London: Chatto & Windus, 1920. First edition, first printing. Full leather. This is the first edition, first printing, finely bound in full maroon Morocco goatskin, hued sympathetically to the publisher’s original dark red cloth. The fine binding features raised spine bands framed by gilt rules and decoration, twin black spine labels, and beveled edge covers with gilt rule borders. The contents feature gilt top edges and are bound with silk head and tail bands and lovely marbled endpapers framed by gilt-decorated turn-ins. The first printing contents are well-suited to the fine binding, the sumptuously thick laid paper with untrimmed fore and bottom edges respectably clean with a crisp feel. Light spotting is primarily confined to the prelims and a terminal blank. We find no previous ownership marks. The frontispiece and tissue guard remain intact, the protective tissue having ironically browned both the frontispiece and the facing title page. Condition of the binding is as-new, the contents better than very good.
Poet and soldier Wilfred Edward Salter Owen (1893-1918) grew up an evangelical Christian. “Under the strong influence of his devout mother he read a passage from the Bible every day and, on Sundays, would rearrange her sitting-room to represent a church. Then, wearing a linen surplice and cardboard mitre she had made, he would summon the family and conduct a complete evening service with a carefully prepared sermon.”(ODNB). By 1913 Owen realized that literature meant more to him than faith and began a sojourn teaching in France, where he was when the First World War began in August 1914. Owen was apparently conflicted about whether to join the fight, but in October 1915 he had left France and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. Though a sense of Christian fundaments never fully evaporated, the linen surplice of his youth had been shed – intellectually, artistically, and martially – for the uniform in which, he rationalized, he would be “perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote!”.
Owen would find – and echo – little of the romantic Keats in the trenches. The “war to end all wars” both brutally completed Owen’s evolution into a modern poet and abruptly ended him. The poems comprising this collection were drafted and revised over the course of the war, some of which were completed while Owen was being treated for neurasthenia (shell-shock). The events precipitating Owen’s hospitalization were horrific. In March 1917 he fell through a shell-hole into a cellar below. He was trapped there, under the earth, for three days, “with only a candle for company.” Concussed, he nonetheless rejoined fierce fighting before being diagnosed in May and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to recuperate.
At Craiglockhart, Owen edited the hospital magazine, appropriately named The Hydra, in which two of his most acclaimed poems from this book first appeared, “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. Owen’s fellow poet-soldier and Craiglockhart inmate, Siegfried Sassoon, described the hospital as an ‘underworld of dreams’. Meeting Sassoon was formative for Owen’s poetic sensibility and revision process. The senior poet wrote comments on various poems in Owen’s manuscript.
Owen was eventually deemed “GS” (fit for general service). He returned to the front in September 1918 for the final advance on German lines. Owen’s ensuing courage won him the Military Cross, but he was killed in the early morning of 4 November while crossing the Sambre and Oise Canal near Ors – one week before Armistice and two years before this first collection of his poems was published. In the elegiac Introduction, Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry. / The subject of it is War, and the pity of War. / The poetry is in the pity.” Dead at 25, Owen “came to represent a generation of innocent young men sacrificed… Owen has now taken his place in literary history as perhaps the first, certainly the quintessential, war poet.” (ODNB). Item #006521