the landscape of “Spring Offensive” is not pinned as specifically French, the descriptions are clearly inspired by Owen’s experience of the French Western Front and of the trenches. In his letters home, the poet writes about France, the villages he passes and the Front line. Writing to his mother on 16 January 1917, Owen describes No Man’s Land: 

After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes. High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us. (Owen, Letters 427)

After 1916, in the poet’s correspondence, France is often limited to No Man’s Land and the colours that best describe it: fire or blood red, mud brown and black. In the poems, as in the letters, the green Romantic scenery of leaves, branches, and trees gives way to a scene where the “sky [burns],” the small flowers collect blood and the hills open like the gates of Hell. One of the main characteristics of the French landscape in Owen’s poetry is indeed its resemblance with Hell. “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” represents the war as “the sorrowful dark of hell” (l. 30); “Cramped in that Funnelled Hole” has the soldiers lie in “one of the many mouths of Hell” (l.5). Upon seeing the privates plagued with shell-shock, the speaker of “Mental Cases” wonders whether he and his interlocutor “walk hell,” calling the soldiers themselves “these hellish” (l.9), while the speaker of “Strange Meeting,” having seemingly escaped from the battlefield, finds himself standing in Hell as well. In or out of battle, the men appear to be forever trapped in the nightmarish underworld that France has become. 

Even when it is not referred to openly, Owen describes a realm of fire, lime and pain which are all characteristics that poets and writers use to describe Hell in poetry and in the Bible. In the New Testament, for instance, Matthew declares: “So it shall be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, /And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew, 13:49-50). The lines evoke Owen’s men standing at “the end of the world” (l.6) and the “fiends and flames” (l.41) of “Spring Offensive.” Owen’s choice of words is also reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno; in Canto XVI, for example, the speaker exclaims “Ah me! What wounds I saw upon their limbs, / Recent and ancient by the flames burnt it! / It pains me still but to remember it” (l.10-12), which recalls both Owen’s “I try not to remember these things now” in “The Sentry” (l.29) and the gassed soldier of “Dulce et Decorum Est” who is “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime” (l.12). Similarly, the senses of the soldiers in “Insensibility” have been dulled by “some scorching cautery of battle” (l.28) and the men in “Greater Love” carry the burden of war “through flame and hail” (l.24). These references are, of course, not specifically French in nature, but they are a few examples of the way Owen transforms the French landscape into a physical experience and representation of Hell. Once combined with the descriptions of the battered, torn and diseased land of agony battles have turned fields into, the image of France at war is complete and, as Guy Cuthbertson contends, Owen then finds himself “in a new territory” where “familiar France ha[s] become strange” (Cuthbertson, 167). The France the poet had known, loved and described in his letters from Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre, with its “rich leafage” and its “hydrangeas (hortensia) with purple inflorescences” was gone (Owen, Letters 270). The several pictures of the landscape that Owen disseminates throughout his poetry then seem to all build towards the creation of “Spring Offensive,” a poem where the soldiers eventually “enter Hell/ And there [out-fiend] all its fiends and flames” as they run into battle (l.40-41), where they face “the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge” (l. 35) and where the earth breaks open into holes.

The soldiers, who have so far seemed to stand in the English countryside, in the same landscape their dreams take them to in “Exposure”, have now set foot in the hellish French landscape of war. This is made all the clearer in the fourth stanza of the poem: the men only come into contact with the violence of war after “they topped the hill, and raced together / Over an open stretch of herb and heather / Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned” (l.27-29). The adverb “instantly” reinforces the impression of a changing atmosphere, as if going over the hill meant stepping into new territory. Yet, this does not come as a surprise to the reader. The violent context that inspired the poem is hinted at from the very first lines through the use of the phrases like “the last hill” (l.1), “the stark blank sky” (l.6) or “the end of the world” (l.7). Death and impending doom have infected the land even before the assault begins. The “last hill”, as French as the context makes it, therefore really seems to become a symbolic frontier between two worlds, between the Romantic, pastoral poise and beauty of an immemorial English landscape and the overwhelming reality of the French Western Front, where the war and death itself pervade every aspect of the scenery, even when one has not yet gone into battle. 

The line between the two worlds, however, is never quite so clear as it seems – the French landscape of war and the Romantic motifs remain in a strange state of equilibrium. Just as the wartime context is hinted at from the beginning of “Spring Offensive”, the pastoral elements that make up most of the first part of the poem never quite disappear either. Instead of fighting men and bombs, the soldiers appear to be at war with nature itself. Line 30, the earth “[sets] sudden cups” to collect the soldiers’ blood; the cups could be shell holes, but they are also reminiscent of the buttercups that had blessed the men’s boots earlier. Similarly, the green slopes against which they once rested open up to bury the bodies of fighting men in revenge for their assault on the land. As the offensive ends, the soldiers return to the place they had first come from. Lines 44 and 45 read “And crawling slowly back, have by degrees / Regained peaceful air in wonder –”, as though the men were emerging from the desolation and violence of the French Western Front back into the pre-war pastoral world of Romantic poetry. The boundaries between the two worlds are crossed in order to create something new: “Spring Offensive” is neither a Romantic nature poem, nor is it a poem of pure protest against the war. Already, the border crossings at the heart of the poem and the representation of the French landscape come to reflect Owen’s search for balance – balance between his English heritage and the French context of battle, but also between the voice of his anger and protest – heard in the violent descriptions of war and the comparison to Hell – and his search for beauty and healing, found in the pastoral references and the sympathetic, loving description of the men’s interaction at the beginning of the poem. However, “Spring Offensive” does not only show a crossing of borders between British and French landscapes or between Owen’s experience on the French Western Front and his Romantic and poetic heritage; it also emphasizes the sensuousness of the landscape and of the war experience, so that the bodies of the soldiers and nature fuse and interact.

The sensuousness of the French landscape: fusing bodies and nature, reflecting the reality of war

Throughout the poem, Wilfred Owen calls attention to all of the senses. “Spring Offensive” first of all generates a mental image for its readers, the creation of which is reinforced by the fact that the poem begins in medias res and that the soldiers are either lying or standing still, as if we were watching a picture of soldiers waiting to go to battle. The pictoriality of the poem is also highlighted by the direct and indirect use of colours. The long grass evokes the colour green, the sky is either white or burning, suggesting the colour red, the buttercups and the sun are “golden” and the redness of blood eventually mixes with the colour of the earth and the green of the grass. The use of colours is especially significant in war poetry and literature of the First World War since, as Randall Stevenson remarks in Literature and the Great War, colour consciousness helps highlight the movements from the confidence in pastoral conventions to the realisation that they were in fact inadequate in confronting the violence of the war (Stevenson, 149). The colours of “Spring Offensive” reflect this idea – and Owen’s letters from France –, as the green of the seemingly pastoral first lines comes into contrast with the redness of blood and fire that characterises the war. 

Yet, colours do not simply emphasize the contrast between the world of war and the pastoral, or between the violent reality of the present and the idealisation of the past, they also contribute to crossing the borders between abstraction and sensation. As Dani Cavallaro explains, “many colours have been described as rough or sticky, others as smooth and uniform, so that one feels inclined to stroke them. […] Some colours appear soft (rose madder), others hard (cobalt green, blue-green oxide)” (Cavallaro, 61). This remark, which results from interviews with synesthete painters, not only reveals the synaesthetic value of colour, but its emotional and cognitive import. As Yeshayahu Shen has demonstrated, the way we conceive of abstract notions such as love, for example, is usually expressed metaphorically through the use of more concrete terms that are more readily apprehensible by the brain (Shen, 178-179). This is also true of colour, which we qualify as thick, rough or soft – adjectives that relate to the sense of touch – to get a better grasp of the emotion and sensation that we get upon seeing a colour. Applied to “Spring Offensive”, these two conceptions show that in opposing the green of grass, a colour culturally associated with hope and nature, to red, which Western cultures tend to associate with anger and violence even outside war contexts, Owen uses sensation as a springboard for the reader to feel the emotion linked with the war and then to better grasp the abstract idea of conflict, combat and violence. It almost seems as if the French trench landscape had been Owen’s raw material, a material which he then distilled into poetry and into a more abstract and universalised representation of war that is no longer French per se. Rather, the specifics of topology and geography are erased and give way to a physical and poetic immersion into the world of War (of any war) quite reminiscent of one of the remarks made by the speaker of “Strange Meeting”: “I mean the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled” (l.24-25). In “Spring Offensive”, France is abstracted and what remains is the sensory experience of war and of its landscapes. Yet the focus on sensation is also typical of trench warfare on the French and Belgian Western front. As Santanu Das explains, “this sensuous awareness of the surrounding world marks the experience of the trenches” (Das 74): trench landscapes are characterised by the way they feel and not by their location. The colours additionally contribute to making nature and humanity fuse and interact when the men’s blood becomes one with the earth or when the red colour of blood is reflected in the burning colour of the sky (l. 29-31). 

Similarly, the land is filled with the buzzing sound of insects, a buzzing that is slowly replaced by the stuttering of bullets in the air. Already, the worlds of nature and mankind seem to coalesce as the music of both insects and bullets comes to life in the [s] and [z] alliterations that run throughout the poem and give continuity to its language as they erase the differences between the natural elements and the man-made objects of destruction. The sun, which acts as a figure of love and embrace lines 25 and 26 and that could awake soldiers, “even in France” (l.4) in “Futility”, and the white sky both turn into the cause of death for many of the men that go into battle. Again, and contrary to “Futility,” “Spring Offensive” removes direct references to the real geographic location of the attack. No shells are mentioned in the poem – the reader only knows that “the whole sky burned / With fury against them” and that they “went up / On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge” (l.29-30, l. 34-35). These lines convey a strong visual image of a red, blazing sky and of areas of cracked, cratered ground that very well represent the common idea we have of fury, of hell or of war. Yet, there is no fury in the sky or in the ground – only invisible shells that parallel the “unseen bullets” of line 35. The repetition of the noun “fury” and the absence of specific references to the Western Front or to France relocate the violence and destruction of man-made war in nature, thus reinforcing the blending of boundaries between the soldiers and the natural world, and casting the war itself as a war between man and nature, or as a fight between lovers, which in turn begins to voice Owen’s anger and protest. The voice of the poet and his fury blend with Nature’s anger at the loss and desolation the war entails, thus striking a balance between the sensation and emotion of fury and the abstract idea we make of it. 

Sight and sound, despite the strength of the emotions and sensations they convey, are not, however, the senses Owen relies on the most to show the interaction between the French landscape and the soldiers and between sensations and abstractions. As Santanu Das has remarked, the poem begins in medias res and lays emphasis on movement from the very first line. The verb “halted” indeed implies movement and contact; it makes the bodies of men seem to move in slow motion, which reminds us of the corporeality of war and places the body as an object of perception within the landscape (Das, 153). Opening the poem on the verb “halted” accentuates the pictoriality of the poem, but also forces us to envision the soldiers as bodies about to move and presses us to watch them move as well. The landscape of France “Spring Offensive” is set in is not so much French as it is a moving, feeling, breathing land, a place seemingly imbued with its own sensations and feelings. The trees “breathe”, the grass “swirl[s]” as in a dance and the buttercups, like Nature’s priests, give the soldiers their blessing. The focus on touch and movement sensualises France, but it actually humanizes it as well because touch is the most body-related sense of all. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart writes that “[o]f all the senses, touch is most linked to emotion and feeling. To be “touched” or “moved” by words or things implies the process of identification and separation by which we apprehend the world aesthetically. […] [T]actile perception involves perception of our own bodily state as we take in what is outside that state” (Stewart, 162). 

The sense of touch, then, is the sense through which we become able to understand the reality of our own bodies, of another person’s body, but also of the separation between ourselves and the outside world. Touch, movement and observation of another body’s movements help us understand emotion, but the body, because it moves and experiences pain and pleasure as a sort of inner touch, is also the site of all human emotion. In focusing on movement and touch, Owen therefore deeply humanises both the landscape and the soldiers. The distance between the men and nature almost disappears, which also reduces the distance between the reader and the poem. Touch, movement and emotion facilitate empathetic identification. As Pierre-Louis Patoine argues, a profusion of textual somaesthetic sensations gradually prepares the reader’s body to feel the emotions and sensations of literary characters empathetically (Patoine, 254). The empathy thus created partly erases the distance between the reader and the text because unlike sound or sight, touch and movement require contact. This characteristic of touch and movement, both of which are somaesthetic sensations, therefore makes it possible to read “Spring Offensive” not only as crossing the borders between man and nature, or between Owen’s English heritage and his French experience of the war, but also as an attempt to bridge the gap that separates the reader from the text and to increase the reader’s sympathy for the soldiers’ fate.  

In the second stanza, the branches, bushes and flowers move and even act humanely; their gestures are those of a man or a woman holding a loved one back so he does not leave or so he can be kept away from danger. The use of the verbs “clutch” and “cling” line 18 communicates both the painful movement of nature towards the soldiers and its desperation – no word is uttered in the stanza, but the feeling of the hand-like branches on the soldiers’ legs is one of supplication. The sensation is one of entanglement and of being torn, both physically and mentally. Once again, though the scene is set in France and the Western front is recognizable, the main function of the landscape is not to locate the war, but to act as a projection of the soldiers’ inner struggles between love of nature, desire to rest, and military duty instead. The reader is made to feel that the soldiers do not want to betray the nature that so generously nurtured them by fighting and destroying, but that they must fight anyway. This also leads to sympathetic identification with the soldiers, and with nature. In fact, nature itself appears to sympathise with the soldiers, an impression which, again, is encouraged by the repeated use of sensations in the poem. Daniel Hipp makes a similar remark about Owen’s depiction of the sky in the first stanza, line 12: 

The emptiness perceived in “the stark blank sky” lends it an unsympathetic attitude toward them and predicts their deaths. But “the sky’s mysterious glass” is perceived to have “[f]earfully flashed”, a description which makes the sky itself the fearful party. This fear, attributed to the sky in this line, is more likely reflective of the men’s projected fears, but the fluidity of agency in these contrasting lines about the sky points to the element of sympathy that for Owen is the redemptive force of the poem and the war experience. (Hipp, 101)

Though it does not concentrate on Owen’s use of sensations in “Spring Offensive”, Hipp’s analysis of the poem and of the sky comes to the same conclusions as the exploration of sight, sound, touch and movement above: the association of the subject “mysterious glass” with the verbal group “[f]earfully flashed” connects sensations, feelings and the abstract idea of mystery. Similarly, the line lays emphasis on the projection of the soldiers’ feelings and emotions onto the landscape and on nature’s sympathetic response to these, making the French landscape a representation of the soldiers’ inner struggles and of Owen’s. Thus, despite voicing his protest and anger towards the war – towards the violence and the absurdity of war – Owen also shows that nature and the relationships the men share offer a chance for redemption, but also for sympathy and for beauty proving that equilibrium and healing can still be attained in the midst of war. 

