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Wilfred Owen: Killed just a week before the war ended

As the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, argument about it is mounting in clamour,  and biographies of two of the "war poets" now add to the debate. Guy Cuthbertson's book is an amiable and admiring account of Wilfred Owen's slow and often painful discovery of himself, as he made his way from railwayman's son to Army officer and — after his death in battle — to famous poet. Jean Moorcroft Wilson's book is an amalgamation of her two earlier, deeply researched books on Siegfried Sassoon's long literary life and homosexuality, with close attention to the wartime years, and some new material. They open again the question of how well these two poets coped with war when it became a major theme of their poetry.

Both men enlisted early, Sassoon at the age of 27, even before war was declared, and Owen a year later at 22. Both were already aspiring poets, with confused feelings about the war, but both had a desire to see action. Their shock and anger at what they saw produced the poems for which they are remembered.

Owen is still revered for the frank and graphic descriptions he wrote of the terrible deaths and wounds of soldiers. "Dulce et decorum est", his best known poem, describes a gassed man that haunts his dreams:

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
       . . . the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin
In "Mental Cases" he describes "men whose minds the Dead have ravished":

               . . . their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black

Such poems are as horrific now as Owen intended them to be when he wrote them.

Sassoon wrote some very similar poems, but in his most forceful work it is anger that overwhelms even the shock — anger especially at the officers whose plans led to so many soldiers' deaths, as in "The General":

"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Here too the terse and bitter words still sting.

Yet it has to be said that a hundred years later, the poems are still in a sense poems of the moment — poems that, when you read them, flare up with feeling in an instant, just as the feelings that inspired them must have flared up in the hearts of the writers. They leave you stunned, but they carry no further load of feeling. They achieve their purpose and are over.

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