With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.
In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales.
These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision.
The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant.
He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart.
One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that.
(A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed.
Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.
Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry.
But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him.