Touch and movement also carry and evoke emotion in a more visceral way than sight or hearing would have, which subsequently leads to the blending of emotion, sensation and abstraction together. In the lines in which nature acts as a loving figure to the soldiers, sadness mixes with the sensations felt in nature and helps us grasp the concepts of war and peace that appear throughout the poem more fully. Even the offensive starts without any visual or auditive cue; instead of flags or bugles, a thrilled word is spoken line 19, the reaction to which is emotional and physical movement. The body and the soul of the soldiers move together and are equally affected upon hearing the word – they come together and are bound (“begird”, l.20) and become tense (“tighten”, l.21) as they prepare to act. Yet, it seems the body and soul react not so much to the word they hear as they do to the trembling, nervous movement and ecstatic emotion conveyed by the verb “thrills”. The line goes even further in expressing the strange balance of feelings and sensations that the soldiers experience before going into battle: the “little word” that “thrills” line 19 is like a “cold gust” – it both excites and frightens. In that sense, Santanu Das is right in stating that in “Spring Offensive”, “Owen reconceptualises poetry as a testimony to the senses” (Das 163) and that the significance of the poem lies in its truthfulness: Owen does not deny that there is something exhilarating about going into battle – physically, the experience is a complex mixture of adrenaline rushes that can make one feel superhuman (a word Owen himself uses line 43) and of fear and disgust, but this truthfulness to experience is only made possible by the heightened sensuousness of the poem. We could also go further and say that Owen does not simply reconceptualise poetry as a testimony to the senses, but that in so doing, he also reimagines France and the trenches, condensing them into a physical, sensuous, truthful and perhaps dislocated experience of warfare. 

Between lines 27 and 40, “Spring Offensive” entirely immerses the reader in the sensory experience of the war. The French landscape becomes all movement, touch and pain. What to an outsider would have remained a very abstract idea of war comes to be experienced through the senses and therefore bursts into reality, though the lack of topographical details keeps the balance between abstraction and sensation intact. Focus on sensation intensifies the reading experience because it favours empathetic identification, but also because it blurs the boundaries between what belongs in the work of art and what happens in real life, an idea that Owen might have inherited from Keats, which again contributes to the crossing of borders the poem exemplifies. Writing his brothers about the painting Death on the Pale Horse, John Keats had indeed famously remarked: “But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality”.[3] The poet’s words suggest that for a work of art to move the spectator, it must come into contact with him or her, make the spectator strongly feel – by way of the senses and of feelings – art interact with reality. The interaction between the reader’s reality and the work of art are themselves a sort of border crossing that partially dissolves the bounds that separate real life sensations from the sensations displayed in the poem or the painting under observation. Keats’s statement has since been corroborated by neuroscientific and linguistic research on sensation, and more specifically on mirror neurons. As Paolo Della Putta puts it: “According to the Embodied Semantics paradigm, linguistic concepts are represented in the brain within partially overlapping neural substrates recruited to enact and experience the action a word refers to (Della Putta, 21), meaning that upon reading action words, words referring to movement, the brain both processes the word linguistically and somehow recreates the impression of movement within the brain. The regions of the brain that would activate upon actually doing the action of the movement-verb also activate upon reading it. 

In Owen’s poem, the use of verbs like “open”, “chasm”, “steepen”, “run”, or “plunge” linguistically reproduces the perpetual movement of both the soldiers and nature. The sensations of speed and pain that accompany these actions are passed on by the repeated use of guttural and sibilant sounds respectively, but also by the choice of monosyllabic words, which are quicker to pronounce than their polysyllabic counterparts. These sensory aspects of “Spring Offensive” thus set the readers’ minds into movement and make them interact with the contents of the poem. They become part of the action. The sudden translation of French landscapes into Hell also calls attention to the heroism of the soldiers who, despite fear and danger, still run and rush into hell “out-fiending all its fiends and flames” (l.41). The heroism is further underlined by the adjective “superhuman” line 43, though the adjective qualifies the noun “inhumanities”, which in turn highlights the idea that even if the men can be heroic in their actions, the reason that calls for such heroism is not heroic at all – it is not even human. 

After line 40, once the assault is over, Owen’s choice of words relies more heavily on longer words referring to abstract concepts such as “inhumanity”, “long-famous glories” or “immemorial shames”. There and in the final three lines, which read: “And crawling slowly back, have by degrees / Regained cool peaceful air in wonder – / Why speak they not of comrades that went under?”, Owen’s voice of protest, which is not raised against the soldiers, who remain comrades, but against the war itself, and part of the civilian response to the war is heard again. Raising his voice against the war while showing the soldiers’ heroism in turn creates balance and unity. This sense of unity is in fact secured by the use of repetitions and echoes – “last” is used lines 1 and 34, “the end of the world”, line 7, echoes “this world’s verge” line 37 and the “cool peaceful air” of line 46 seems to be a variation on the “May breeze” of line 9. The poem ends as it had started: in silence, stillness and sensory quietness, an almost pastoral picture, tainted with the memory and feeling of the war that was conveyed by the sensuous description of the offensive. The ending is poised between accusation and sympathy, between the beauty of nature outside of war and the horrors of battle, between France, England and No Man’s Land, between Owen’s voice of protest and his understanding of the inability to speak about the war, which both resonate in the final question. 

“Spring Offensive” is a poem of harmony and unity that maintains a balance between sensations and abstractions, between Owen’s Romantic heritage and his French experience at the war and between Owen’s celebration of the soldiers and his protests against the war. The poem constantly crosses borders. The borders between the two countries that shaped Owen’s poethood, Great Britain and France, are crossed through various references to traditional English poetry and to the experience of the war in France. The borders between the readers, the French Western Front and the text are partially erased by Owen in his choice of emphasizing the sensuousness of the French landscape and of humanizing it with the soldiers. Following, the focus on sensuousness calls attention to the sensory experience of the soldiers and of the war itself, but also to the feelings and concepts associated with the experience. Doing so, Owen avoids the trap of either glorifying the war itself or of dehumanising the soldiers. Ultimately, “Spring Offensive” significantly does not hide what the land and the body feel and perceive; it gives the French landscape and the soldiers who died there a way to speak of the comrades that went under without denying the terrible consequences the war had on both men and nature. Wilfred Owen found a voice in France; its landscape became a projection of the ambivalence of the war. France was not, however, the subject of his poetry. It was the raw material the poet distilled into poetry, displacing the locus of war from France itself to a more abstract place that makes the sensuousness of the landscape of “Spring Offensive” a site of questioning and conflict – beautiful and quiet, yet battered by the war, it mirrors the moments of peace the soldiers enjoyed as well as the violence of battle. Wilfred Owen does not once use the pronoun “I” in the poem but the way he fashions his poem and humanises the landscape still makes it possible to perceive the poet’s inner struggles and to see him find balance in accepting that some questions and issues can never be answered, must remain the unvoiced mystery suggested in the closing question: “Why speak not they of comrades that went under?”


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Hipp, Daniel W. “’By Degrees / Regained Peaceful Air in Wonder’: Wilfred Owen, Shell Shock, and Poetic Identity”. The Poetry of Shell Shock: Wartime Trauma and Healing in Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, by Daniel W. Hipp, McFarland & Co., 2005, pp. 44–107.

Keats, John. Complete Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger, Cambridge : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982. 

Keats, John. John Keats: Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings, revised by Jon Mee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Owen, Wilfred. The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy, Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Owen, Wilfred et al. Collected Letters. Oxford University Press, 1967.

Patoine, Pierre-Louis. “Lire De Tout Son Corps”. La Perception, Entre Cognition Et Esthétique, éd. Adinel Bruzan et al., Classiques Garnier, 2015. 

Shen, Yeshayahu. “Cognition and the Use of Figurative Language in Poetry: the Case of Poetic  Synaesthesia”. The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture as Theory and Application, by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek and Irene Sywenky, Research Institute for Comparative Literature and Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1997, pp. 169–179. 

Stallworthy, Jon. Wilfred Owen. Pimlico, 2013.

Stevenson, Randall. Literature and the Great War, 1914-1918. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Stewart, Susan A. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. The University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads: with a Few Other Poems. Penguin Classics, 2017.

[1] Dominic Hibberd also notes echoes to Keats’s odes and to Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam in the poem, making the landscape a recollection of childhood memories and a recreation of the Romantic landscapes the two Romantic poets had taught him to admire. See Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. University of Georgia Press, 1986, p. 188.

[2] See also Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. University of Georgia Press, 1986, p. 186 

[3] Keats, John. John Keats: Selected Letters, éd. Robert Gittings, revised by Jon Mee, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817. 

Laure-Hélène Anthony-Gerroldt is currently teaching translation and the poetry of Wilfred Owen at the Université de Bourgogne. She has recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled Le devenir poétique de la sensation keatsienne dans l’oeuvre de Wilfred Owen, and completed her PhD in English poetry at the Université de Bourgogne. Her doctoral research focused on the use of sensations and synaesthesia in the works of John Keats and on their influence on Wilfred Owen’s war poetry. She is currently working on Caroline Bertonèche and Marc Porée’s creative, virtual project around the celebration of the bicentenary of John Keats’s death. 

Migrant from green fields: Wilfred Owen in France


England one by one had fled to France, 
Not many elsewhere now, save under France 
“Smile, Smile, Smile”, ll. 21-3

Wilfred Owen could not anticipate that he too would be among the many who, having “fled” their country to go to war, would find their last resting place under France. Thus he lies in the cemetery at Ors (French commune graced by the construction of the Maison Forestière Owen in 2011), eternally exiled in “some corner of a foreign field”. The 2018 conference “Wilfred Owen and/in France”, organized at the university of Valenciennes with Brigitte Friant-Kessler and in conjunction with the Oxford Center for Life-Writing, wished to celebrate Owen’s French trajectory by offering both a centennial commemoration of his life and a reconsideration of the role France had on his growth as a man and as a poet. 

Already familiar with Brittany through childhood trips with his father, Owen arrived in Bordeaux with “good schoolroom French” (Kerr, 258) in 1913 to teach English at the Berlitz school. From there, he explored the south of France and stayed notably in Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the Pyrenees, only to return in January 1917, this time to northern France and the Somme battlefields. Owen had thus first-hand emotional, linguistic and artistic knowledge of France, something most of his fellow war poets lacked, Sassoon and Graves included. Owen’s undeniable French connections have however never been studied extensively before, outside of punctual references to symbolist and decadent literary influences in his canonical scholarship. This anniversary issue aims to highlight whatever “Frenchness” animated “Monsieur Owen” and if and how this influenced his career as a poet. It also attempts to compensate the relative dearth of French scholarship on Wilfred Owen who, despite being officially memorialized and inscribed in France’s national “Chemins de la mémoire”, has garnered rather scant academic scrutiny and  public recognition over the years to the point where one could say he has not yet been properly received in France. 

This issue of The War and Peace Review thus aims to reconsider the links between Wilfred Owen and France and, conversely, between France and Wilfred Owen. What did France represent to a young Georgian poet who ― unlike his modernist counterparts  quick to adopt France as their literary homeland ― was not enamored with French literature and fought, above all, “to perpetuate the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote” (CL, 300)? What recognition and posterity does he have in France? Can one speak of a French Owen as there is a French Joyce and even a French Eliot and if not, why? 

The first section of this issue attempts to map the contours of France’s influence over Owen’s poetic trajectory and the maturation of his form and style. Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s paper ventures into overlooked sources in her study of Laurent Tailhade’s influence on Owen’s budding poetic vocation, as well as the young poet’s exposure to Francophone novelists and poets such as Barbusse, Duhamel, Péguy, Verhaeren, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Apollinaire and Hugo. Through an extensive analysis of “Spring Offensive”, Laure-Hélène Anthony Gerroldt studies Owen’s representations of the French landscape, perpetually caught in a dialogue with the poet’s British heritage. This paper is completed by Thomas Vuong’s own analysis of Owen’s ambivalent Franco-British imaginary, qualifying the importance of French influence in his work through a study of his landscapes, his use of French words and his sonnet rhyming schemes. Finally, Jérome Hennebert’s paper examines how Wilfred Owen’s lyricism became “objective” partly under Keats’s aegis and that of the 19th century symbolist poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, decentering the lyric subject in a manner which announces the modernist movement. 

 A second section focuses on Owen’s reception in France. What exactly is Owen’s critical and popular posterity in France, and by whom is he read? Sarah Montin’s paper explores the ambiguities of the poet’s reception in France, from the 1920’s to 2020, through the lens of academic and intellectual criticism, creative appropriation and translation. The following papers act as companion pieces, giving a voice to two important “passeurs” of Wilfred Owen in France; poet, translator and publisher Emmanuel Malherbet and Belgian novelist and translator Xavier Hanotte

The third section covers biographical questions, allowing for fresh insights into Owen’s formative years in France. Gilles Couderc’s in-depth exploration of his time in Bordeaux and the Pyrenees between 1913 and 1915 sheds new light on understudied parts of Owen’s poems, language, life and correspondence while Roland Bouyssou’s paper offers a broader overview of the poet’s trajectory in France. Paul Elsam’s aural-accentual study opens new lines of inquiry such as the manner in which speaking French shaped not only Owen’s personality but also the manner in which he spoke. Finally, Neil McLennan’s paper discusses Owenian aspects of the “Auld Alliance”, offering an analysis of Owen’s Franco-Scottish influences and Owen’s little-discussed meetings with Albertina Marie Dauthieu, a Frenchwoman living in Scotland, whose interactions with Owen provide new glimpses into his life.              

