Wilfred Owen’s Passing Bell

On this day in 1918 twenty-five-year-old Wilfred Owen died in France, killed by machine-gun fire while leading his men across a canal by raft. When teaching in France in 1914, Owen began to visit the wounded soldiers in a nearby hospital; moved by this experience, he returned to England to enlist, and was himself fighting in France by the beginning of 1917. In a letter written a month before his death, Owen reflected on the military-literary mission he had given himself: “I came out in order to help these boys — directly, by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first.” Many of Owen’s poems express his affection and respect for his men, as did the last line of his last letter, written four days before his death. “Of this I am certain,” he wrote his mother, “you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”

An earlier letter home had mocked Horace’s famous dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “The famous Latin tag means of course It is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!” In the summer of 1917, while Owen was being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, this made its way into verse that was a little more than pleading — the Latin tag, in face of a dying soldier’s “white eyes writhing,” his blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,” just an “old Lie” told “to children ardent for some desperate glory.”

Owen was killed just one week before the end of the war. One of the ironies surrounding his death recalls perhaps his most famous line, “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” As his parents in Shrewsbury listened to the bells of the local church ringing to celebrate the Armistice, they heard the door chimes of the telegraph boy bringing news of their son’s death.

Dylan Thomas’s Quite Early One Morning was published on this day in 1954, just a few days before the first anniversary of his death. The title story was first broadcast on BBC radio in 1943; over the next decade, the BBC broadcast most of the rest of the collection, this including Thomas’s tribute to Wilfred Owen and readings of his war poetry. “It was this young man, steel-helmeted, buff-jerkined, gauntleted, rubber-waded, in the freezing rain of the flooded trenches, in the mud that was not mud but an octopus of sucking clay, who wrote ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’….”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.