Wilfred Owen

(1893 - 1918)


The eldest son of a railway clerk, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and grew up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. An early interest in poetry was encouraged by his ambitious and possesive mother who was a devout evangelical Anglican (his father was disappointed that Wilfred did not seem likely to take up a trade), and he absorbed the works of Shakespeare and Romantic poets such as Keats, before starting to write poetry himself.

When, in 1912, Wilfred failed to win a scolarship to London University he became an unpaid lay assistant in the parish of Dunsden near Reading. Sadly, he did not receive the tuition he had hoped would enable him to make a second attempt at winning a scholarship; and it wasn't long before he resigned his post and rejected his orthodox beliefs.

In 1913 he travelled to Bordeaux and took a poorly paid job teaching English in the Berlitz School. This led to a private tutoring post in the Pyranees, where he met the poet Laurent Tailhade who encouraged him to continue writing. When war was declared he was indecisive about returning to England because of the supposed dangers of crossing the Channel during wartime.

However, he eventually made his way back in September 1915 and promptly enlisted in the Artists' Rifles, where he met Harold Monro, in whose Poetry Bookshop Wilfred spent many happy hours (he also took lodgings there); and some months after being comissioned in the Manchester Regiment, Wilfred was shipped over to France, where in early 1917 he joined the 2nd Manchesters on the Somme.

Trench warfare affected Wilfred and his poetry profoundly. Upon arrival, one of his first tasks was to hold a dugout in No-Man's-Land (an ordeal he described in his poems The Sentry and Exposure) - this and experiences like it hardened up his poetry and injected it with realism. He took as his subject the 'the pity of War' and began to write about the harsh conditions and suffering of the individual soldier, often with homoerotic intensity. It was at about this time that he wrote, "Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity... All the Poet can do is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful."

Having sustained concussion following a fall into a cellar, he spent two weeks in a Casualty Clearing Station. He was then involved in heavy fighting throughout April 1917, and was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock at the beginning of May - after being thrown into the air by the blast from a shell (he had been sheltering from gunfire in a trench filled with a fellow officer's remains).

While Wilfred was slowly recovering at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, he met fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who recognised his talent and collaborated with him on what was to become his most famous poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth. He also encouraged him to experiment with technical poetry and introduced him to Robert Graves and London's literary scene. Wilfred hero-worshiped Sassoon, and in return the older poet was sympathtic towards the homoerotic element in the young man's poetry; with the effect that Wilfred began to feel more at ease with his now obvious homosexuality.

Owen was discharged from hospital at the end of October 1917, which enabled him to spend three weeks leave in London, where, with a letter of introduction from Sassoon, he paid a visit to Robert Ross. Through his association with Ross he also met H.G. Wells, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Scott Moncrieff and Arnold Bennett. He wrote to his mother around this time, "I go out of this year a Poet. I am started."

In December 1917 he was promoted to lieutenant and spent several months in Yorkshire doing light duties. This enabled him to spend time writing, and it was during this period that some of his poems were published in The Nation and The Bookman.

When his great friend Sassoon was sent home wounded in 1918, Wilfred felt it his duty to return to the front line and testify, in poetry, to the suffering of his comrades. He travelled to France in September, not really expecting to return, and was awarded the Military Cross "for conspicious gallantry and devotion to duty" just one month later. On 4th November, only seven days before the war ended, he was killed in action as he lead his men across the Sambre Canal.

Wilfred had published only six poems during his life, three of them in Hydra, the hospital magazine he edited, but his reputation grew rapidly after his death and the 1919 edition of Edith Sitwell's anthology Wheels was dedicated to his memory; and in time he became recognised as the greatest poet of the First World War for his technical prowess and his compassionate descriptions of soldiers "who die as cattle".

Many years later Sassoon wrote, "W's death was an unhealed wound, & the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back - not his poems."



Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917)

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in the eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.





Dulce et Decorum est (1917)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
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,
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


Dulce et Decorum est (1917)


Piegati in due, come vecchi straccioni, sacco in spalla,

le ginocchia ricurve, tossendo come megere, imprecavamo nel fango,

finché volgemmo le spalle all'ossessivo bagliore delle esplosioni

e verso il nostro lontano riposo cominciammo ad arrancare.

Gli uomini marciavano addormentati. Molti, persi gli stivali,

procedevano claudicanti, calzati di sangue. Tutti finirono

azzoppati; tutti


ubriachi di stanchezza; sordi persino al sibilo

di stanche granate che cadevano lontane indietro.