To conclude, the fourth section of this issue is meant to be read as a tribute, an artistic homage to Wilfred Owen with poems by Damian Grant and the first pages of Paul Elsam’s screenplay Wilfred in Love (2018). This is completed by an assortment of translations by Emmanuel Malherbet, Roland Bouyssou and Sarah Montin, from variations on classics such as “Anthem for Doomed Youth” to other less famous poems, as yet untranslated into French. 

Edited by Elise Brault-Dreux & Sarah Montin



Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec
The French Poetry of Wilfred Owen’s Modernism

Laure-Hélène Anthony-Gerroldt
Over “the last hill” : Wilfred Owen’s “Spring Offensive

Thomas Vuong
“England one by one had fled to France”: French and British imaginaries in Wilfred Owen’s poems

Jérôme Hennebert
Dire la compassion: le lyrisme de Wilfred Owen


Sarah Montin
“Journey from obscurity?”: Wilfred Owen’s reception and posterity in France

Emmanuel Malherbet, poet and translator of Owen
« Donner un sens aux brimborions » (propos recueillis par Sarah Montin)

Xavier Hanotte, poet and translator of Owen
Wilfred Owen ou la parole survivante


Gilles Couderc
Monsieur Owen en Aquitaine

Roland Bouyssou
Wilfred Owen: A War Poet’s Progress in France

Paul Elsam
“Mending my Speech”: How France helped Owen Reinvent Himself

Neil McLennan
“La Fleur et le chardon”: Wilfred Owen’s Franco-Scottish influences


Damian Grant
Poems: “Wilfred Owen at Ors

Paul Elsam
From the screenplay Wilfred in Love (2018)

Emmanuel Malherbet
« À la jeunesse sacrifiée, une prière », « Conscience », « Inspection », « Les Appels » (poèmes traduits)

Roland Bouyssou
« Hymne pour une jeunesse au funeste destin », « Étrange rencontre », « Fête des adieux » (poèmes traduits)

Sarah Montin
« Les Aliénés » (poème traduit)

‘Mend[ing] my speech’: How France helped wilfred Owen to reinvent himself


Wilfred Owen, World War 1, Berlitz School, Birkenhead, Received Pronunciation accent, Liverpool accent, Bordeaux, Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Craiglockhart Military Hospital, Horace Annesley Vachell, Siegfried Sassoon.

Today Wilfred Owen is remembered primarily as a war poet. His war in France is well-documented; you can walk the former battlefields in his footsteps, Owen’s poetry and letters in hand (or in ear). His experiences of French trench warfare provoked, we know, much trauma, leading him to expose the ‘pity of war’ through his poetry: as such, the war is credited as a core inspiration for his greatest work. What’s perhaps less well-documented, is the extent to which France helped shape Wilfred Owen away from the war. How did his earlier two years in and around southwest France help to shape his adult personality, his social skills, his outlook on life – perhaps even his art? It’s hard to say; but there are clues. But what’s becoming clearer is that this period, and this region, helped Owen to change something that would have been instantly recognisable to those who knew him over time: the way he spoke. 


Introduction: Owen the Outsider

What was Wilfred Owen’s speaking voice? In truth, we can’t know for sure, because no-one ever recorded him speaking. Naturally then we have to look for clues in his history, in his writing, and in the testimony of those who knew him. 

            It’s generally accepted that Wilfred Owen spoke with something close to an upper-class English accent. In part this is because his poetry has often been recorded by actors who possess, or can adopt, a Received Pronunciation (or ‘RP’) accent – the default ‘voice’ for powerful English people.  Kenneth Branagh’s voice – heard at the Forester’s House in Ors, where Wilfred wrote his last-ever letter in that cramped basement – stands as a typical example. Received Pronunciation is so-called because it has long been accepted (or ‘received’) as the default voice of England’s social elite. (There is a useful discussion of Received Pronunciation here (Robinson, 2019) on the British Library’s website, along with a recorded example of an older speaker.) But was it ever Wilfred Owen’s accent? And if it was, what role, if any, did France play in Wilfred’s acquisition of the accent?

Biographers have tended to represent Wilfred Owen either as someone who enjoyed a level of personal privilege, or at least as someone who sought it out and revered it. There is for example Wilfred’s late August 1918 encounter, just before he crossed to France and to his doom, with an unnamed and privately-educated ‘Harrow boy’ (Owen, 570) on Folkestone beach, reported in his 31.8.18 note (Letter 647) to his mother Susan. Harrow School is one of England’s oldest, most exclusive, and most expensive private schools: alumni have included British Prime Ministers; the sport of squash was invented there. ‘Harrow boy’ is thus shorthand for wealth and privilege.

            So, what was Wilfred’s attitude towards this beneficiary of such privilege? Biographer Dominic Hibberd thought that for Wilfred, his meeting with someone ‘of superb intellect and refinement’ (Ibid) was ‘almost like finding one’s ideal self’ (Hibberd, 151). Biographer Guy Cuthbertson asserts that Wilfred ‘was at heart a conservative and was delighted to encounter the rich and powerful’: it was ‘clearly class – especially “the way he spoke” – that excited Owen when he met the Harrow boy’ (Cuthbertson, 265). Biographer John Stallworthy references the encounter (Stallworthy, 268) to recall Wilfred’s earlier reading of Vachell’s Harrow School-set ‘The Hill’, which had been, Wilfred told Susan on 21 February 1918, ‘lovely and melancholy’ (Owen, 535).

            But it is worth quoting further from that February 1918 letter, written from Scarborough on the north-east English coast. After telling his mother that ‘he was very comforted in Scarboro’’ – then, as now, a relatively poor town – Wilfred summarises Vachell’s Harrow-set novel as a tale of ‘…hills on which I will never lay, nor shall lie; heights of thought, heights of friendship, heights of riches, heights of jinks’ (Ibid). The ‘loveliness’ was what would always be denied him; the melancholia was his sadness at missing out. He might have been longing for the life enjoyed by the boy he would eventually meet, some eight months later on that beach at Folkestone; to the untrained ear, they may even have sounded alike. But the Harrow boy’s world could never be his. Indeed, Wilfred’s reading of Vachell’s novel may have left him thinking of himself as the unlovable Scaife – a ‘poor Demon son of a Liverpool merchant, bred in or about the Docks’ (Vachell, 1905) – a young man who ‘can’t help being a bounder’. (Wilfred had himself spent at least six formative childhood years at school in Birkenhead, close to Liverpool.) Scaife’s problem, explained well-bred John – nephew of a ‘world-famous pioneer’ who ‘took continents in his stride’ – was that Scaife ‘wants breeding… but he’ll never get that – never’ (Ibid). 

Accent: the need to change

Despite a years-long commitment to changing both his manner and his speaking voice, Wilfred would remain, like Scaife, a troublesome outsider to the traditional English public school and Oxbridge ‘club’. Born in England in Oswestry, close to the northern border with Wales, and schooled for years near Liverpool among citizens known for their sharp wit and guttural accent, Wilfred was the lower-class son of a humble railway clerk (later Stationmaster). Vachell’s Scaife may have lacked ‘breeding’, but he at least had family wealth: Wilfred had neither.

            Owen’s British biographers have tended to dismiss the idea that Wilfred ever spoke with a northern English accent – especially a Liverpool accent. Certainly, such an accent would have been surprising for a well-connected English officer-poet. Even today, strong regional English accents are more or less unheard within mainstream national media that focus on news, politics, or indeed aspects of the arts. For residents in England who were born outside the UK, RP has long been – and remains still – the default ‘voice’ for those with power within society. 

It follows then that the outsider who wants to thrive in England will want to understand, possibly even adopt, such an accent. In Bordeaux, Wilfred taught English to non-English pupils; and while the big majority of his French clients (initially at that Berlitz school) were drawn from across France’s social spectrum, that wide demographic soon narrowed. Quickly talented-spotted by powerful people in France – whose heads may have been turned by rumours (arising, apparently, from Wilfred himself) that he was the son of an English knight – Wilfred was soon moving in privileged circles, teaching English to ever higher-status pupils. 

            It’s fair to assume that Wilfred Owen’s wealthier, ‘posher’ French clients would not have wanted to visit Britain speaking with, say, a Liverpool (or ‘Scouse’) accent. After all, accents, we know, provoke prejudiced reactions(Cauldwell, 2014). It makes sense then that, as Wilfred settled into his new post at the Berlitz School, he would take drastic action. On 14 February 1914 he wrote to Susan that he was ‘at last beginning to report something like an accent’ (Owen, 226). That same month, he could be found on the streets of Bordeaux – ‘Revelling! in the Carnival!’ Masked with a ‘home-made domino’ and wearing ‘a laurel wreath on my head’, he was, he reported delightedly to Susan; ‘twice choked with confetti’ (Owen, 235).

            By the start of June 1914, Wilfred was feeling confident enough in the permanency of his new accent to share news of the change with his sister Mary. ‘I don’t know whether you will remark any difference in my vowel values when you hear me again’, he offered – adding that it was the Mother ‘whose child is Invention’ who had ‘obliged me to mend my speech’ (Owen, 258). We can assume from Wilfred’s explanation that he felt that changing his accent was necessary, in order for him to earn his living as a teacher. But it must also have suited him, as his friend circle began to expand, to sound like a higher-status Englishman. And not only when speaking in English: in this same letter he claimed to be able to differentiate as many as four French accents that surrounded him – although none of these, he implied snootily, were sufficiently high-status for him to copy: ‘I shut down my imitative faculties when speaking with the majority of people I speak with’ (Ibid).

Going public

The following month saw Wilfred take his new persona out into the Bordeaux streets to celebrate Bastille Day. Writing joyously afterwards (again to his sister Mary), he reflected on how his usual ‘self-conscious’ state – a worried sense that he was ‘the centre of attention’ – had been blown away by ‘real Bordeaux Red & White’ (Owen, 265). Studious young Wilfred Owen – the lone, bookish, bedroom-bound ‘Old Wolf’ known to his family back in England – was becoming something of a party animal.

            August 1914 found Wilfred somewhat becalmed, working as a live-in tutor to the Léger family in pretty Bagnères-de-Bigorre, some 300km south-east of Bordeaux. There he continued to reflect, in Letter 278 to Susan, on how an accent might ‘be cured’ (Owen, 271). Ostensibly, he was referring here to his young pupil Nénette Léger – who, ‘at the sacrifice of her accent’, had been ‘go[ing] to school with the peasants, and makes great progress’ (Ibid). Someone – Wilfred, presumably – would need to ‘cure’ her of her lower-class accent. 

            By November 1914 he was back in Bordeaux and boasting to his younger brother Colin that his friendship group now comprised ‘one French and two Peruvians’ and an Italian-Egyptian: together at a restaurant table the five friends could ‘make a babel almost as uncouth as makes one German when he is ratty’ (Owen, 297). No doubt the wine helped. Wilfred identifies his friends as medical students; and perhaps they were. By this point, however, he was living close to the theatre run by M. Léger: it’s possible then that non-French theatre artists, and French artists excused from fighting, may also have featured within his friendship group (Wilfred knew well of his mother’s disapproval of live theatre, and was increasingly keeping such matters private).

            By teaching others to speak with an upper-class accent, then socialising with new friends, Wilfred was sounding more upper-class himself. Being in France made things easier: separated from family and peers, there was no-one around to tease him, or to shame him as an imposter. As a result, his new voice – sounding upper-class in French, too, probably, as well as in English – stuck, opening doors to higher-status French families. This feels fortunate: there’s a big difference between upper-class spoken English, and lower-class spoken northern English; and the difference is greater still when the latter is filtered through the guttural Liverpool ‘Scouse’ accent that had surrounded Wilfred during nine childhood years in Birkenhead. 

            Practice, as they say, makes perfect. By late 1914 Wilfred was speaking a lot outside class, practicing his new accent. Conversation, he told his mother, could ‘equal, and supplant even, Novel-Reading’ (Owen, 294). Wilfred was even dismissive of English universities and their trappings – claiming that ‘I don’t think I could bear to live in Cambridge except in one capacity alone’ (Ibid). While he doesn’t explain this, he may simply have meant that Cambridge living would immerse him more deeply in the accent of England’s privileged classes. 


Did Wilfred ever succeed in entirely shedding his northern English accent? Not according to his former friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon, who remembered Wilfred’s voice as ‘perceptibly provincial’ (Sassoon, 58). In 1979 writer Stephen Spender reported that Sassoon had dubbed Wilfred’s speaking voice ‘embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent’ (Spender, 1979). Grammar schools typically had, and retain, a lower status in England than the historic Public Schools: despite his best efforts, Wilfred stood out, still, as slightly lower-class.

            The pressure to lose a regional accent, in order to fit in within elitist circles, has long been widespread in England. There’s a recent example of this on the British Library website (Linfoot, 1999). Here, a younger northerner – in this case, from Scotland – has modified his speech in order to adopt the RP accent. The speaker had moved south to become a pupil at Harrow School, and sounds, in the recording, typically ‘upper-class English’. The brief written discussion that follows the recording notes, however, that towards the end of the recording the speaker reverts back to northern pronunciation of words such as ‘asking’ and ‘after’ (this can be heard right at the end of the recording, when ‘after’ occurs as the seventh-from-last word).

