KEVIN DIXON: War Poet Wilfred Owen in Torquay
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
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My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was born in Shropshire, the eldest of four children, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
Not being from a wealthy family, he was unable to fulfil his aim of going to university. Rather, he took an unpaid position as a lay-assistant and pupil to the Reverend Herbert Wingham at Dunsden, Oxfordshire.
Wilfred left Dunsden in 1913 and moved to his family home in Torquay where he spent some time convalescing from a lung condition.
Wilfred was familiar with South Devon. In 1911 he had holidayed in Torquay with his uncle and aunt, John and Annie Taylor, where he spent his time “browsing in John’s bookshop, acquiring Colvin’s biography of Keats and making his pilgrimage to the house in Teignmouth where Keats had lodged in 1818”. Following his interest in famous poets, Wilfred even tracked down a granddaughter of Coleridge in Torquay.
It’s been suggested that Wilfred liking of Keats bordered on ‘hero worship’, and that Keats’ style can be found in Wilfred’s War Poems.
In October 1915 Wilfred signed on for military service, and in January 1917 he was serving in the frontline in France. After a battle in April he was sent home suffering from shell shock.
It was during his recovery in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart Hospital that Wilfred composed the majority of his works known as his ‘War Poems’. These poems show Wilfred’s attitude towards the war changing from early support and enthusiasm to disillusionment. The later poems describe the horror and waste of war.
In September 1918 Wilfred returned to France. On November 4 1918, at the age of 25, Wilfred was killed in combat – seven days before the signing of the Armistice.
Here's Jeremy Paxman introducing Wilfred's most famous poem