Il GAS! IL GAS! Svelti ragazzi! - Come in estasi annasparono,

infilandosi appena in tempo i goffi elmetti;

ma ci fu uno che continuava a gridare e a inciampare

dimenandosi come in mezzo alle fiamme o alla calce...

Confusamente, attraverso l'oblò di vetro appannato e la densa luce verdastra

come in un mare verde, lo vidi annegare.

In tutti i miei sogni, davanti ai miei occhi smarriti,

si tuffa verso di me, cola giù, soffoca, annega.


Se in qualche orribile sogno anche tu potessi metterti al passo

dietro il furgone in cui lo scaraventammo,

e guardare i bianchi occhi contorcersi sul suo volto,

il suo volto a penzoloni, come un demonio sazio di peccato;

se solo potessi sentire il sangue, ad ogni sobbalzo,

fuoriuscire gorgogliante dai polmoni guasti di bava,

osceni come il cancro, amari come il rigurgito

di disgustose, incurabili piaghe su lingue innocenti -

amico mio, non ripeteresti con tanto compiaciuto fervore

a fanciulli ansiosi di farsi raccontare gesta disperate,

la vecchia Menzogna: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.


Pode ler-se uma tradução para português em prosa,

neste site

Traduzione italiana da Owen Wilfred, Poesie di guerra, a cura di S. Rufini, Einaudi, Torino 1985






Happy are men who yet before they are killed
Can let their veins run cold.
Whom no compassion fleers
Or makes their feet
Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers.
The front line withers,
But they are troops who fade, not flowers
For poets' tearful fooling:
Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.
And some cease feeling
Even themselves or for themselves.
Dullness best solves
The tease and doubt of shelling,
And Chance's strange arithmetic
Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling.
They keep no check on Armies' decimation.

Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror's first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Happy the soldier home, with not a notion
How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack,
And many sighs are drained.
Happy the lad whose mind was never trained:
His days are worth forgetting more than not.
He sings along the march
Which we march taciturn, because of dusk,
The long, forlorn, relentless trend
From larger day to huger night.
We wise, who with a thought besmirch
Blood over all our soul,
How should we see our task
But through his blunt and lashless eyes?
Alive, he is not vital overmuch;
Dying, not mortal overmuch;
Nor sad, nor proud,
Nor curious at all.
He cannot tell
Old men's placidity from his.
But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones.
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never was simplicity.
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears.





Felizes são aqueles que mesmo antes de mortos

Podem deixar arrefecer as veias.

De quem nenhuma paixão escarnece

Nem faz magoar os pés

Nas ruas calcetadas com os irmãos.

A linha da frente fraqueja,

Mas são tropas que murcham e não flores

Para o pranto tonto dos poetas:

Os homens, brechas para preencher,

Baixas que podiam ter durado

Mais no combate, mas ninguém se importa.




E alguns deixam de sentir

Mesmo a si próprios ou por si próprios,

Embotados, resolvem melhor

A irritante incerteza das granadas,

E a estranha aritmética do Acaso

Surge mais simples que o cálculo do seu soldo.

Não conferem o dizimar dos exércitos.




Felizes são aqueles que perdem a imaginação:

Já têm fardos a mais com a munição,

E o espírito não puxa cargas.

Só o frio faz doer as velhas feridas.

Tendo visto vermelho em toda a parte,

Livram-se-lhe os olhos

Da dor da cor do sangue para sempre.

E passado o primeiro aperto do terror,

Os corações ficam contraídos.

Cauterizados há muito os sentidos

No ferro em brasa da batalha,

Podem rir com indiferença entre os que morrem.




Feliz o soldado em sua casa, sem saber

Que algures, de madrugada, homens atacam,

E são muitos os suspiros que se esvaem.

Feliz o moço de mente não treinada:

Os seus dias são vendo bem, para esquecer.

Canta ao compasso da marcha

Que marchamos, taciturnos, pelo escuro,

O longo, desesperado, inexorável curso

Do maior dia à noite mais imensa.




Nós, sábios, que com um só pensamento

Manchamos de sangue a alma toda,

Como havemos de ver a nossa missão

Senão pelos seus olhos cegos e sem cílios?

Vivo, ele não chega bem a ser vital;

A morrer, não chega bem a ser mortal;

Nem triste, nem altivo,

Nem sequer curioso.

Não distingue

Da sua a placidez dos velhos.




Mas malditos sejam os broncos que nenhum canhão aturde,

Que se tornassem em pedras.

Desgraçados são, e vis,

Com uma pobreza que nunca foi simplicidade.