            Small clues to a person’s origins can then sometimes be heard in speakers who have adopted a RP accent. Wilfred worked hard in France to create a ‘difference in my vowel values’ (Owen, 258); but he may have missed one or two of the subtler features of his adopted accent. To offer one example: Abercrombie notes how RP often features ‘creaky voice’ (Abercrombie, 101) – known more often today as ‘vocal fry’ – when the speaker’s pitch ‘falls below a certain point’. The difference, Abercrombie notes, has to ‘be demonstrated to be appreciated’. It feels possible then that Wilfred’s relative lack of exposure in France to native RP speakers, may have left him sounding less ‘creaky-voiced’ – therefore less convincing as a ‘native’ RP speaker.

Staying on in France: a chance for assimilation

In June 1914 Wilfred had written home from Bordeaux with exciting news of the offer from the Légers for him to become their live-in tutor. Wilfred records a meeting between M. Léger and M. Aumont – proprietor of the Berlitz School – in which Aumont declined to guarantee Wilfred his job back, once his stint with the Légers was over (Owen, 261). Just six months later, a shocked Wilfred suddenly re-encountered M. Aumont – a person whose ‘very eyes one wants to avoid’ – on a busy street: but Wilfred was already, he told his mother, ‘so much changed since the day of my emancipation’ that Aumont ‘didn’t recognise me’ (Owen, 295). Incidentally, Wilfred does not state that he was forced into conversation with Aumont: it’s possible that the latter may simply have failed to recognise Wilfred, as a result of changes to his physicality. As any actor will know, such non-verbal changes are a common side-effect of adoption of an accent, including a higher-status accent. 

            Three weeks after the encounter, and still working daily on his accent, Wilfred sent Susan a postcard declaring that he would not be going home to England for Christmas. He blamed the German risk to cross-channel shipping (Owen, 298). This was surely true; however, maintaining distance from his family would continue to protect him, he knew, from mockery of his new, more upper-class-sounding voice. Besides which, back in France Wilfred had just been offered another golden opportunity to further hone both his accent, and his social mores. As war raged on in the north, he had been invited, he told Susan, to tutor two ‘elder boys’, Johnny and Bobbie de la Touche, once again from a high-status Bordeaux family (Owen, 298). Doors were now opening for him – including, he reported, to ‘the finest Chateau I ever beheld’ (Owen, 301), where he even received an open invitation to play tennis on the private courts. In Letter 302 he describes the spoken English of two potential pupils as ‘not only sound but elegant: (lahst, get off the grahss, silly ahss! etc.)’ (Owen, 301). While the boys had been born in China, they were, Wilfred declared, ‘as English as English could be’ (Ibid) – and needed, he had been told, ‘an Englishman to take them in hand’. Interestingly, in this letter Wilfred was now using both ‘Auntie’ (typically rhymed with ‘shanty’ in the northern English pronunciation) and ‘Aunt’ (rhymed with ‘can’t’ in the southern pronunciation) – further evidence, perhaps, that his accent was still in transition. 

            So it was then that France, with its tolerance of – and perhaps indifference to –Wilfred’s speech self-therapy, proved to be a great place for reinvention. There he assumed a modest level of power and status that no-one back in England (aside, perhaps, from his parents) had expected him to claim. Through working hard, and by convincingly acting more upper-class, he had made himself desirable. If you had money – and, ideally, private quarters – Wilfred Owen could help your children both to look and sound like him (the new him), and indeed learn how to deal with the likes of him. 

The Final Step: immersion

Glimpsed in France at the end of 1914, Wilfred seems content. Only two things were spoiling his happiness. The first, as ever, was ‘Poverty’: his annual income was ninety pounds, while his expenditure, he half-joked to Susan, was just a farthing less –although ‘If my board & lodging were paid for this expenditure would be reduced’ (Owen, 303).

The second problem was a growing sense of guilt. In early November he shared with Susan that he had heard that ageing poet Laurent Tailhade – an impressive new contact, and something of an artistic mentor – was now ‘shouldering a rifle’ (Owen, 295) along with novelist Anatole France, already aged seventy. ‘Now I may be led into enlisting when I get home’, he confessed. A month later he admitted to ‘a good deal of shame’ (Owen, 300) at his failure to enlist to fight. 

Just under a year later, in London in October 1915, Wilfred joined the 2nd Artists’ Rifles Officer Training Corps. The Corps would go on to deliver months-long officer training, before Wilfred eventually accepted a commission into the British Army’s Manchester Regiment. Now in the uniform of an Army officer, Owen – the new, reinvented, ‘posher’ Wilfred Owen, albeit still working on his regional accent – began writing the war poetry for which he would one day, and posthumously, become famous. 


Abercrombie, David. Elements of General Phonetics. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1967.

Cauldwell, Richard. “What does your accent say about you?” (9 June 2014). British Council website:

Cuthbertson, Guy. Wilfred Owen. New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2015.

Hibberd, Dominic, The Last Year. London, Constable, 1992.

Linfoot, Matthew. “Public School Received Pronunciation”, BBC interview with Sholto Morgan (19 January 1999). British Library Website:

Owen, Wilfred. Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters , Harold Owen & John Bell (eds.), London, Oxford University Press, 1967.

Robinson, Jonnie. “Received Pronunciation” (24 April 2019). British Library Website:

Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey. London, Faber & Faber, 1945.

Spender, Stephen. Drop Me a Name – 25.5.79 article in The Observer, (1979).

Stallworthy, John. Wilfred Owen, a Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Vachell, Horace Annesley. The Hill. A Romance of Friendship.  Ebook, 2007 [London, John Murray, 1905]. Project Gutenberg Website:

Paul Elsam
is an independent researcher with wide teaching and leadership experience within English universities, including Hull, Teesside and Coventry. His research focuses mainly on aspects of live performance. His PhD was adapted and published by Bloomsbury in 2013 under the title ‘Stephen Joseph – Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur’. His 2011 handbook ‘Acting Characters’(Bloomsbury) was widely adopted as a guide for drama training, and is available in Russian translation. Other published work includes articles focused on playwrights Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn. He is currently working on a biography of Wilfred Owen.

The French Poetry of Wilfred Owen’s Modernism


Wilfred Owen, Modernist Poetry, Laurent Tailhade, Charles Péguy, War Poetry, World War I.

Consideration of Owen in relationship to key modernists of his time concerning his poetic trajectory is a way of beginning. Key to Owen’s poetic stimulus was his decision to teach English in Bordeaux in 1913 and his encounter with Laurent Tailhade. The poetry Tailhade enjoyed was transmitted to Owen via his friendship, and through books and discussions. Owen’s knowledge of French poetry was considerable by 1918; he had been exposed to Barbusse, Duhamel, Péguy, Verhaeren, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, the Chanson de Roland and Hugo. One might also conjecture that he read Ronsard, and Villon, or learned something about them, if only from reading Tailhade’s poetry. But he probably missed one of Robert Desnos’s first poems, which offers an interesting counterpoint to his own meditations on war. Owen’s exposure to French poetry helped him to find his own way of writing about war. The paper ends with a coda: Geoffrey Hill on Wilfred Owen.

Quelques considérations d’Owen par rapport aux poètes modernistes de l’époque pour commencer, avec ce choix décisif d’enseigner l’anglais à Bordeaux à partir de 1913, qui est suivi de sa rencontre avec Laurent Taillade. L’amitié du poète expérimenté a un impact considérable sur Owen, qui a été ensuite lecteur de Barbusse, Duhamel, Péguy, Verhaeren, Flaubert, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, et de la Chanson de Rolland. Il est possible qu’il ait aussi lu Hugo, Ronsard, et Villon ou bien appris de leurs techniques à travers les poèmes de Tailhade. Mais il avait certainement manqué de lire un des premiers poèmes de Robert Desnos, un poème qu’on peut mettre en parallèle de ses propres considérations sur la guerre. On découvre que c’est la rencontre avec la poésie française qui permet à Owen de trouver sa propre manière d’écrire sur la guerre. L’essai se termine par un épilogue sur Geoffrey Hill et Owen.


This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dominic Hibberd,
who devoted much of his life to the study of Wilfred Owen, and whom I
had the pleasure of meeting at a conference in Caen in 2005. 

For one year, beginning in October 1917, no one, soldier or civilian, wrote English poetry more significant than his.  
— Dominic Hibberd, Preface to Owen the Poet (1968, ix).

… his shell-shock has to be recognized as an essential stage in his becoming, as John Middleton Murry was to call him, the poet of the war— Dominique Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, A New Biography (2002, 243).

Et j’ai dit qu’il fallait rire
et j’ai dit qu’il fallait chanter;
Laurent Tailhade, Apollinaire,
Je suis venu par les allées…
— Robert Desnos (“Dédicace”  in Prospectus 1919; qtd. L. Robert)

Born in 1893, five years after T.S. Eliot and eight years after Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen came into the world in his maternal grandfather’s home in Oswestry, a small town in Shropshire. Owen’s path to poetry was notably different from theirs, though like them, he started learning French early. At the age of 12, letters from October 1905 show he was already studying French, and visited Brittany with his brother in June 1903. He returned to Brest in July 1909, also visiting Morgan (Complete Letters 27, 54-55).  Unlike Eliot and Pound, his premature death stopped short a promising poetic career. He was an evangelically inspired youth, who often read the Bible, following the example of his mother. Like Pound and Eliot, he was influenced by, as Dominic Hibberd discerned, “French and English Decadence” but unlike them there was also “Georgian innovation” in his work (Hibberd 1968, x). As a young adult, Owen was a lay assistant to the Reverend Herbert Wigan at Dunsden (near Reading) from September 1911 to mid 1913, stopping a few months after falling ill from bronchial attacks in February 1913.[1] His mother was aware of his desire to become a poet, and she gave him moral support, but no particularly rich cultural foundations, apart from the habit of evangelical bible-reading. Later in that year, after he turned 20, he followed a doctor’s advice to pass the winter in a warmer climate, and thus went to Bordeaux to teach English at the Berlitz School in September 1913. Jon Stallworthy told the story of his father visiting Bordeaux and being startled to find himself addressed as “Sir Tom Owen » because a title had been invented by his son (1974, 96). Owen had already understood that he could be limited by his class, so in France he opted to pretend he was from a different set.

            The aspiring poet had apparently held ambitions about getting to France for some time. The French language he was learning from at least the age of 12 had become fluent enough for him to purchase French books, first mentioned in a letter to his mother when he was 18 (dated April 1911). There he quoted a paragraph that he had translated into English from Alphonse Daudet, Lettres de mon Moulin (Collected Letters, 80).[2] His large literary interest was taking a decidedly French direction. In June 1911, he wrote to Harold Owen, quoting from Shakespeare’s Henry V, II.iii,57: “To France, to France . . . my boy’’ (73). In letters from the same period he quoted from John Keats and John Ruskin (74-75), suggesting that he was an avid reader of both poetry and prose. June 18, 1911, in a long letter to his mother concerning his discussion with Mr. Robson about possibly taking an internship with a vicar he added: 

I mentioned my scheme of getting a thorough knowledge of French in France, and he considered it a very good thing, but far better if a degree be obtained first. A year or two in France after that, and I should be worth something. (CL 76).

No doubt his early attraction to France was fostered also during several short trips to Brittany with his father in the summers of 1908 and 1909, when he was 15 and 16.

            In September of 1911, he enjoyed a trip to London as he planned to visit Dunsden, exploring the British Museum, where he admired Keats’s Manuscripts and contemplated other literary manuscripts by Walter Scott, George Eliot, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Milton, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, and Robert Browning (82). He also went to see Macbeth (83) and visited the National Portrait Gallery (84). His literary game would be given a boost in the summer of 1914, when he was invited by one of his students, Mme Léger, to spend a month in the Pyrenees, where he would instruct her daughter, eleven-year-old Nénette, in English. He was met at the Bagnères-de-Bigorre station by M. Léger and Nénette and rode up the slope in their donkey-cart (Stallworthy 100).  Wilfred Owen arrived in Bagnères on Thursday July 30, on the eve of the war, and the day before Jean Jaurès was assassinated. There he experienced France entering World War I. Bagnères was associated with Laurent Tailhade; lines from one of his poems were carved into the supporting plinth of the statue La Muse Bagnéraise by Jean Escoula, (Hibberd 2002, 130). Theophile Gautier had also resided there for a time, so the town was associated with  ideas of “l’art pour l’art” (Hibberd 2002, 130). 

            Owen wrote of the war at some length in a letter that Stallworthy abundantly quoted. Specifically, his status in Bagnères was put in question, his movements could be restricted, and his salaried employment administering English classes could be affected: “Nearly all the men have already departed. (….). I had to declare myself, and get a permit to remain here; where I must stay still under penalty of arrest and sentence as a spy — unless I get a special visa for emigrating. I don’t know how this state of things will affect my Courses in Bordeaux.’’ (qtd Stallworthy 1974, 102). In 2007, James Fenton reminded readers of the Guardian of Owen’s good looks being “the object of a certain interest among the women in the household” and then:

But he also made a very big hit with a visiting celebrity and family friend, the poet Laurent Tailhade. Tailhade was 60, and his ill health, according to Owen’s biographer Dominic Hibberd, showed the effects of many years of over-indulgence in drugs and absinthe. (Fenton, Guardian, Sep 8, 2007)

Fenton noted the evidence in the Owen letters of Tailhade’s passionate attraction to the young Owen. 

