Not So Hidden Agendas: Wilfred Owen and His Early Editors

Wilfred Owen is considered by many to be perhaps the best war poet in English, if not world, literature. Yet, at the time of his death on November 4, 1918, only five of his poems had been published. Thus, due to his premature death, it is clear that Wilfred Owen was not responsible for the development of his own reputation. Instead, it was through the efforts of his editors that Wilfred Owen and his poetry were not forgotten on the bloody fields of France. Indeed, I would argue that the three earliest editions of Owen's poems (Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell, 1920; Edmund Blunden, 1931; and C. Day Lewis, 1963) were responsible for establishing Owen's reputation and that reputation was reaffirmed by subsequent editions. This means that in order to understand Wilfred Owen's position in English literature, one must examine the different editions of Owen=s poems and the agendas of each editor.

The first edition of his poems, co-edited by Sassoon and Sitwell, created problems immediately, as Sitwell and Sassoon argued over control of the project. After the war, Edith Sitwell had begun to prepare the poems for publication; she had even published seven of the poems in Wheels, the magazine she edited, and was preparing to publish more. It was then that Sassoon became involved. Sitwell, in a letter dated 3 October 1919, wrote to Susan Owen (Wilfred's mother) and told her,

I wrote to Captain Sassoon, to ask him if he could

help me about them. He came to see me; and told me

it would have been your son's wish that (Sassoon)

should see to the publication of the poems, because

they were such friends. In the circumstances I could do

nothing but offer to hand them over to him (Sitwell:


Then in a letter from late January 1920, Sitwell tells

Susan Owen that Sassoon

has suddenly gone off to America, leaving all you (sic)

son's manuscripts with me to get ready for the printers

by February 1st. Captain Sassoon has done nothing in

the way of preparing them. All he has done in the

matter is to arrange with Chatto and Windus to publish

them (23).

Despite Sassoon's apparent lack of work, he still received the credit as editor. To understand fully Sassoon's actions, it is necessary to discuss his motives for wanting the poems published.

Sassoon realised that Owen's work faced the possibility of being forgotten by the larger reading audience because of Owen's untimely death. This meant that an edition of Owen's poems had to be published very quickly. Sassoon also recognised that he, as a former soldier and Owen's friend, could not objectively consider Owen's poetry, so he left all critical investigation for future critics. He makes this clear in his introduction to the edition:

The discussion of his experiments in assonance and

dissonance...may be left to the professional

critics...The importance of his contribution to the

literature of the War cannot be decided by those who,

like myself, both admired him as a poet and valued him

as a friend. His conclusions about War are so entirely

in accordance with my own that I cannot attempt to

judge his work with any critical detachment (Sassoon


This, then, was Sassoon's main motivation: to get Owen's poems in print before he was forgotten. He also felt that the poems should be presented to the world by a veteran of the First World War. Thus, in Sassoon's mind, Sitwell could not introduce Wilfred Owen to the world.

Edmund Blunden's 1931 edition was intended to add the critical and biographical apparatus that was absent from Sassoon's edition. In his introduction, Blunden writes that the

sense of his (Owen's) promise and achievement has

deepened since 1920, and his former editor (Sassoon)

has been conspicuous among those who have urged the

preparation of a new and enlarged volume of Owen's

poems, with such biographical notice as can and

should be prefixed to them (Blunden 3).

Edmund Blunden was well aware of Sassoon's motives when he published his own edition:

Twelve years of uneasy peace have passed since the

War, among its final victims, took Wilfred Owen, and

ten since the choice edition of his poems by his