Por própria escolha tornaram-se imunes

À piedade e a tudo o que no homem se condói

Antes do mar final e das estrelas desditadas;

Tudo o que se condói quando tantos deixam estas praias;

Tudo o que partilha

A eterna reciprocidade das lágrimas.


Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS

poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993. 





He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.


About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, -
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands;
All of them touch him like some queer disease.


There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He's lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.


One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,
He thought he'd better join. - He wonders why.
Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts,
That's why; and may be, too, to please his Meg;
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.


Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.


Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?




A very complete site about the poetry of WW1 and Wilfred Owen, here




Wilfred Owen's poems in the WAR REQUIEM by Benjamin Britten




What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them at all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Barítono solo


Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.


Tenor e Barítono solos


Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death:
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags.


Barítono solo


Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!


Tenor solo


Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.


Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?



Barítono e Tenor solos

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.




After the blast of lightning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will He annul, all tears assuage? -
Fill the void veins of Life again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
"My head hangs weighed with snow."
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
"My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried."



One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.


Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.


The scribes on all the people shove

and bawl allegiance to the state,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their life; they do not hate.



It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."




"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
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..."



13-2-2009 - Por ocasião de uma magnífica interpretação do WAR REQUIEM, de Benjamim Britten, pelo Coro e Orquestra Gulbenkian e do Coro Infantil da Academia de Santa Cecília, dirigidos pela Maestrina Simone Young; Solistas: Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Soprano, Toby Spence, Tenor, William Shimell, Barítono.

Não transcrevo a tradução para Português, constante do programa, por não ter qualidade.



Wilfred Owen: Journey to the trenches

How did a son of the shires become the tragic chronicler of the horrors of the Great War? The poet Paul Farley traces the early life of Wilfred Owen

Published: 10 November 2006


Newly arrived in France in January 1917, Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen wrote home to his mother, explaining how the real thing - mud - was making itself manifest, inundating his sleeping bag and his pyjamas: welcome to the Western Front.

But the most striking thing about this correspondence is his annoyance and irritation at being billeted with "the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with". His sonnet, and probably his most famous poem, " Anthem for Doomed Youth", is still nine months ahead of him, but already he is comparing the men, albeit rather less compassionately, with livestock:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons...

As soon as I began to go in search of Owen on the ground (for BBC Radio 3's Owen season, broadcast all next week), I realised how little I understood this complicated but fascinating man and his poetry. I thought I knew him. I'd imagined - naively - an officer, appalled by what he was seeing, scribbling instinctive verse in trenches between barrages and raids.

But I soon came to realise just how different the real thing actually was: a bit like Ancre mud, it was cold and messy but impossible to ignore. His poem "Miners" begins, like a good story, by the fire:

There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.

It listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fauns.
Soon, though, the coals whispering and shifting in the grate lead the poet elsewhere:

But the coals were murmuring of
their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.

And I saw white-bones in the
Bones without number.
Many the muscled bodies charred,
And few remember...

The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their
dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.

This poem was written in Scarborough in January 1918, only weeks after Owen had been discharged from Craiglockhart Hospital with orders to rejoin his unit. Days before, a pit explosion at Halmerend had killed more than a hundred men and boys. Owen quickly responded by writing a poem on the colliery disaster (it was headline news), describing later how "I get mixed up with the War at the end".

It was one of only five poems he saw published in his lifetime: he also described how he'd sent it to The Nation the same evening as writing it, saying (in a letter to his mother), that "for half an hour's work I think Two Guineas is good pay".

However, as a newly commissioned officer in June 1916, he'd described the men in his platoon as "hard-handed, hard-headed miners, dogged, loutish, ugly. (But I would trust them to advance under fire and to hold their trench.)" And, just over year before, Owen had been writing poems like his sonnet "Purple": "Purest, it is the diamond dawn of spring;/ And yet the veil of Venus, whose rose skin,/ Mauve-marbled, purples Eros' mouth for sacred sin."

What had changed? Most obviously, Owen had been to the front line, in the early spring of 1917, and had seen first-hand what modern industrial warfare did to the natural landscape, the human body and the mind. He'd seen the ground "cobbled with skulls". He'd also met a few people who had utterly recalibrated him.

But the greatest difference, and the power of Owen's gift, lay in his new ability to draw on the sum total of his experience to date in ways that were fresh and exciting to him, and so, continually, to us.

His writing after that first, terrible exposure in France can't help being " mixed up with the War". We know him as a war poet, but the urgency with which he found himself rapidly responding to events was underpinned by a short lifetime full of literary ambitions and contradictions, and full too of a succession of English places and preoccupations.