            However, before we explore that situation any further, let us first take a step back and consider that the details of the biography of Wilfred Owen interest us so much today, not only because of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem written for the 1962 consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral, or the excellent scholarly work of Dominic Hibberd and Jon Stallworthy, but especially because Owen, and other war poets of his generation who died in the conflict, have become cultural icons for the many nameless fallen soldiers of the First World War. Owen’s predominance was highlighted in the 1960s, when renewed interest in World War I poetry was spurred forward by various colonial struggles as well as the Vietnam War. Jon Stallworthy recalled in 2013 how he came to read Owen for the first time, following his reading of Yeats’s introduction to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) and wondering why Yeats had so detested Owen. Stallworthy found the reason: “the answer was inescapable: they represented competing value-systems—Ancient and Modern, Homeric and Humane — and in the 1930s, let alone the 1960s, there could be no competition” (Owen 2013, v.2, 555).[3]

            To some extent, those born after 1950 came to a different and perhaps deeper knowledge of World War I — and about how war affects humanity in general — through the poetry of Owen, Rosenberg, Gurney, Thomas, Sassoon, Graves, and Jones, as much or more than through historical accounts.[4] We owe to them the sensory experience we can glean of a historical event that comes from direct testimony captured in poetic form. Owen is the best known of British war poets, and by the time James Fenton’s Guardian article was published in 2007 — if not before — every detail of his personal life would hold as much interest for the general public as that of the other great modernist poets of his generation. The mysteries of his love life had become common gossip as much as the private lives of other literary personalities had: T.S. Eliot’s catastrophic first marriage to and separation from Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, the subsequent Emily Hale episode, followed by his blissful second marriage with Valerie Eliot; or Ezra Pound’s many amorous adventures around his lifelong relationships with Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge. And so, scholars and the public by now have been treated to what Philip Hoare wrote in the Guardian in 2018, “He met his first real live poet: Laurent Tailhade, an opium addict and anarchist who’d declared a terrorist bomb in Paris to be a beautiful gesture. Tailhade ‘slobbered over’ Owen, who accepted the compliment” (Nov 3, 2018).

Tailhade’s representation of French Poetry

To explore Owen’s connections to French poetry and to situate him as a modernist poet among others, Laurent Tailhade’s influence must be considered in some detail. He was indeed the first live poet Owen ever met, and that after at least four years of writing poetry in the style of Keats.[5] Not only was he the first poet Owen met, but he was the first of “three crucial encounters with living poets (the other two were with [Harold] Monro in 1915-16 and Sassoon in 1917)” according to Dominic Hibberd (2002, 165).[6] Tailhade’s doting attention was certainly valorizing for the young poet. His lasting influence could be felt in Owen’s way of viewing the war during the following year (Hibberd, qtd. Fenton), but even more in his formation of Owen’s world view about how literature intersects life. Tailhade was a Parnassian poet, who had navigated through the symbolism and politics of Stéphane Mallarmé’s mardis (weekly soirées) to being published in Anatole Baju’s Le Décadent. He was one of those in attendance at the Montmartre gathering place, Le Chat Noir,[7] and was known to be a virulent polemicist.[8] Originally from Tarbes, where he had been prone to nationalist and anti-Semitic views, after residing in Paris, he became an anarchist, a Dreyfusard, and a violent anticlerical.[9] He fought in duels. He lost his right eye due to a bomb placed (possibly by Félix Fenéon) in an assassination attempt,[10] in Foyot restaurant on rue de Condé, near the Luxembourg gardens, where he was dining April 4, 1894. His convalescence lasted six weeks. His subsequent literary isolation was perhaps worse than losing that eye. Because he had earlier praised an anarchist’s bomb, only Léon Bloy and Stéphane Mallarmé came to his defense. Other writers felt he had received his just desserts. In 1898 he lost most movement in one arm after a duel with Maurice Barrès. Tailhade’s portrait description of himself, composed while in prison at la Santé in 1902, contains these words that are desperate, self-deprecating and also vain:

Dans deux mois, j’aurai quarante-huit ans. Outre le jeu, les demoiselles, outre un mariage triste et l’autre cocasse, j’ai connu la morphine, la chirurgie et la prison. Je suis borgne, manchot, ventripotent. J’ai eu, plus ou moins, deux douzaines de duels. (…) (qtd. Rébérioux 2007).

            How important was this extravagant figure to Wilfred Owen? In his first 1968 biography of Wilfred Owen, Dominic Hibberd was already conscious of Tailhade’s crucial role in promoting French literature to Owen:

Owen’s debt to Tailhade and French literature has been generally overlooked (partly because fewer poems and letters survive from 1913-15 than from any other period of his adult life); unlike most British poets of his generation he encountered late Romanticism in France rather than at home. (Hibberd, 1968, 29).[11]

Owen’s connection to Tailhade and the complexities of the world of French poetry has parallels with other anglophone poets. Tailhade (1854-1919) was six years older than the poet that inspired T.S. Eliot, Jules Laforgue (1860-1887). Eliot gave Laforgue credit for developing his poetic voice and teaching him how to speak (Jack 2015). To René Taupin, Eliot wrote in 1930: “My first poems are almost pure Laforgue, with a little Baudelaire” (T.S. Eliot, Letters v.5, Jan 17, 1930, 35). Laforgue also had family connections in Tarbes, and his first poetry appeared in little magazines there (Simpson 1996).  Tailhade had learned from Mallarmé’s work and his mardis, where he met Oscar Wilde, and became a close friend of Verlaine. In 1968 Hibberd also described him as “an anarchist sympathiser, a dabbler in the occult and a celebrated dandy” (Hibberd 1968, 30). Owen’s poetic voice was developed when he met and read Tailhade, along with the French writers he recommended. Tailhade would have spoken with him about the Symbolists (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Laforgue) with the 1886 manifesto by Jean Moréas citing Baudelaire as a precursor. And he would have lauded the Decadents, whose name was coined by Maurice Barrès in 1884. They had their own magazine, Le Décadent by 1886, where Tailhade was often published. For them, civilisation was ripening to the point of decay and they offered in response a disembodied creative voice meant to shock (as expressed by Corbière, Huysmans, Anatole Baju, Miguel Fernandez, Jean Lorrain, Octave Mirbeau, and Tailhade). Though many writers were associated with both groups, the Symbolists and the Decadents were at times seen as rivals. Yet, their abundant use of irony as well as innovations in sound, made both groups an inspiration for Surrealism.

            When Tailhade and Owen first met, on August 22, 1914, Owen was attending Tailhade’s two lectures at the Casino of Bagnères-de-Bigorre (Hibberd 2002, 184). Tailhade as a connaisseur of French literature of the end of the nineteenth century demonstrated in the two lectures, through allusions to Gautier, Rabelais, Voltaire, Bossuet, Montesquieu, Michelet, and Renan, that France’s literary tradition would preserve her soul, even when faced with war (Tailhade, qtd Hibberd 2002, 166). 

            After the lectures, Tailhade was asked to dine at the Léger home at Villa Lorenzon on August 27 or 28 (Hibberd, 2002 and Stallworthy 1974, 108 mention it).[12] He lodged with the Légers for at least a week while Owen was there, and on September 7 gave him “a farewell present” in the form of two books: “inscribed copies of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine and Renan’s Souvenirs d’Enfance et de Jeunesse and, in return, Owen gave ‘son vieil ami’ his old fountain pen.” (Stallworthy 1974, 111).Tailhade and Owen were photographed together, with a book in Owen’s hand, most likely “the copy of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint-Antoine” (Hibberd 1968, 36). The symbolic gift of Owen’s pen seems to be an acknowledgement of how much the young poet felt he had learned from his friend; Owen would add the works of Mallarmé, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Gauthier, Flaubert, Renan, and Tailhade to his reading list. But as Hibberd tells the story in 2002, Tailhade “made several attempts to settle at the villa in September 1914, but retreated each time to his hotel, complaining of a neuralgic abscess” (Hibberd 2002, 169). Was there more than poetry involved? What we do know is that Tailhade wrote to Owen about the afternoons they had spent together in August and September 1914 six months later, mentioning that “he was still getting daily pleasure from using Wilfred’s old pen, imagining how often it had been in its former owner’s hand” (see Hibberd 2002 169). Hibberd’s 2002 biography of Owen puts forward that Owen and Tailhade had a sexual relationship (see also Hoare 2018).[13] What should interest us more is the lasting literary influence of Tailhade on modernist literature. Consider May Sinclair’s praising sarcasm in “The Reputation of Ezra Pound” which appeared in The North American Review in 1920:

Mr. Pound is not a respecter of respectable persons. He has displayed a certain literary frightfulness in the manner of Laurent Tailhade. He has shown an arrogant indifference to many admired masterpieces of his day. And he has associated himself with unpopular movements. His appearance in Blast blasted him in the eyes of respectable persons not hitherto hostile to his manifestations. People became unpopular through association with him. (Sinclair 658).

In the time Tailhade and Owen spent together, the older poet had encouraged his poetic composition and influenced it, just as his action also influenced Owen’s decision to fight in the war. In a letter to his mother Susan Owen, dated Friday, 6 November 1914, Owen wrote: 

I heard that Tailhade, together with Anatole France, is shouldering a rifle! Now I may be led into enlisting when I get home: so familiarise yourself with the idea! It is a sad sign if I do: for it means that I shall consider the continuation of my life of no use to England. And if once my fears are roused for the perpetuity and supremacy of my mother-tongue, in the world—I would not hesitate, as I hesitate now—to enlist. (CL 295-6)

            Soon after the French government left Bordeaux and returned to Paris (on December 10, 1914), and Owen left Bordeaux for Mérignac, pursuing the offer of teaching the young La Touche boys. He was still there in March, his journey planned for January being delayed by the presence of Zeppelins in the channel (CL 316). Owen read the la Touche boys Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris (Stallworthy 1974, 118), and the boys sometimes called him Brer Fox in their games (Stallworthy 1974, 118; letter to Colin Owen, 22 January 1915; CL 317).  In mid-April he interviewed a replacement for himself, and then left for England mid-May 1915 (Stallworthy 1974 119). As he planned his trip to England, he wrote to Susan Owen on Easter Sunday, April 4, 1915: 

My chief Easter Joy was your postcard . . . . My next-best treat was a charming letter from the Poet Tailhade, who is now in Paris, lecturing this week at the Odéon, on Britannicus, and next week on the Art of Belgium, and his personal souvenirs of that country. He, of course, advises me to travel via Paris, and talks of arranging to see me there. (CL 329).

Owen’s next meeting with Tailhade was in Paris, while heading for England, May 3-4, 1915. It resulted in Tailhade giving him a copy of Poèmes Élégiaques, dedicated “en souvenir de nos belles causeries et des beaux soirs à La Gailleste / Paris, le 4 mai 1915” (Hibberd 2002, 197, see also Hibberd 1968, 54). During that visit, we also know that Tailhade took him to a concert. Owen finally crossed the channel and arrived in London May 20 1915. He spent about a week with his family, and also had some time in London, returning to France on June 13. Tailhade had written to him in Britain, and his mother forwarded the letter: “The letter you forwarded was a piece of literature by L. Tailhade.” (letter postmarked to Susan Owen 29 June 1915, CL 342). This may have been the envoi that contained Tailhade’s Poèmes aristophanesques (Hibberd 1968, 36). On June 30, 1915 he wrote to his mother, still contemplating when he himself should enlist:

…was it not Belloc’s great forefinger which pointed out to me this passage of De Vigny: If any man despairs of becoming a Poet, let him carry his pack and march in the ranks.  (This quotation is from Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, 1835 / CL 342).

In the same letter he asked her to find the address of the “Artists Rifles,” the Corps “which offers commissions to ‘gentlemen returning from abroad’” (CL 342). In an undated, (possibly early July 1915) letter to Leslie Gunston containing the poem beginning “Now, let me feel the feeling of thy hand—,” Owen speaks of spending money on French lessons for himself, and reading the Chanson de Roland (CL 344). When waiting for response from Artists Rifles, Owen said he might rather “join the Italian Cavalry; for reasons both aesthetic and practical” (CL 347). In a letter to Leslie Gunston, July 25, 1915, Owen noted he had never read Théophile Gautier, but that he was reading Flaubert’s Salammbô (CL 350). Hibberd discerned that reading the Song of Roland and Salammbô were Owen’s way of getting a literary initiation to the idea of war (2002, 202). 

            Meanwhile, during the same month, at the age of 15, Robert Desnos composed a poem about the war, perhaps one of the first poems he ever published:


Les soldats ont brûlé la ferme et le château,
Abattu le donjon, la ruine romaine,
Qui, triomphant du temps, de la foudre et de l'eau,
D'un long passé restaient une preuve certaine.
Leurs débris maintenant détournent le ruisseau...
Monuments de tristesse et de guerre et de haine.
Les soldats ont brûlé la ferme et le château,
Abattu le donjon, la ruine romaine....

L'oiseau ne chante plus à l'ombre du rameau,
Le cerf ne vient plus boire à la fraîche fontaine,
Le lièvre a déserté le sinueux réseau
Des taillis épineux dont il fit son domaine...
Les soldats ont brûlé la ferme et le château,
Abattu le donjon, la ruine romaine....
                         Juillet 1915.   Robert Desnos[14]

While Owen certainly did not have access to this poem in 1915, and probably did not see it when it was first published in 1918 either, it makes an interesting counterpoint to some of his own contemplation about joining the war as well as his war poems: here Desnos was expressing what war was for civilians: he expressed the ruin of France by the war in 1914-15 in fourteen lines. Anatole France and Laurent Tailhade had reacted to the situation by going to the front themselves: Owen would follow.

            Meanwhile, Owen was reading war poems: his mother had sent him a copy of War Poems from the Times, which he received August 12 (Stallworthy 1974 124).[15] His next postcard to Leslie Gunston asked if he had seen the Times War Poems: “Newbolt’s & Clark’s splendid! Watson, Binyon all right! Tagore interesting. But who on earth are Maitland, de la Mare etc?” He also described the illustrations for the poems by Joseph Simpson to be “marvels” (CL 355). 

On September 15, 1915, he returned to England, accompanied by the La Touche boys who were to go to Downside by train, with intent to enlist. (CL 358). His first lodging was in a French Boarding House called “Les Lilas,” at 54 Tavistock Square (CL 359). On 21 September, he wrote to say that he had joined the army and had been inoculated for Typhoid (CL 360). In the same letter, he mentioned that “The Poetry Bookshop is about 7 mins. Walk!” (360).[16] In a letter to his mother postmarked October 27, 1915 he wrote:

Harold Monro himself read at the P. Bookshop this evening, and I had a talk with him afterwards. Dorothy was impressed by his Poems which I left at Alpenrose. Please send me Tailhade: Poèmes Aristophanesques, which is on the top shelf of the Book Case. (CL 361). 

