Like Sassoon, Owen entered the war as a “dreamy” youth interested in literature and art. Unlike Sassoon, though — whom Owen idolized — Owen did not survive the war. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918, a week before the war ended.
Owen wrote all of the poems for which he is remembered between August 1917 and September 1918. His experience of the war turned him from “ a very minor poet to something altogether larger,” writes C. Day Lewis. “…It was a forced growth, a revolution in his mind which, blasting its way through all the poetic bric-a-brac, enabled him to see his subject clear — ‘War, and the pity of War.’ The subject made the poet: The poet made the poems, which radically changed our attitude toward war.”
The hallmarks of Owen’s poetry are his compassion for the frontline soldier and the precision and clarity with which he deploys metaphor to — ironically — render an unflinching portrait of the war’s destruction.
“Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead,” begins “Greater Love,” my favorite from the collection. The poem’s title summons the romanticism and optimism of the pre-war world, as does its opening words, “Red lips.” But the couplet flips that pretense and ends with “the English dead” lying face down and bloodied in the mud. Red, a color often used in connection with the idea of “life” and “love” has been eternally corrupted, as has England and Europe and what Owen termed its “doomed youth,” their vitality drained from them in senseless slaughter.