My journey began, of all places, in Birkenhead, across the river from where I grew up. The Owens moved there from Shrewsbury in 1900, Tom Owen having been appointed stationmaster at the Woodside terminus. All sulky red brick and wheelie-bins today, the place was bustling and industrious at the turn of the century. New York's Central Park was modelled on Birkenhead's, and the first cinema outside London was established here.

Walking around its run-down backstreets, I found the three houses the family had lived in; the site of Birkenhead Institute, where Owen was a star pupil; and Christ Church, an all-important focal point in those early years. The young Wilfred grew up in an Evangelical atmosphere: frequent services took place at home, as well as in church, and I discovered how Wilfred liked dressing up, donning the priestly robes. His mother had hopes of him making a career of it.

Despite this, a major epiphany seems to have occurred out in the countryside to the south-east of Birkenhead, above the Cheshire hamlet of Broxton, in about 1904, and it had nothing to do with the church. Climbing the wooded sandstone ridge up from Broxton today, it's not hard to see why. From the crest, you gain a panoramic view stretching from the Wrekin and Shrewsbury, round past the line of Clwyd Hills (including Moel Famau, which every Merseyside schoolchild, including Wilfred, seems to have climbed) to Chester, the Wirral peninsula, Birkenhead and the towers of Liverpool.

Here was the landscape of Owen's childhood, laid out before him. His brother Harold claimed it was Broxton that made Wilfred a poet, and even though you soon learn to take much of Harold's hagiography with a pinch of salt, a * * fragment of a poem written later seems to say as much:

And so repassed into my life's arrears.
Even the weeks at Broxton, by the Hill
Where first I felt my boyhood fill
With uncontainable fancies...

It seems, from this moment, as if poetry and religion might be something the young Owen would have to choose between. For a while, he managed to work at both. Otherwise, it seems a calm, Edwardian time of plant identification, of collecting rocks and fossils. He led classes: I began to realise how much of a teacher and a leader Owen was used to being, even from an early age. He took a job as a Parish Assistant in Dunsden, a Thames Valley textbook village complete with a well and a green, in 1911. There, I met Dominic Hibberd, Owen's biographer, and we visited the Vicarage and wandered down to the village green, and later sat on comically tiny plastic chairs in the school hall for an interview.

It seemed that by the time he arrived at Dunsden, Owen was already sold on Romantic verse, especially Shelley and Keats. Good examples of the young Owen's early infatuation with both can be found in poems like "Written in a Wood, September 1910", which begins like this:

Full ninety autumns hath this ancient beech
Helped with its myriad leafy tongues
to swell
The dirges of the deep-toned western
And ninety times hath all its power
of speech
Been stricken dumb, ...

Throughout the offices of his post at Dunsden - Parish duties followed by soul-destroying suppers with the Reverend - Owen was writing poems, sonnets full of love and beauty and death, rich in Romantic tropes and allusions, but he was always learning how to make a poem. He quoted Keats to his mother, encouraging her to read the poems, and made literary pilgrimages - echoing mine - to Keats's house, even tracking down a granddaughter of Coleridge in Torquay.

A bicycle ride into nearby Reading brought him into contact with something a bit newer: Harold Monro's Before Dawn, and the Georgians. Owen eventually rejected the one true path, leaving Dunsden, and eventually England, to teach English in Bordeaux for a while.

During the hot summer of 1914, as the European powers were locking into a chain reaction leading to war, Owen was tutoring at a villa and hanging out in Bagnères-de-Bigorre with the French poet Laurent Tailhade, a disciple of Mallarmé and friend of Verlaine. There was a Decadent Owen, an aesthete who wore purple; he could sound - I hate to say it - insufferably pretentious. He finally entered the Artists Rifles towards the close of 1915, beginning a year of training and army routine that led to his awful baptism of fire at Serre and Beaumont Hamel.

Discovering all this was bound to change my perception of the young officer. These weren't poems simply springing up from nowhere, shocked into existence by howitzers and machine-gun fire. I also began to understand, in a very practical sense, how difficult writing actually was on the ground. Letters home were one thing - and the Western Front's postal system, which could get mail from England to the front in a day, was an organisational wonder - but writing verse?

I soon realised that Owen drafted almost all his poems either in casualty clearing stations or, mostly, while back in Blighty, at places like Ripon (standing in his tiny attic room under the skylight, where "The Send-Off ", "Mental Cases" and "Futility" were written, was one of the most unexpectedly moving points on my journey) or Scarborough. He needed time to reflect and re-gather himself.