So by the fall of 1915, after enlisting mid-September, not only had Owen been reading Tailhade’s two major volumes of poetry, he had also read War Poems from the Times (1915), and he had also been in contact with Harold Monro at the Poetry Bookshop in London. Soon enough he would be writing war poetry from the front. What did he discover in Tailhade’s poems that left a lasting influence? The sensuality of Poèmes Élégiaques (1907) was impressive, in the mystical and sentimental Parnassian style, and the invective of Poèmes Aristophanesques (1904) along with its crude realism was no less so. Tailhade’s support for Dreyfus during the Affaire was demonstrated throughout Poèmes Aristophanesques, particularly in the poem “Odelette.” It is not the only poem in the volume which makes much of the odor of feet among other seedy characteristics of the misguided bourgeois. The invective toward editors of the nationalist newspaper Gaulois is evident from the second line of the poem, and is followed by different categories of anti-dreyfusards.


(A la manière de Ronsard)
Chocolatier, faussaires,
Du Gaulois émissaires,
Et ce gredin choisi,

Les tantes, les crapules,
Evêques sans scrupules,
Artons déshonorés
               Et les curés;

Et les bonnes sœurs grises
Distillant pour les brises,
Au fond de leurs clapiers,
                L’odeur des pieds;

Les magistrats intègres,
Les cocottes, les nègres,
Les daims, les maquereaux 
               Et les bistros;

C’est ainsi qu’on recrute
Voleur, escarpe, brute,
Un personnel classé
               Au quai d’Orsay.

Ainsi qu’une relique,
Meyer, juif catholique,
Arbore avec bonheur
               La croix d’honneur.

Alfred Duquet, Mézières,
Loti, fleur des rizières,
Et les divers Quesnays
               En sont ornés.

Major de table d’hôte
Cassagnac ne fait faute
D’avoir cet oripeau
               Dessus sa peau.

Elle orne tes fumistes,
Wilson, les panamistes
Et Gaston Jollivet,
                Ce pur navet.

Ils sont hideux et bêtes,
Ils portent sur leurs têtes
L’air brutal ou sournois
                Propres au bourgeois.

Ils lèchent les derrières,
Les pattes meurtrières,
Les sabres dégainés
                Des galonnés.

Tous, ruisselant d’extases,
Bénissent les ukases,
Le drapeau tricolor,

Et c’est vraiment justice
Que ce monde obreptice
Et tous ces bougres-là
                 Chassent Zola.  

            12 avril 1898 (Tailhade, 1904, 57-59)

The poem is anti-bourgeois, anti-militarist, and anti-nationalist, with the primary focus of Tailhade’s invective here, as in the rest of the collection, aimed at the writers and journalists who wrote against Dreyfus, particularly Drumont, Rochefort, Barrès, Coppée, Loti and Cassagnac (Robert 2012). The visual images are nearly as crude and vicious as the illustrations published by Drumont in the La Libre Parole (1892-1924). Many of the poems in this volume were sonnets (“quatorzains”), in fact, one of Tailhade’s nicknames was “Serpent à sonnets” (Picq 2001). The following sonnet demonstrates Tailhade’s penchant for anti-militarist satire:

(A la manière d'Esparbès)

Aigle de Boustrapa, voici ton jour ! Les Gars,
Ceux de la Haute avec ceux de l'Epicerie,
Se gondolent vers ta loterie, ô Patrie,
Sous l'œil des marchichefs et des maires gagas.

Ils arrivent du claque ou bien des séminaires,
Fils de cocottes chez les Oblats éduquées,
Courtauds de magasins, lorettes dont les quais
Ont vu les jeux, parmi leurs dômes urinaires.

L'âme française chante (ô que faux !) dans leurs voix;
Ils arrêtent pour dégurgiter du pavois,
Tel un cabot perdu que l'on mène en fourrière.

La Victoire, aujourd'hui, leur montre le chemin
Et des boxons épars leur ouvre la barrière.
Vivat! Le copeau renchérira demain.

                     (Tailhade 1904, 24)

Laurent Robert has noted that Tailhade may have been influenced in his satirical invectives by Victor Hugo, especially in the long poem in terza rima, “Résurrection” by following Hugo’s lead (in Les Châtiments) of presenting a Christ oppressed by the falsely religious. Les Poèmes Aristophanesques are nonetheless composed of sets of ill-assorted texts that base their invectives on ad hominem attacks, and they do, like numerous other volumes of poetry published during the Belle Epoque, project the influence of François Villon, who was commonly referenced in French ballads of the late 19th century.[17] Villon was also admired by Charles Péguy, who also drew strongly on Victor Hugo, and Péguy, like Tailhade, also defended Zola: 

Je crois bien que la sincérité est le caractère le plus profond de Zola. Son entière sincérité est le fondement même de sa toujours jeune naïveté. (Péguy, 1899 in Œuvres en prose complètes I, 246).

In that very same text by Péguy from 1899, he responded to Tailhade’s article “Venus Victrix,” published in La Petite République,October 21, 1899. There Péguy maintained, against Tailhade (who was explicitly named twice), that Zola’s novel Fécondité (1898) is about love, not a book about peace and happiness (I, 250-251). Péguy republished his text in the Cahier that commemorated Zola, after his death, the fifth Cahier of the fourth series, in 1902. Péguy also reproduced a paragraph from Tailhade, entitled “courrier de barbarie” on the back cover of the Cahier published January 13, 1903, in another cahier from the fourth series:[18]

Le prêtre, par la honte de son état, par la hideur infamante de son costume, vit en dehors de la loi commune, de la solidarité. Contre lui tout est permis, car la civilisation est en droit de légitime défense; elle ne lui doit ni ménagement ni pitié. C’est le chien enragé que tout passant a le devoir d’abattre, de peur qu’il ne morde les hommes et n’infecte les troupeaux. Le prêtre, dans une société basée sur la raison et la science, le prêtre survivant aux âges nocturnes dont il fut un des plus redoutables produits, le prêtre n’aurait d’autre place qu’à Bicêtre, dans le cabanon des fous dangereux. Exclusion, ostracisme, prison perpétuelle, bagnes et cachots, tout est bon, tout est légitime contre lui. Discuter avec ça! Non, mais le museler, mais le mettre à mort : car la peine capitale, si odieuse qu’elle soit, ‘est pas trop forte pour cet empoisonneur plus effrayant que Borgia, plus infâme que Castalaing. Le respect de la vie humaine cesse envers ceux-là qui se sont mis volontairement hors de l’humanité. ([Tailhade], Lettre familière à M. Joseph Viollet, ratichon, dans la Raison du dimanche 21 décembre 1902.)

            For about a decade, Péguy and Tailhade, who were both Dreyfusards, were moving in parallel, and sometimes overlapping literary circles. So it is possible that Tailhade may have mentioned Péguy to Owen, though most likely unfavorably, judging by Péguy’s several short polemical digs. It is also possible that Tailhade might have suggested some Péguy for Owen to read at a later date. Given the diffusion of Péguy’s poetry in the Cahiers de la quinzaine from 1910-14 and in the publication of his Morceaux Choisis des Œuvres Poétiques (1914), Owen might have stumbled upon Péguy’s poems on his own.

Owen’s earliest period as an enlisted soldier in fall 1915, was spent in London, living in Bloomsbury, going to the drill hall in Tavistock Square, and included regular visits to Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, on Devonshire Street (today’s Boswell Street). When he was transferred to Hare Hall Camp, Gidea Park, in Essex, he was on the same turf as Edward Thomas, though it is not clear whether either of the poets knew of the other.

In February 1916, he stayed at The Poetry Bookshop for ten days, discussing his poetic work with Harold Monro. By August, his perspective about being involved in the war may have changed. He wrote on August 23, 1916, from the Manchester Regiment, 5th Battalion, to his younger brother Colin:

            Of the last Draught that went out, men I had helped to train, some are already fallen. Your tender age is a thing to be valued and gloried in, more than many wounds. 
            Not only because it puts you among the Elders and the gods, high witnesses of the general slaughter, being one of those for whom every soldier fights, if he knew it; your Youth is to be prized not because your blood will not be drained, but because it is blood; and Time dare not yet mix into it his abominable physic.
             Only, all bright mettle rusts in the open air.
             Don’t rust rustically.
             Love Nature more than the Country, and know that to be natural is not to be countrified. 
             False men grow in the country more commonly than in the Town, for they are often turnips in disguise.
             Your farming is not without its dangers. 
                                           (CL 455-56)

One senses here that Owen wished to preserve his brother from the front, and also encourage him in his  farming endeavor, suggesting its own challenges and that the production of food could be a fit contribution to the war effort. At this point Owen was contemplating entering the Royal Flying Corps and becoming a pilot and even wrote a poem about it, that was apparently never published. To Susan Owen, he wrote four days later (August 27, 1916), that he imagined becoming a pilot: 

Flying is the only active profession I could ever continue with enthusiasm after the War. Once a certified pilot, the pay is £350. The Training lasts three months.
By Hermes, I will fly. Though I have sat alone, twittering, like even as it were a sparrow upon the housetop, I will yet swoop over Wrekin with the strength of a thousand Eagles, and all you shall see me light upon the Racecourse, and marvelling behold the pinion of Hermes, who is called Mercury, upon my cap. 
Then I will publish my ode on the Swift.[20]
 If I fall, I shall fall mightily. I shall be with Perseus and Icarus, whom I loved; and not with Fritz, whom I did not hate. To battle with the Super-Zeppelin, when he comes, this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of.
Zeppelin, the giant dragon, the child-slayer, I would happily die in any adventure against him. . . .
 But I am terrified of Fritz, the hideous, whom I do not hate. (CL 408).

Both of these passages suggest that Owen had a love of peace: in the first passage, nature comes first; in the second passage, twice the phrase ‘Fritz, whom I do not hate’ is used.  The peace-loving Owen is also very present in a letter to his mother in mid-May 1917, from the 41st Stationary hospital, following him being declared neurasthenic, after having spent two weeks at the front, and having a shell explode 2 meters from his head. He was very worried that his younger brother (17 years old) would be called up to serve at the front. Owen emphasized how Christianity had become meaningful:

… I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonor and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skillfully and successfully indeed. (CL 461)

Owen’s pacifism seems to have matured here, and that may also reflect an influence from Tailhade, whether through his own texts or through their conversations together.

While being kept away from the Front in France, before making his way to Craiglockart, Owen managed to read Victor Hugo’s The Laughing Man (CL 462). His arrival at Craiglockhart Military Hospital was on Monday evening, June 25, 1917. He wrote to his mother about the journey the following day, June 26, even as the first American troops were arriving in France. During the train journey from London to Edinburgh he had “read some Israel Zangwill as far as the Midlands” (CL 471). Perhaps Owen had become interested in Zangwill from seeing that Péguy had published André Spire’s translation of Zangwill, Chad Gadya! in the Cahiers de la quinzaine (fifth cahier of the eleventh series, December 14, 1909), but perhaps his interest in Zangwill was merely a natural follow-up to his visit to the East End of London in the summer of 1915.

The poetry of Tailhade as influence for Owen’s poetry

Is there a lasting direct influence of Tailhade’s poetry on Owen’s? Philip Hoare suggested in a pithy phrase published in the Guardian, “like Tailhade, he would find art in disaster” (2018). Tailhade’s use of ugliness in poetry had been social, political and included denunciation of religion. Clearly Owen did not reject religion, but he may have transposed some techniques of Tailhade to his war poems, especially after reading Poèmes Aristophanesques. Hibberd suggested that Owen’s war poems, influenced by English Romantics and French Decadents, were “his passionate onslaught on the civilian conscience” in “a wartime version of the Decadent urge to shock” (Hibberd 2002, 171). But Owen’s first poem, following the August 1914 meeting with Tailhade, began “Long ages past in Egypt,” a manuscript that was fair-copied and dated October 31, 1914. It is a kind of ghoulish halloween poem, with, as Stallworthy notes, “a surfeit of Swinburne and Wilde” — it is fair to say that Oscar Wilde would have been mentioned by Tailhade in August or September 1914, and Owen’s poem, like Tailhade’s August lectures, appeals to literary tradition and uses irony. The only manuscript copy of the poem that exists was one given to Osbert Sitwell in 1918 (Hibberd 2002, 183), and Hibberd suggests it is a poem of “Romantic Agony” à la Mario Praz, where “the persistent theme of Romanticism from Keats and Shelley to Flaubert and Verlaine” may be equated with “the mysterious power of erotic desire, combining pain and pleasure, often symbolised as a face that attracts and destroys…” (Hibberd 2002, 184).

            Missing letters and missing pages in Owen’s diary perhaps leave the earliest influences of Tailhade and the reminiscences of Owen’s maturity, be they romantic or poetic, more mysterious than interpreters would like. Nonetheless most of Owen’s biographers have situated his first romantic relationships in 1914-15, and Owen’s poetry supports this, in poems like “Impromptu,” “A Palinode” or the poem beginning, “It was a navy boy…” (2013 v1, 76-80). The poetry of this period does involve romantic feeling and does suggest the stylistic influence of Tailhade. Owen had tried to translate Tailhade’s “Ballade” and on the verso of the paper is a fragment of his own about a boy that might have been Vivian Rampton (Hibberd 2002, 174), who was perhaps his earliest heart-flame, a young boy he admired while at Dunston. In Owen’s “The Sleeping Beauty” Hibberd discerned the influence of Verlaine and Tailhade (175).

            Tailhade can clearly be considered an influence on poems containing romantic feeling in 1914-1915. He may also have influenced Owen’s sonnet “Maundy Thursday” (Complete v1, 109) that seems to confuse the veneration of the cross with the Holy Communion service of the Thursday preceding Easter.[21] In the poem religious devotion is replaced by a desire for human contact. The poem, “From my diary, July 1914” written at Craiglockhart, is particularly evocative of his relation with Tailhade, and also is one of his early experiments in pararhyme. One should notice the single words which read vertically: “Leaves / Lives / Birds / Bards / Bees / Boys / Flashes …”—which seems to be a direct evocation of the sentiments of Tailhade as well as Mme Léger.

