Wilfred Owen in Teignmouth

wilfred owenWilfred Owen, probably the world’s greatest war poet, started writing poetry of a very different vein.  It has been said that Owen’s early poetry is derivative and undistinguished, influenced by his interest in romantic themes, particularly beauty, much as Keats had been.  While working as a tutor near Bordeaux, he was preparing a book of “Minor Poems—in Minor Keys—by a Minor,” which was never published. These early poems are consciously modelled on those of John Keats.

The interest, some have even said ‘obsession’ with Keats, inevitably led the young Wilfred Owen to Teignmouth.  It was in 1911 that the 18 year-old Wilfred Owen began taking a lively interest in that poet. April that year saw him holidaying in Torquay with his uncle and aunt John and Annie Taylor, browsing in John’s bookshop, acquiring Colvin’s biography of Keats and making his pilgrimage to the house in Teignmouth where Keats had lodged in 1818.

In ‘Wilfred Owen: A New Biography‘, Dominic Hibberd writes ‘When he found that Keats had stayed at Teignmouth not far away, he wrote home for a railway pass and was soon standing transfixed outside the house, the bewildered occupants peering at him through the window. He walked to the end of the beach where the Teign flows into the sea, noticing how the river’s current momentarily checked the incoming waves, and he thought that with a bit of ingenuity the image could be worked into a sonnet about Keats resisting death, ‘like a new dating on his doom’ (a phrase borrowed from The Fall of Hyperion). (Hibberd, p. 55)

Owen made another pilgrimage in March 1913 and the extent of his devotion to Keats is made plain in a letter to his mother quoted by Hibberd: ‘I fear domestic criticism when I am in love with a real live woman.  What now when I am in love with a youth, and a dead ‘un!’

The emergence of war shattered his idealistic vision of life and caused Owen to rethink his philosophy.  Under Sassoon’s influence, the romantic poetry Owen had been writing since his boyhood in imitation of John Keats was transformed.  His poems now were vivid with flesh and blood detail, and peppered with explosive fragments of direct speech.

Want to know more?

For an example of his early style influenced by Keats have a look at ‘To Poesy‘.

There are numerous sources for his war poems but the Wilfred Owen site gives interesting background on each of them.

The above brief description of Wilfred Owen’s connection with Teignmouth I have compiled from:

Literary Places (© Angela Williams 2010, 2011)


 Wilfred Owen, by Jon Stallworthy



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