And to recover. It's hard to admit, but one strange by-product of war can be the stimulation of creativity. Extreme conditions can provoke striking artistic regeneration. People get thrown together. As those artists and poets who'd fled to neutral Switzerland coalesced into something called Dada, the shell-shocked Owen quietly took the overnight train north from King's Cross for Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers, just outside Edinburgh, in June 1917.

The hospital is now a campus of Napier University. The sound of young people chatting over lattes makes it difficult to imagine the building's former life, and the nightmarish period between dusk and dawn when it echoed with shrieks and groans. I asked students if they knew about Owen. "No," said one of a group of girls, "but we're doing business studies."

What if Owen had never met Siegfried Sassoon? Sassoon, sent to Craiglockhart in an attempt to get him to shut up and quit his anti-war protesting, might never have had anything to do with somebody so "perceptibly provincial" , but there was nowhere for him to hide when the younger poet came nervously knocking at his door, armed with copies of his latest book to sign.

Owen was besotted: of this there is no doubt. Whatever Sassoon might have felt privately, a connection was made: he told Owen to "sweat your guts out for poetry!" and provided an urgent reason to be writing the stuff. Sassoon's work satirised the war: he wanted a complacent Blighty - used to newsreels and exhibition trenches in Kensington - to wise up. The effect on Owen's poetry is palpable still, a jolt of angry energy, undermining the Horatian "Dulce et Decorum Est" (it is sweet and right to die for your country):

If you could hear, at every jolt, the
Come gargling from the froth-
corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores on innocent
My friend, you would not tell with
such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And still very evident in "Smile, Smile, Smile", one of the last poems he wrote, this time subverting the Tommy's popular song, "So pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag/ And smile, smile, smile":

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed
wounded scanned
Yesterday's Mail; the casualties
(typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our
Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not
yet planned...

Sassoon also put Owen on to Robbie Ross, former companion of Oscar Wilde, slipping him an envelope containing a tenner and an address in Mayfair. Owen loved being among artists and poets. But I discovered that equally important to the recovering officer was the counsel of Dr Arthur Brock. Brock was an ergotherapist, unique at the time in his field. Shell-shocked patients were suffering a detachment from their landscapes, histories, surroundings - Owen had been blown into the air by a shell and fallen down a well - and Brock tried to reconnect the mind, body and total environment: to make the patient whole again.

He set Owen what we'd now call a creative writing exercise: to write a poem on the theme of Antaeus, who had been lifted off the ground by Hercules and killed because of his break with Mother Earth. As he was falling head over heels for Sassoon, Owen was learning how to reintegrate all the bits of himself. With Brock's help, he pulled himself together.

For the rest of his short life - throughout stationings at Scarborough and then the vast northern army depot at Ripon - all of Owen's experience to date became creatively available to him. New work poured out. Old poems were redrafted. "The Send-Off" (originally titled "The Draft" ) is a good example of the kind of thing Owen was suddenly, surprisingly, able to do. The poem begins:

Down the close darkening lanes they
sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the trains with faces grimly

Their breasts were stuck all white
with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a
casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland

Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and
a lamp
Winked to the guard...

Owen was writing in his attic at Ripon, near the army depot where he would have seen trains leaving full of troops bound for the front. As an image of a cold, mechanistic route to death, it echoes down the century in ways its maker could never have imagined. By the poem's end:

Shall they return to beating of great
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and

May creep back silent, to village
Up half-known roads.

This now reminds me of the well on the village green at Dunsden - it's as if the soldiers leave from North Yorkshire, then arrive back in the Thames Valley five years earlier - although the actual sources don't matter so much as Owen's newfound ability to draw deeply on them for the poem's sake. Which, in the end, has to have a complete life of its own. His early death meant there was no return to pre-war themes, no dalliance with Modernism, no decline or change of direction. His poems fused to their theme for ever.

We visited his grave, in the village of Ors not far from where he was killed on 4 November 1918 trying to cross the Sambre-Oise canal (the telegram arrived in Shrewsbury as the Armistice bells rang). After spending a long time with his poems, and looking at the places where he'd spent his life, I was dreading it.

He lies at the back of the graveyard, between another two soldiers who died that day. It was a balmy evening, with the sounds of kids playing somewhere close by and scooters buzzing by, but I surprised myself by not feeling sad. Despite the awful waste of it, I was glad he'd managed to pull it all together and make something so powerful. The producer took a photograph of me at the graveside, tidying up the cards and flowers. Looking at that picture now, I'm even happier to discover that I'm wearing a purple shirt.

Radio 3's Wilfred Owen Week, 12-18 November. Paul Farley presents 'Strange Meetings: Wilfred Owen's Half-Known Roads' on Sunday at 8pm