            Most importantly, Tailhade’s influence is found especially through his invectives, in Owen’s war poems, beginning with the sonnet “1914” which draws on many historical literary references. Santanu Das cited “Mental Cases” the poem Owen wrote about neurasthenia in 1918,[22] as markedly influenced by Keats, citing these lines:

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh 
(Complete Poems and Fragments, i, 169 / qtd Das 82)

There are affinities for Keats here, but there are also hints of the seediness of Tailhade’s descriptions. “The Letter” in its ironic narrative and quick-paced changes of tone, between the man as he writes to his wife, and the words uttered in the actual situation, set up the dichotomy of language that all who were exposed to the bullets faced. The courageous discourse exists within the brutal reality, but the poem ends without the letter being finished: it will instead be a letter explaining how he died.  Even the sound patterns in “Dulce et Decorum Est” might be traced back to techniques used by Tailhade, as might the graphic naturalism that could have also been penned by a Zola: “Knock-kneed, coughing like hags” … “Drunk with fatigue” … “vile, incurable sores.”

Santanu Das, without ever mentioning Tailhade, in fact noted several characteristics of Owen’s war poems that demonstrated what he had learned from him: “his sensuous evocation of certain limit experiences where eros, violence, and sound are combined” (88). And to that, one should add the pitting of one’s present against antiquity, as Owen does so well in many of his poems, including “Strange Meeting.” 

            Owen’s pararhyme may come directly from Shelley, as Stallworthy observed, that in January 1912 he “was noting the possibilities of half-rhyme” as he read Shelley (Stallworthy 1974, 69-70). But many of his other stylistic features were drawn directly from French poetry. Like Tailhade, Owen knew he was writing for a cause. He was not interested in art for art’s sake, but in representing what he saw and experienced truthfully. So Middleton Murry, the “future pacifist” (and fan of Charles Péguy), who reviewed the first collection of Owen’s poems, prefaced by Sassoon and edited by Edith Sitwell, spoke of “the incredible shock of that encounter” (Murry, 1921, 705, qtd. Rawlinson 116). To conclude, Owen was convinced he was writing in the French tradition, as a humorous remark in a letter to his mother dated July 17, 1917 shows: in it there is the opening of a poem called “Antaeas” (writing poetry was encouraged by Dr. Brock), and signed “Wilpher d’Oen” (CL 477).[23] That particle, signifying noblesse, is humorous and telling, and reminds us of Owen’s attention to class, and his depiction of his father as Sir Tom Owen to friends in  Bordeaux.

What would Owen’s poetry have become if he had survived the war? All poets mourn not only the war dead but the creativity and poetry lost with them. In Owen’s case, the poetry was mature, and there would have been masterpieces, perhaps influenced by avant-garde French poetry. The Surrealists devised their own coping mechanisms for dealing with the war’s countless losses, often involving disjointed collages. Robert Desnos’s poem for Paul Smara, with its contrasts between the benevolent mechanics that give hot chocolate and the horrendous mechanics of death could be seen as a Surrealist poem, and perhaps Owen would have also experimented with those new avant-garde forms:

Elles sont mortes les abeilles
au cimetière des Lilas
Si vous voulez du chocolat
Mettez deux sous dans l’appareil

Il est mort notre Apollinaire
et mort aussi Laurent Tailhade
Cinq abeilles volent dans l’air
et les sirènes de naguère
pour moi s’abattent dans la rade

Meurent les porte-lyre
le rimeur Jean Aicard
ouvre la bouche en tirelire

                           Robert Desnos (1975, 20)

Coda: Geoffrey Hill and Wilfred Owen (or Owen’s Modernism in Geoffrey Hill’s French)

Geoffrey Hill never wrote a critical essay exclusively on Wilfred Owen, to my knowledge, but he did read his poetry intensively during his youth, memorizing some of his work, in one of the first important anthologies of poetry he possessed: the 1946, 672-page Oscar Williams anthology, A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, English and American. Hill’s critical essays on World War I poetry were devoted to Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg. Yet Owen’s name crops up repeatedly. In “Language, suffering, and Silence” (1999), Hill commented on Owen’s remark, December 31, 1917, “I came out to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.”  Hill wrote:

The disarming confession of limitation (in the final clause—‘I have done the first’) is offset by the imbalance of the premise. Owen’s sense of his own value as ‘pleader’ for the inarticulate common soldier presupposes his unawareness or inability to comprehend that at least three of the finest British poets of that war, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, and David Jones, had gone, or were still going, as ‘common soldiers’ through all that he describes—none of them rose above the rank of private. (CCW 399).

In “Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918” (1999) this evaluation of Owen is repeated:

Wilfred Owen, whose family circumstances were fairly modest and who would not have been considered suitable officer material in the peacetime regular army, took his status as a ‘gentleman’ for granted as he took also for granted his moral obligation to speak out as a witness on behalf of the inarticulate common soldier. Yet three of the most remarkable British poets of the First World War were members of that mute stratum. (CCW 452-3).

While Hill can appreciate Owen’s conforming to the romantic ideal of poet-teacher, he is also critical, showing that “the oratory of his voice is still much like that of Tennyson” (454-5), even though Owen was critical of Tennyson. Hill felt that “Owen’s strength and weakness” was that “he half-half-recognised how a radical doctrine of poetic teaching had become diffused, while it had also hardened, into a standing convention of ideals” (CCW 454). So it may at first seem to readers that Hill speaks of Owen primarily as a poet to whom he may compare the superior poetry of other war poets. But that is not a fair assessment. In “Alientated Majesty: Gerard M. Hopkins” (2000), Hill signaled the “limited but real success of Wilfred Owen’s half-rhyme and para-rhyme in his ode ‘Insensibility’”(CCW 529).

One should also consider that Hill spent considerable time reading and contemplating Owen’s poetry—from his youth to late poetic maturity. During the December 2014 lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, “Mine angry and defrauded young,” he argued with Owen’s preface to his poems, saying: “The poetry can never be in the pity, the pity can only be truly registered in the poetry.” He also noted that Owen’s position as the poet of the war dates to the 1962 performance of Britten’s War Requiem (Hill 2014). Hill praised Stallworthy’s work in tracing sources for Owen’s poems, including the example of the poem “The Show” which was influenced by Henri Barbusse’s novel, Le feu. That lecture ends with Hill proposing that Isaac Rosenberg is the superior poet. However, it is very likely that Hill’s unacknowledged debt to Owen is found in the rhyming techniques used in his own The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). There Péguy’s charity, at least through poetics, extended as far as the most famous British poet of World War I, even as Owen’s influence extended to the late Modernist Geoffrey Hill.


Bell, John and Owen, Harold (eds). Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Das, Santana. “War Poetry and the Realm of the Senses: Owen and Rosenberg” in Tim Kendall (ed). The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Oxford: OUP, 2007, 73-99.

Desnos, Robert. Destinée arbitraire. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, v.5, Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber & Faber, 2014.

Fenton, James. “Not with a bang, James Fenton on poets and explosive events.” Guardian (Saturday 8 Sept 2007).

Hibberd, Dominic. Owen the Poet. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
_______. Wilfred Owen, The Last Year, 1917-1918. London: Constable, 1992.
_______. Harold MonroPoet of the New Age. London: Palgrave, 2001.
_______. Wilfred OwenA New Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002.

Hill, Geoffrey. Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes. Oxford: OUP 2008.
_______. “Mine angry and defrauded young” Oxford Professor of Poetry Lecture, December 2, 1914,

Hoare, Philip. “Into the dark water: the life and death of Wilfred Owen” Guardian (November 3, 2018).

Jack, Belinda. “T.S. Eliot’s Poetic Inspiration” Gresham College, lecture October 13, 2015,

Leroy, Geraldi. Charles Péguy L’inclassable. Paris: Armand Colin, 2014.

McPhail, Helen and Guest, Philip. Wilfred Owen. On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Leo Cooper, 1998, 2002.

Middleton Murry, John. “The Poet of the War,” The Nation and Athenaeum 28:21 (19 Feb 1921) 705.  

Owen, Wilfred. The Complete Poems and Fragments. Ed. Jon Stallworthy. V.1 The Poems, V.2, The Manuscripts and Fragments.  Revised Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 2013.

Péguy, Charles. Œuvres en prose complètes. Ed. Robert Burac. v.1-3, Paris: Gallimard, 1987-1992.

Picq, Gilles. Laurent Tailhade ou De la provocation considérée comme un art de vivre. Preface by Jean-Pierre Rioux. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2001. 

Rawlinson, Mark. “Wilfred Owen” in Tim Kendall (ed). The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Oxford: OUP, 2007, 114-133.

Rebérioux, Madeleine. “Gilles Picq, Laurent Tailhade ou De la provocation considérée comme un art de vivre.” Le Mouvement Social 219 (April-June 2007)

Ricketts, Rita. Scholars, Poets & Radicals: Discovering Forgotten Lives in the Blackwell Collections. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2015.

Robert, Laurent. “Poétique de l’invective dans les Poèmes aristophanesques de Laurent Tailhade.” Contextes 10 (2012).

Simpson, Louis. “Two poems by Jules Laforgue” New Criterion 15.1 (September 1996) 81.

Sinclair, May. “The Reputation of Ezra Pound” The North American Review v.211, n.774 (May 1920) 658-668.

Stallworthy, Jon.  Wilfred Owen. Oxford: OUP, 1974.

Tailhade, Laurent. Poèmes aristophanesques, deuxième édition. Paris: Mercure de France, 1904.
_______. Poèmes élégiaques. Paris: Mercure de France, 1907.

[1] Some of the biographical facts of this paragraph rely upon: Helen McPhail and Philip Guest, Wifred Owen: On the Trail of the Poets of the Great War, Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1998, 2002.

[2] John Bell and Harold Owen’s edition of Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters (1967) of Wilfred Owen will be abbreviated throughout the rest of this paper as CL, followed by a page number.

[3] Stallworthy’s 1974 biography of Owen was dedicated to Harold Owen, the poet’s bother, who expurgated the diary and several letters. He had “entrusted his brother’s books and papers” to Stallworthy, who considered him a friend, and spoke to him about Owen (vii-viii). Dominic Hibberd acted as an assistant in deciphering manuscripts in preparation for the book, and is included in the list of persons thanked along with Louis Bonnerot and Dame Helen Gardner (1974, xiii).

[4] On this point see also Santanu Das, 76.

[5] Owen wrote “Written in a Wood, September 1910” in 1910, according to the Biographical Table in Complete Letters. Other indications of his desire to become a poet include his visit to the British Museum to view Keats manuscripts on December 9, 1911 (CL 10). In Owen, The Complete Poems and Fragments, Stallworthy dates the first Owen poem, “To Poesy” as 1909-1910 (2013 v1, 6).

[6] Meeting Tailhade, Monro and Sassoon led soon enough to other poetic encounters, among them, Robert Graves, and Osbert and Edith Sitwell… 

[7] Le Chat Noir, a café-cabaret founded by Rodolphe Salis in November 1881 at 84, bd Rochechouart, and then moved to today’s rue Victor Massé (then rue de Laval). To promote the cabaret, Salis created a weekly literary review, Le Chat Noir (1882-1895). Among those who were often present were: Charles Cros, Alphonse Allais, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Aristide Bruant.

[8] Literary figures Tailhade knew include: Alphonse Allais, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Moréas, Barrès, Fénéon, Victor Margueritte. After his second marriage, and return to Paris following the separation, he met Léon Bloy, and was in a romantic relationship with Edward Sansot. 

[9] Burac, notes in Péguy, Œuvres en prose complètes, I, 1915.

[10] Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) was an art collector, critic, and anarchist who worked on the board of La Revue blanche.    

[11] Hibberd generously spent several decades of his life pursuing this question, and the exact nature of Tailhade’s relationship with Owen.

[12] This paragraph incorporates some material from J. Kilgore-Caradec, “Blessures profondes dans les œuvres d’Owen, Péguy et Stadler,” La Lyre et les Armes, Poètes en guerre, dir. Tatiana Victoroff, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2018, 61-73.

[13] Hoare noted that Owen was actually part of a Gay literary circle, extending from Tailhade to Sassoon, Ross, Osbert Sitwell, Harold Monro and possibly Charles Montcrieff. Hibberd spoke of Robert Graves, who mentioned that Owen had “picked up young men in Bordeaux, but had felt too guilty to form any lasting relationships. Graves’s stories are often unreliable, but he claimed to have had this one from Wilfred himself in 1918.” (Hibberd 2002, 182).

[14] Robert Desnos, La Tribune des jeunes. Revue bi-mensuelle littéraire, politique, artistique, humoristique, February 15, 1918, p.2. Desnos was on the Board of Direction, which included: 11. Henri Barbusse, Paul Cattin, Rolang Gagey, Roger Hagnauer, Charles Langronier, Léon Lecler, Henri Malassagne, Georges Marguin, Emile Rejou, René Sumest. Contributions were to be sent to R. Gagey, 9 rue du Pont-aux-Choux, Paris 3. 

[15] War Poems from the Times, published August 9, 1915, contained poems by Robert Bridges, Thomas Harding, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Binyon, William Watson, Dudley Clark, Julian Grenfell, Ramindranath Tagor, Alfred Noyes, Henry Newbold, Robert Nichols, Walter de la Mare, C.W. Brodribb, and others.

[16] The Poetry bookshop was then located on 35 Devonshire Street (now Boswell Street) and was opened by Harold Monro in January 1913. The very building no longer exists (Collected Letters, note 3, p.360). 

[17] Laurent Robert mentions the Villon effect in poems by Tancrède Martel, Jean Richepin, and Théodore de Banville.

