The Wilfred Owen Story

The Wilfred Owen Story ‘shop front’ on Argyle Street

“Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.”

At fourteen, I did Wilfred Owen‘s war poetry in school, and now as I look back it seems like a defining moment. Through the pull-no-punches bleakness of his imagery, and his sympathy for German soldiers, I could feel any traces of nationalism within me die away. Suddenly I could see it was nothing more than “the old lie” – a tool for the rich, the better to divide the poor. Like all great art, Owen’s work makes hidden truths visible. He means a lot to me.

Unfortunately, Owen’s links with Merseyside are not so well known, and go largely unmarked. That’s why I was so glad to make a visit to The Wilfred Owen Story, a small exhibition space on Argyle Street, Birkenhead, less than a mile from where the Owen family lived from 1900-03, following their move from Shrewsbury. Due to the truly radical nature of his work, we can’t trust the politicians to honour his legacy, because they just wouldn’t know what to do with it, except perhaps bury it. Here, a small team of volunteers keep the shop-style venue open, relying on goodwill from the public to keep the wolf from the door.

Tragically killed at the age of twenty-five, just a week before World War One ended, Owen’s greatest artistic strength was his great compassion, which was shaped by the circumstances of his life. Born in Oswestry, Shropshire to a relatively comfortable standard of living, his family experienced poverty in Birkenhead when his grandfather died. In order to qualify for university, Wilfred became a lay assistant to a vicar in Dunsden, Oxfordshire. There he witnessed squalor and sickness, and his slightly self-obsessed poetry became more outward-looking. Owen also became disillusioned with Christianity, in part due to the church’s blatant indifference to the suffering which surrounded it. As he wrote to his devoutly religious mother: “I have murdered my false creed. If a true one exists, I shall find it. If not, adieu to the still falser creeds that hold the hearts of nearly all my fellow men.”

Owen’s poetry remains a powerful antidote to elite propaganda

When war broke out in 1914, Owen was working for low pay as a teacher in Bordeaux, France. War fever was not at the heights that it was back home, so his first real contact with the slaughter came as he watched the casualties come in from the front, and survivors being operated on without anaesthetic. He joined up in June 1915, feeling that he would find the major inspiration for his poetry where the action was. Two years later, he was caught in a shell explosion, and invalided to Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh. It was there that Owen would meet the officer, well-known poet and newly-minted anti-war activist Siegfried Sassoon, and thanks to Sassoon’s encouragement, Owen went on to write many of his famous poems while he convalesced.

Three main threads ran through Owen’s war poetry. First and foremost, a horror at what he had seen and done as a soldier, which was married to a deep distrust of and hatred for the officers and politicians. But still, he kept going, because his comrades kept going, and there was apparently no alternative. Perhaps his most moving words come in Strange Meeting, a kind of love letter to a dead ‘enemy’ solider, in which Owen acknowledges their common humanity, before concluding: “I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed/I parried; but my hands were loath and cold/Let us sleep now…”

The Wilfred Owen Story could not hope to convey all of this intensity, but it helps keep the memory alive with its presence on one of Birkenhead’s central streets. Visitors can see the Owen family tree, read a little on his time in the town, read some of his major poems, look at and listen to artwork inspired by Owen, examine newspaper cuttings, and even view a photocopy of Owen’s original Anthem For Doomed Youth draft, complete with crossings-out etc.

With UK armed forces fighting in Afghanistan and Libya, and with the inevitability of more wars to come as the economic crisis worsens, Owen’s legacy has possibly never been more vital. In a world where most citizens oppose their rulers’ wars, yet almost all corporate and state media tries to glorify it, the poetry of Wilfred Owen is a powerful antidote.

The Wilfred Owen Story is at 34 Argyle Street, Birkenhead, and is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 am to 2 pm.