Wilfred Owen was scarcely known during his lifetime, but since his premature death at the age of 25, a week before the 1918 Armistice, millions have been 'finding' his poetry. His reputation is now that of the finest of the war poets, and interest in him such that this private letter has become public knowledge. Every school child reads Anthem for Doomed Youth and knows the story of the soldier-poet whose subject, according to the famous preface scribbled in his trench notebook, was 'the pity of War'.
Owen's native Shropshire has been 'finding' him, too. It was not until 1948 that his home town of Oswestry granted him official recognition; but in this, his centenary year, Oswestry and nearby Shrewsbury are the focus for a series of events organised by the Wilfred Owen Association. I visited Oswestry in March for the first of three 'Wilfred Owen weekends'.
It began on the centenary itself, 18 March, with a celebration at the Marches School, 200 yards from Owen's birthplace at Plas Wilmot. Ted Hughes and Susannah York read from Owen's poems; his biographers Jon Stallworthy and Dominic Hibberd gave talks; and a string quartet played Vaughan Williams's settings of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. It was sponsored by BT, a fact that the Bishop of Shrewsbury, president of the association, found appropriate. BT and Owen, he said, were both 'enablers of communication'. Oh dear. I wonder what he would have said had British Gas been the sponsor. Perhaps lines from Dulce et Decorum Est:
Gas] GAS] Quick, boys] - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring 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.
Oswestry, on the border of England and Wales, is steeped in centuries of conflict that has seen it change hands several times. The most celebrated battle took place in 642 AD, when King Oswald of Northumbria was killed by King Penda of Mercia.
'It's all Penda's fault,' explained a bearded tramp, reeking of beer, when he accosted me in the churchyard. 'Penda was a pagan . . . that's when Oswestry's troubles began . . . the PAGAN]' he repeated, and his dog wagged its tail in agreement.
Local legend has it that Oswald's arm was carried off by an eagle and dropped at a site above the church, where a natural spring immediately flowed. From medieval times Oswald's Well has been credited with healing properties - though it did little for my cold. The martyred Oswald gave his name to the parish church and, indirectly, to the town.
The Heritage Centre in the churchyard is based in the old grammar school, built in 1407 and the oldest secular establishment in England. There is an exhibition on Owen, and another on school life, featuring an original bench with 18th-century graffiti. The tourist office is here, too, and will give you a 'town trail' leaflet guiding you to the castle ruins and to Tudor and Georgian buildings.
I hired a bicycle to explore the surrounding countryside. The Iron Age hill fort at Old Oswestry, a mile north of town, is said to be the finest in Europe. This is hilly walking country, too, and many of the best walks begin at the Old Racecourse, two miles west on the Llansilin road. Offa's Dyke passes here and you can head north towards Prestatyn, or south towards Chepstow, always looking over the Morda Valley and into Wales.
On Friday morning a plaque was unveiled by Owen's nephew Peter, who only understood the importance of the 'Uncle Wilfred' whom he never knew when the association was formed five years ago. The plaque, in the Broadwalk beside the church, contains two Owen sonnets. Ted Hughes read from Futility:
Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
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.
I recalled how Owen had been given an identity disc, to be worn around his neck and returned to his family if he died. He wrote of his 'dead name':
Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed,
But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
And here we were, paying tribute in florid screed, with dates and deeds inscribed on the plaque. The tramp was there, too. Obsessed now by Owen, more lines came into my head:
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard . . .
Perhaps he thought Owen's death was Penda's fault.
On Friday evening Peter Florence performed his one-man play on Owen in St Oswald's Church, where Owen was baptised; on Saturday a concert of Great War songs in Shrewsbury produced the comic spectacle of 100 Owen devotees joining in the chorus of 'Oh What A Lovely War'. On Sunday there was a talk by Richard Graves, nephew and biographer of Robert.
Events are taking place this year from Birkenhead (where Owen also lived) to Bologna. This month and in August groups of pilgrims will head for France to complete the new 'Wilfred Owen Trail', ending at his final resting place at Ors. The next Shropshire weekend, in June, will include walks and the unveiling of a memorial sculpture in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey. The final weekend, in November, coincides with the 75th anniversary of Owen's death.
Owen was no pacifist. He fought, and killed ('I only shot one man') in order to give authority to his poetry ('I am better able to cry my outcry while playing my part'). But he was 'a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience'.
By taking part he was able to leave us with a moving body of poetry that speaks powerfully to those of us too young to have known war. My strongest memories of the Oswestry weekend are of the poems, read again and again by different voices, and each time taking on a new meaning.
In Strange Meeting, the bayoneted German soldier-poet regrets the 'undone years' caused by his death, in words that apply as much to Owen himself:
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.
And, in the words inscribed on the Shrewsbury memorial,
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
Susan Owen kept a lock of her son's hair, and wrote on a scrap of paper in her jewelbox: 'The hair of Sir Wilfred Edward Salter-Owen at the age of 11 1/2 months.' 'He never got his knighthood,' the Bishop reminded us, 'but he did get a Military Cross.' He died a month later, on 4 November 1918.
Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
His parents, in Shrewsbury, received the telegram at noon on Armistice Day, as church bells were ringing and bands were playing. I can still hear the deep voice of the Poet Laureate in Oswestry, reading the lines from Asleep that must surely have foreseen their reaction to the news:
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas]
Wilfred Owen weekends: 11-13 June, Wilfred Owen and Shropshire; 4-7 November, Wilfred Owen and the First World War. Details from Caroline Thewles, 26 Oak Street, Belle Vue, Shrewsbury SY3 7RQ (0743 353424).
Wilfred Owen Trail: Details from Flanders Tours (081-693 2022).
'Poems of Wilfred Owen' published by Chatto, pounds 4.99.
Getting there: British Rail to Shrewsbury from London or Birmingham, then buses to Oswestry (hourly, Monday through Saturday) or trains to Gobowen, three miles from Oswestry.
Eating: Fox Inn, Church Street - home cooking in beamed Tudor-style pub. Daily specials included chicken breasts in leek and stilton sauce, pounds 4.50.
Coach & Dogs, Church Street - built 1660. Main course for pounds 4.90, bring your own wine. Sunday lunch pounds 3.95. Vegetarian meals.
Walks: Green Walks from Oswestry by Mary Hignett (Shropshire Books, pounds 2.95) has some good walks; use OS map 126 or Landranger series 827 and 847.
Bike hire: Stuart Barkley Cycles, Salop Road. (0691 658705).
Transport Museum: Open 10am-4pm except Thursday and Sunday.
Accommodation: Wynnstay Hotel, Oswestry (0691 655261), Lion Hotel, Shrewsbury (0743 353107) and Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury (0743 236000) offer special rates for Wilfred Owen weekends. Dinner, bed and breakfast pounds 45 per person, per night if you quote 'Wilfred Owen'. I did this but would not necessarily recommend it as the evening meals were far too rushed to finish in time for Owen events. List of hotels and B & Bs from Tourist Information Centres at Shrewsbury (0743 350761) or Oswestry (0691 662488).
(Photograph and map omitted)