[18] Geraldi Leroy made allusion to this text on the back cover of the Cahiers (Leroy 2014 155) but mistakenly cited it as from the 9th series in 1907-8. See : 

Page de couverture du 9ème Cahier de la IVème série : 

Page 73 (non paginée) : 

Page 74 (non paginée) : 

[19] A note in Collected Letters, p.408, says that Harold Owen possessed ‘the only draft of this unfinished and unpublished poem’.

[20] unpublished poem mentioned in previous note.

[21] This poem may well have influenced Hill’s poem “The Bidden Guest” from For the Unfallen (1959).

[22] Das’s comparison with Sassoon’s “Repression of War Experience” or Gurney’s “Strange Hells,” other poems about the same subject, shows Owen more focused on “an obsessively corporeal imagination” (82). 

[23] This might suggest also that he had by then been exposed to the poetry of Ezra Pound, who was so taken with Langue d’Oc.

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec is associate professor of English at Université Caen Normandie and a member of the LARCA research group. She is co-editor of the series Seminal Modernisms and edits Arts of War and Peace with Mark Meigs.

Isaac Rosenberg: poèmes de guerre (1914-1918)


August 1914

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Août 1914

Combien de notre vie
Brûle en ce brasier ?
Le cher grenier du cœur ?
Tout ce qui nous manquera?

 Trois vies font une vie –
Le fer, le miel, l’or.
L’or et le miel ne sont plus –
Ne reste que le dur et le froid.

 Notre vie c’est le fer
Coulé au cœur de notre jeunesse.
Un trou brûlé dans les blés mûrs
Une dent brisée dans une belle bouche.

On Receiving News of the War

Snow is  a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! Ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

En apprenant la nouvelle de la guerre

Neige est un mot étrange et blanc.
Ni la glace ni la neige
N’ont demandé au bourgeon ou à l’oiseau
Le prix de l’hiver.

 Mais le gel, le givre et la neige
Du sol au ciel
Ont couvert cette terre d’été.
Nul ne sait pourquoi.

 Il est dans tous les cœurs.
Un esprit ancien,
D’un baiser mauvais, a vicié
Notre vie.

 Des crocs rouges ont lacéré Son visage.
Le sang de Dieu s’est répandu.
Depuis Son séjour solitaire, il pleure
Ses enfants morts.

Ô fléau ancien et pourpre!
Corromps, consume.
Rends au monde
Son éclat immaculé.

Through These Pale Cold Days

Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,

While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again —
For Lebanon’s summer slope.

They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.

Par ces jours pâles et froids

 Par ces jours pâles et froids
Quels visages sombres brûlent
Depuis trois mille ans
Et leurs yeux fébriles se languissent

 Tandis que sous leur front
Leur âme orpheline tâtonne
Vers les lacs d’Hébron,
La colline d’été du Liban.

Ils laissent ces jours blonds et calmes
Derrière eux dans la poussière,
De leurs yeux vivants ils voient
Qu’ils sont morts depuis longtemps.

The Jew

Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?

Le Juif

Moïse, dont j’ai jailli des entrailles,
D’une lampe dans le sang alluma
Dix règles constantes : une lune
Pour des hommes inconstants, sans lumière.

 Le blond, le bronze, le roux
Du même sang houleux
Suivent les marées de la lune de Moïse.
Pourquoi donc me méprisent-ils ?

Sarah Montin est Maîtresse de Conférences en littérature et traduction à L’université Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Elle travaille sur la poésie de guerre et a publié une monographie sur les war poets britanniques (Contourner l’abîme. Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre, Sorbonne Université Presses, 2018). Elle a traduit en français plusieurs d’entre eux, dont Ivor Gurney (2016)  et Isaac Rosenberg (2018) pour les Éditions Alidades.

I Always Thought I’d Die


recited by the poet 

I Always Thought I’d Die

in a nuclear wink, would not have time
to know what hit me. Or, after
distant flashes and the shock waves, slowly
of radiation sickness, combs full of hair,
bleeding from the eyes, fingernails,
nostrils, anus. After the president’s head detonated,
I walked the mile home

                                                     from history class,
dusty concrete along Augusta Road, scanning
the sky for the first needle-glints of Russian missiles.
But it was just Oswald, a mere ten years older
than I was, I know now, son of one Robert E. Lee,
a marine, like my father—like Lee O. himself—but dead
before the boy was born.

                                                           Young Oswald thought
god was a dog, a star, rats. His smiling chinstrapped
mug looks a lot like my teammates’
Wells and Strobo, who both joined the Corps right
after high school, got themselves killed
in short order. Oswald was in radar, a word
he couldn’t get wrong.

                                                     Like my father
he qualified sharpshooter. Like my father
he was honorably discharged. Unlike my father
he didn’t deserve it. He never killed anybody
until he did Kennedy and Tippet. He never
boxed, he never looked like Clark Gable.
My father believed

                                             somebody on the grassy knoll
did it, even though he knew about the trip
to Moscow. He slashed his left wrist. He met
a girl with a Shakespearean handle, fathered
a kid he named after a summer month,
came home a family man, purchased
an Italian rifle

                                 created within a few miles 
of the Shroud of Turin. Unlike my father,
who sweated in thick Savannah air hugging
creosote poles, Lee found it hard
to hold a job. I have looked out that window.
Despite what you have heard, it was
an easy shot.

                               My father killed several men
on what he always called The Island. It wasn’t easy
with an M 1903, certainly not with a bayonet, never
had second thoughts about Hiroshima. They boarded
a stinking troop train for San Diego, waited
all day in the Carolina heat, were ordered
back to barracks.

                                       No A-bomb, no Ronnie Smith,
he said, a million marines, soldiers, sailors, fly boys—
a million would have bought the farm
on the mainland. He figured his number was up,
but, boom, boom, the war was over.  He took
his malaria to Chatham County, married an operator 
with the middle name Lee,

                                                             and sired, as they say,
me. And though my Uncle Don, skinny and jumpy
as Lee Harvey himself, rolled hundreds of warheads
from Travis Field to Hunter Air Force Base
about the time I turned twelve—by convoy right
through the heart of my hometown, down
what is now MLK Boulevard—

                                                                      looks like I’ll make
three score years and ten. Haven’t been vaporized
or particularly irradiated, far as I know. 1Y’ed out
of Vietnam, despite football. It wasn’t the concussions
or the trick shoulders, knees, arthritic feet, hips, spine.
Blood pressure off the chart, the doc growled.
No Hiroshimas in my lifetime. Not yet.

Poet Laureate of Virginia 2014-2016, Ron Smith is the author of four books of poetry, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University of Central Florida Press, 1988), Moon Road: Poems 1986- 2005 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), Its Ghostly Workshop (LSU Press, 2013), and The Humility of the Brutes (LSU Press, 2017). His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The NationThe Kenyon ReviewThe Georgia ReviewThe Southern Review, Five Points, and in many anthologies. His awards include The Guy Owen Prize from Southern Poetry Review and The Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest. Ron was an inaugural winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and subsequently served for ten years as a curator for that prize. He has taught poetry and poetry writing at University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Mary Washington University. He is currently the poetry editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature and Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. His Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, judged by Margaret Atwood “a close runner-up” for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and by Donald Hall as “the runner-up” for the Samuel French Morse Prize, will soon be issued by MadHat in a handsome second edition.

Wilfred Owen, or ‘1914’ in Scouse: a review of ‘Wilfred Owen in/and France’ and Wilfred Owen / Resonances Exhibit


World War I, Wilfred Owen, World War I Centenary, Memorial Sites, Ors


‘Wilfred Owen in/And France’ and Wilfred Owen / Resonances Exhibit (Symposium, November 5-10, 2018 at Mont Huey Campus and at the Forester’s House in Ors, Exhibit November 5-6, 2018, Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France; organized by Elise Brault-Dreux, Brigitte Friant-Kessler, Nicolas Devigne, and Sarah Montin) 


We are presently commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, as no one can ignore after the French government’s inspired ceremony on November 11 immediately followed by the Peace Forum where the world leaders were in attendance, excepting the notable absence of Donald Trump. Further afield from international media coverage, researchers have been grappling with issues of remembrance too. For those who wonder how remembrance can be more than the mere empty shell of a ritual, the art students at University Polytechnique Hauts de France may provide some valuable insights. They prepared artworks about Wilfred Owen’s death, 100 years ago on November 4, 1918, interacting with Owen’s famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ under the guidance of Brigitte Friant-Kessler and Nicolas Devigne.  Before they began preparing their artworks, on view in the Resonances Exhibit, they visited the Forester’s House in Ors, which is where Owen spent the last evening before he was killed, and they also visited his place of death. 

            The memorial site was renovated and opened to the public in 2011. A description of the place on the Wilfred Owen Association website insists on the house looking like ‘a solid sculptural object’. Indeed it does from the outside, and resembles a sanctuary on the inside, where draft versions of Owen’s most famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ are inscribed on glass panels that cover the walls. Dally Minogue and Andrew Palmer, authors of The Remembered Dead (CUP 2018) described the artful choices made by Simon Patterson in the renovation and design of the Ors Forester’s House memorial  during the conference ‘Wilfred Owen in/and France’. They emphasised how the place itself honours Owen’s poetry as much as it honours the poet. Visitors descend a curving white walkway in which Owen’s last letter to his mother, written in this place, is engraved in the walls. A hush goes with them into the cellar where Owen and some 26 other men took shelter, lit a fire, ate dinner, and wrote letters before going to battle in the morning. It is a small space, amounting to less than one square meter per person for sitting, sleeping, and eating. It is no wonder that Owen mentioned the smoke of the fire in a letter that was otherwise euphemistic and reassuring.

            The art students of Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France saw the manuscript of Owen’s poem on the glass surrounding the walls on the ground floor of the house. They took the opportunity to read and understand the text, and they visited the places on the recommended walking tour, including the place of Owen’s death and his grave. This resulted in various artworks, from paintings to collages, films, photographs, and sculptures. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was translated into Chinese and juxtaposed with a poem by Chairman Mao on a fan and then photographed. The artworks were often subtle and all transmitted emotion. The transpositions were particularly powerful. They provided a memory that was actualised and in action. An introduction to the exhibit Resonances was given by Nicolas Devigne and Maxime Turpin with Marcel Lubac during the conference.

            Why did Owen decide to return to France, after suffering shell shock during the Battle of the Somme, and being treated at Craiglockhart Military Hospital (where he met Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, much as Pat Barker poignantly described in Regenerationin 1991)? As the French specialist of British War Poetry Roland Bouyssou explained during the conference through one of Owen’s letters, Wilfred wrote that he felt like a shepherd to his men. His desire seems to have been to try to help others through the experience of that hell that he knew so well. He was an officer, but from a different background, and had grown up speaking Scouse more than Received Pronunciation, as Paul Elsam pointed out. Elsam recited ‘1914’ with a Scouse accent—demonstrating the point that Owen was a poet from lower classes, as opposed to landed gentry (though he did, before he died, frequent the Sitwells). He considered that school children today should be exposed to Owen’s poetry with the same Scouse accent, since it would make his poetry seem more accessible to a wider audience.

            ‘Owen in/and France’ was the occasion to remember the role of France in Owen’s life: he started learning French while still young, and prided himself on learning it. He read La Chanson de Roland, Daudet, Verlaine, Flaubert, Renan…and proved to be, at least on one level, just as influenced by French symbolism as T.S. Eliot. While teaching English in Bordeaux (beginning September 1913), one of his students suggested he spend the summer vacation tutoring her child in English. So on July 30, 1914 he arrived at Bagnères de Bigorre. War then broke out, and people looked at him askance, wondering why he had not been drafted. A few weeks later he met a figure that greatly influenced the course of his poetry, Laurent Tailhade, who may be rapidly described as a satirical poet, single handedly playing the satirical role of Charlie Hebdo during his time. Tailhade  wrote against anti-dreyfusards in Poèmes aristophanesques(1904). Owen was eventually given the book by the poet, and asked his mother to send him his copy in a letter—and then volunteered to go to war in September 1915. He had been aware of 60-year-old Tailhade volunteering to go to the front in autumn 1914.

            Wilfred Owen is the best known British war poet today, thanks to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, first performed at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and also thanks to Pat Barker. But while Owen is still not a household name in France, there is little excuse for such ignorance, because his poetry has been translated into French by Xavier Hanotte, who also made Owen a fictional character in one of his mystery novels, as Joseph Duhamel noted. Gilles Couderc, specialist of Benjamin Britten and a native of the Pyrenees, spoke of Owen’s possible attraction to Catholicism while at Bagnères de Bigorre where he would have seen Lourdes, if only from the train.

            Neil McLennan, a Scottish historian speaking to some forty budding young historians who made a point to be present at the conference, asked everyone to cross their arms, and then attempt to cross them a different way, to concretely demonstrate how difficult it may sometimes be to take new insights about subjects we think we know. He has located the golf course in Edinburgh where Owen, Sassoon and Graves met.

            Jérôme Hennebert offered a very intense paper on the French poetics of Owen, moving from English romanticism through French Symbolism and Decadence back into Owen’s war poetry. It was complemented by Laure-Hélène Anthony’s paper about Owen’s last completed poem, ‘Spring Offensive’ and by Michael Copp’s paper showing that Pound as well as Owen drew from the poetry of Laurent Tailhade. Thomas Vuong then offered an analysis of all of Owen’s sonnets to see if the forms were English or French.

            Conference participants visited the exhibit Résonances in detail during the inauguration evening, rejoicing in the student’s profound interpretive works. The conference ended the following day with a visit to the Forester’s House in Ors, where we were greeted by the mayor of Ors, who well understands the importance of the place for all poetry lovers. Damian Grant recited two of his poems about Owen, and they were also shared with us in French by Madeleine Descargues. After that, it remained for us to visit the cellar where Owen and and the other soldiers  huddled during his last evening alive. Arriving at the ground floor, we all observed the Owen poems projected on the walls in respectful meditative silence.

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec teaches English at Université Caen Normandie and co-edits Arts of War and Peace with Mark Meigs.