Selected Letters of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jane Potter

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Review by Rob Spence

If you attended a British secondary school at any time from the late nineteen sixties until the present day, at some point you will have encountered the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Generations of schoolchildren have formed their ideas of the First World War based on such poems as “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Strange Meeting.” That Owen became so firmly embedded in the school curriculum is largely due to the pioneering work of Dennis Welland, the scholar who wrote the first extended analysis of Owen’s work in 1963. Since then, Owen, perhaps partly as a result of the melancholy circumstances of his brief life, has become a celebrated and much admired figure, the subject of four biographies, and his poems have been endlessly anthologised.

This new edition of Owen’s letters, edited by Jane Potter, one of the foremost experts on First World War poetry, provides the reader with a broader context in which to consider the man and his work. Given that Owen did not keep a diary, and never attempted a memoir, these letters constitute, as she says, a kind of autobiography. But the material contained in this volume is not unproblematic. Owen’s brother Harold, who had possession of most of the letters, but refused in his lifetime to allow access to them by scholars, guarded the legacy ferociously. Harold Owen published a three-volume account of Wilfred’s life, drawing on the correspondence, but it fell to later biographers, Jon Stallworthy, Dominic Hibberd, and Guy Cuthbertson to really explore his character. Harold famously edited the letters that had been retained, using India ink to black out passages he deemed either too personal or too trivial. A side-effect of Harold’s vandalism has been the ongoing speculation about Owen’s sexuality, which is certainly never explicitly mentioned in his letters, for fairly obvious reasons, but that has not stopped some not entirely well-grounded theories being aired in recent Owen scholarship.

Jane Potter deals briefly with this issue in her introduction, concluding that there is simply no evidence to support the theories, though certainly Owen had deep friendships with men we know to have been homosexual, most importantly Siegfried Sassoon. Certainly, that knowledge colours our view of some of the letters, but since most of them are to his mother, and concern his experiences as a soldier, both in training and at the front, it is the development of his sensibility as a poet that emerges in the narrative that unfolds. And, of course, Owen gives us a first-hand view of the horrors of trench warfare.

Most of the letters reproduced here first appeared in the previous edition of Owen’s selected letters, edited by John Bell, and Jane Potter acknowledges this in her introduction. She follows Bell in largely omitting the early letters of the teenage Owen, and focusing mainly on the war years. What is new here, in addition to a few previously uncollected items, is the scrupulous and extensive annotation, which gives vital context, for example: details of the locations from which he wrote, and their place in the conduct of the war; the identification of people referred to by Owen in passing; and explanations of family references that would otherwise remain obscure. It is an exemplary piece of editorial work.

The two key strands in the letters presented here are the vivid accounts of life as a soldier, and the growing confidence that Owen feels as a poet, finding his voice. Thus, in one particularly striking instance, he feels he must tell his mother about being stranded for fifty hours in a flooded dugout in no-man’s-land:

It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them.

There’s a hint of the voice that Owen would use in his poems in that “octopus of sucking clay.” Owen’s poetic development was accelerated by his happy encounter at Craiglockhart War Hospital with Siegfried Sassoon, and this selection includes all of Owen’s letters to him, and references to the other literary figures he met, CK Scott Moncrieff and Robert Graves. It is fascinating to see his assessment of Sassoon, and his self-assessment as he rids himself of his adherence to Romantic poetry, and allows his war experience to shape his work. Most of all, though, the reader is presented with a portrait of a complex, funny, intelligent, warm-hearted man, plunged into unimaginable horror.

The book is produced to Oxford’s usual high standards, and includes some images of the original letters, complete with Harold’s censoring black lines. Anyone interested in Owen will possibly already have one of the previous editions of his letters, but will need to acquire this excellent and comprehensive version. This has clearly been a labour of love for Jane Potter, and she is to be commended for this really impressive achievement.

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Jane Potter (ed.), Selected Letters of Wilfred Owen (Oxford University Press, 2023) 978-0199689507, 436pp., hardback

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