Teaching Wilfred Owen

When I told my English 150 students that they would be reading a poem on the occasion of Remembrance Day, some of them exclaimed, “Oh, god, not ‘On Flanders Field’!” This is a little sad, but I imagine Canadian students do get something of an overload of that famous poem.

No, I told them, we are going to read something by an Englishman, Wilfred Owen, and I gave them a copy of “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

This is my 1st year writing class, and we haven’t studied poetry, but I told them to apply the principles we’ve learned to apply to the essays we’ve been reading: purpose, audience, rhetorical strategies, effect. I read it out loud, and surprised myself when my voice broke a little at the end.

I then posted this page up on the screen, and read them the comment from the nurse below Sargent’s painting.

It didn’t take long for them to come up with points, and we talked about the bitter tone, and the incredible way Owen uses all the senses, particularly visual and sound effects. One commented that the soldiers were cattle for the meat-grinder, and I pointed out Owen’s other famous poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which opens “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?”

When I asked, “Is the poem effective?” there was a resounding “YES!”


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