Wilfred Owen’s poems
Wilfred Owen’s first book of Poems was published exactly one hundred years ago. At the time of his death two years earlier, this young man from Shropshire’s poetry was only known by his family and a close circle of literary friends. Since then, his poetic legacy is such that he is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war poets.
To mark the occasion, we take you on a tour around Shropshire to places that played a part in his life and inspired his poetry.
Wilfred Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, near Oswestry on 18th March 1893. He was the eldest of three children in a middle-class family. After relocating to Birkenhead, the family settled back in the county in 1907 when they moved to Shrewsbury so that Tom Owen, Wilfred’s father, could take up his new role of Assistant Superintendent of the Railways. Their first residence was in Cleveland Place, Underdale Road. This area on the edge of town was particularly quiet – a far cry from industrialised Birkenhead.
The family were regular attendees of services at the Abbey Church, which was only a short stroll from their house. Susan Owen was from a strict Methodist background and later came to prefer the more Evangelical style of St Julian’s in Fish Street and Wilfred would accompany her there. He was particularly close to his mother and later told her in a letter that he took solace in the image of her attending service there while he was at the front line in France coming under shell fire.
After the family moved to Shrewsbury, Wilfred was enrolled in Shrewsbury Borough Technical College (on the site of the former Wakeman School, not far from their home). As part of the condition of attending he was required to become a part-time pupil teacher at the Wyle Cop School, next to the Lion Hotel (now only the original kitchen buildings remain) – which he had to juggle alongside his own studies. His interest in pursuing literature was always hindered by the family’s inadequate finances which denied him the classical education he desired.
One thing Wilfred Owen’s Shropshire education did provide for him was a cultivation of his interest in botany and geology. The Borough’s Free Museum and Library at the time occupied the site of the old Shrewsbury School, where Charles Darwin attended (still the main Library, although the Museum has relocated, and the Local Studies collections now reside here at the Archives). Owen spent a lot of time here, researching Shropshire’s distinctive geological landscape and discovering the Roman presence in the county. He wrote a poem about the Roman ruins in Wroxeter in 1913, called Uriconium and his interest in geology also fed into his poem, The Miners.
The family moved from Underdale to the Monkmoor Road to a newbuild house which they named Mahim. Monkmoor has changed a lot in the 100 years since Owen lived there. Wilfred’s view from his bedroom window would have been of scrubland, fields, the river and Haughmond Hill. Next to the house was the old racecourse which had fallen into disuse and was used for agricultural grazing, shows and fairs. He and his brother used to chase and ride the ponies that grazed there. The old grandstand was still there at the time, which King George V visited to attend the Royal Agricultural Show in 1914 when the early rumblings of war were beginning to sound (Wilfred was away but his brother and sister attended). Now rows and rows of houses occupy most of the space between Monkmoor Road and the river. In 1910, the fields stretched largely unadorned all the way to the river and on to Uffington; Monkmoor Road was almost a dead end, not the busy through road it has become today. In 1916, a stone’s throw away from their house, Monkmoor Airfield was built. It’s hard to imagine now in amongst all the residential buildings, although a few old airfield buildings still exist, albeit inhabited by a carpet shop and various other businesses.
The family often visited Uffington, which was then accessible via a rope hauled ferry across the river from the end of Monkmoor Road. The boys explored the ruins of Haughmond Abbey and the day was finished with Evensong at Uffington Church, followed by a walk home through the meadows. Ten years later, while on the front line, Wilfred referenced the quiet peace of the meadows in his poem Spring Offensive as a deliberate contrast to the horrors of the battlefield.
Like most children who grow up in the county, Wilfred Owen enjoyed cycle rides and country walks to various hills including Haughmond, Caradoc and the Wrekin. All children from Shropshire are taught about the ancient landscape we inhabit and are moved by it in varying degrees – Wilfred Owen was just the same and it arguably had more impact on him than he realised at the time. On paper his childhood sounds idyllic; swimming and rowing on the river, exploring with his family or friends, roaming free and safe in the countryside; however, like many of us since, as a teenager he found the domesticity and suburban characteristics of Shrewsbury thoroughly uninteresting and probably stifling compared to the glamourous circle of literary friends he dreamt of, and finally managed to acquire, in London. The only poem he ever penned specifically mentioning the town was about the statue of Hercules in the Quarry Park which suggests the statue is bored. He couldn’t wait to escape: would his appreciation have returned had he been allowed to grow old? Quite possibly – as it has done for so many of us since.
** written by someone who grew up in Monkmoor, went to school locally and couldn’t wait to leave town as a teenager so some of my views may be biased**
A good source for further information is Helen McPhail’s excellent book:
McPhail, Helen. Wilfred Owen’s Shrewsbury: from the Severn to Poetry and War (Eardisley: Logaston Press, 2018)
Owen, Harold. Memoirs of the Owen Family: journey from obscurity. Wilfred Owen 1893-1918. III War (Oxford: OUP, 1963)
See also the Shropshire Remembers website, which includes information about the Wilfred Owen 100 Project Several of Wilfred Owen’s manuscripts and published Poems have been digitised by the British Library and can be viewed on their website.