Owen, Wilfred Contents
Wilfred Owen grows up
When Owen was ten or eleven years old, he went to stay in the Cheshire countryside with his mother, at a place called Broxton. Here Owen roamed the wooded hills and hedgerows with their views of the Welsh Mountains and the spires of Shrewsbury. Owen looked back on this time as his poetical inspiration. In later life he wrote:
Owen was a scholarly boy who read widely, loved the theatre and Shakespeare and bought books when he could afford to. His library included Shakespeare’s plays, Dickens, Scott and the Romantic poets. Susan had a huge influence on Wilfred and encouraged him in his literary pursuits.
The Owens did not have the money for a private education as Susan had wanted for her children. Instead, Wilfred Owen attended Shrewsbury Borough Technical School and the Birkenhead Institute until 1907. He was fourteen when the family returned to Shrewsbury, and he went to work as a probationary teacher at the Wyle Cop School. It was not uncommon for intelligent lower middle class boys to work in this way, as they needed to earn a living.
Owen had a keen interest in archaeology and geology (see Texts in detail > Wilfred Owen > Miners). He also excelled in French and his supportive father took him twice to Brittany to practice his language skills. However, Owen’s relationship with his father was always overshadowed by Wilfred’s attachment to his mother. It is perhaps no surprise that Owen’s biographer, Damien Hibberd, describes Tom Owen’s favourite son as being Harold, Wilfred’s younger brother.
Education – the next steps
In his final exams in 1911, Owen was the only candidate from Shrewsbury to achieve distinctions in English and French. His training as a pupil-teacher could have led him into a career as an elementary school teacher (considered a somewhat lowly profession). However, although Owen liked the working class children, he found school teaching stressful and unrewarding.
As an alternative, Owen decided to take Matriculation Exams of London University, which would allow him to go on and take an external London University degree. The only way he could have afforded to attend university was to win a scholarship. However, he failed to earn the honours required to gain the scholarship.
With social betterment not possible via property and education, Owen’s mother focused on Wilfred having a career in the Church as a means of rising up in the world. So in 1911 Owen went to live at Dunsden Vicarage as a lay priest with a view to becoming a clergyman. The vicar tutored him for his exams.
Owen’s religious up-bringing owed much to his mother’s lifelong commitment to Christianity. Her strong influence on her artistic and sensitive eldest son ensured that he too, well into young manhood, shared her beliefs. Tom Owen, Wilfred’s father, was also a committed Christian and Sunday School teacher.
However, once Owen began seriously exploring the idea of becoming a priest whilst at Dunsden, he had a crisis of faith and also began to question his sexuality. Owen began to suffer from bad dreams and decided to leave. This was a traumatic time. In 1913 he went home to Shrewsbury, where he was taken ill. Whatever the physical diagnosis was, Owen suffered from the hallucinations and nightmares which were later to haunt him during the war.
Whilst at Dunsden, Owen had still taken classes at Reading University. So, following his illness, Owen took the matriculation exam for Reading University in 1913. Again he failed to gain a scholarship.
With university no longer an option, Owen decided to focus on his ability at French and teach in France. He went to Bordeaux, where he taught English in the Berlitz Language School. He then stayed in France, becoming a private tutor and a freelance teacher. His ambition was to see the world and write poetry.
During his time in France Owen met and was hugely influenced by the Decadent poet Laurent Tailharde, who was fiercely patriotic. This influenced Owen so that, when war was declared in August 1914, he declared (before he enlisted) that he was prepared to die for the language of Keats.
Owen and his mother frequently exchanged letters (and continued to do so throughout the war). At the start of the war, Owen wrote to his mother:
The idea of eugenics was common at the time. Owen’s mention of it at the start of the war suggests a young man with conservative and conventional ideas (doubtless shaped by those of his parents). [In Owen’s poem S.I.W., the father’s views of death before dishonour in war are clearly those of Tom Owen. (Texts in detail>Wilfred Owen>S.I.W).] However, Wilfred’s views were to change radically by the end of the conflict.
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