The influence of the established literary canon

Reading affects writing

Like most authors of the early twentieth century, Owen would have been influenced by the literature any educated writer would have encountered – the established classics which constitute the English literary canon.

From this canon, particular works and authors resonated with specific writers. Owen’s biographer, Jon Stallworthy, suggests that Wilfred Owen was particularly influenced by the following:

In 1915, Owen wrote that the only thing that would hold him together on the battlefield would be the ‘sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote.’

The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer

Image of the title page of the 1662 Prayer BookOwen would have heard the King James Bible read at home every day and in church on Sundays. At Sunday School and in Bible study groups he would have learnt passages by heart. The Book of Common Prayer devised by Archbishop Cranmer in the mid sixteenth century would have been used every Sunday in the church services Owen and his family attended (


Wilfred Owen had read and seen many of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes allusions to some of the dark imagery of hell and blood in Macbeth in his poem Mental Cases. (Text in detail > Wilfred Owen > Mental Cases) He was aware of Shakespeare as a poet and his use of language. Shakespeare as a playwright wrote dramatic or blank verse in iambic pentameter.

More on the language of Shakespeare?

Romantic poetry

Owen’s view of poetry was greatly influenced by the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley, and by the whole concept of Romanticism (see Recognising poetic form > Romantic poetry).

Emotion and vision

  • Romantic poetry, written in the later stages of the eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth, is a poetry of the heart and the emotions, exploring the ‘truth of the imagination' rather than scientific truth
  • The ‘I' voice is central; it is the poet's perceptions and feelings that matter.
  • Romantic poets often saw themselves as visionaries, seeing further and more deeply into the nature of the world or the supernatural than ordinary people did.


  • The Romantic poets were particularly inspired by the realm of Nature. They were concerned that Nature should not just be seen scientifically but as a living force, either made by a Creator, or a divine being in some way, to be neglected at humankind's peril
  • Some of the Romantics eschewed established Christian beliefs. Shelley was an atheist and, for a while, Wordsworth was a pantheist
  • Much of their poetry celebrated the beauty of nature, or protested the ugliness of the growing industrialisation of the century, with its machines, factories, slum conditions, pollution and so on.

The past

Some of the Romantics, like Keats, also turned back to classical and Arthurian mythology for inspiration.

Owen’s own writing was influenced by his reading of Romantic poetry:

  • His earliest poetry was influenced by reading William Wordsworth
  • He used references from the poetry of Shelly in his poems
  • Later he said that he would die in order to defend the language of Keats.
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