Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Jenny Bornholdt 'Poems' Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This report is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Archive Corner 2: Wilfred Owen Stella Halkyard

Wilfred Owen, Dennis Welland and an untold story of the poet's publishing history

It is often presumed that a poem is created by a poet. Yet poems need more than poets. They need editors, printers, publishing industries, agents, critics, readers, education programmes, libraries, bookshops and the Internet to sustain them. Readers encounter a poem once it has assumed autonomy from the processes from which it was conceived.

For the reader, the poem is a beginning. For the poet, the finished poem is the end of a series of intricate and individual processes which can be described as literary, personal, cultural, historical, philosophical, economic and political. Sometimes it is possible to trace a credible shape for the pre-histories embedded beneath the surface of the printed page. The poem undergoes the process which genetic critics call 'texuralisation'.

This crafting, coaxing, cajoling, excavating, paring and polishing, which occurs at its own not-to-be-hurried pace, can create many drafts as the poem emerges through scribbled notes, annotations, palimpsests and 'rewrites' until it reaches a state which the poet recognises as 'finished'. At this stage the poem can be sent to the editor of a poetry magazine or, with its fellows, to a publishing house. If accepted it is subjected to editing and a series of production processes as it is transformed into a published object which, traditionally in Western culture, has taken the form of the codex. Only after these processes does it emerge into the limelight. Usually then, for a person to be recognised and received as a poet, the work must take a particular material form and through this form become accessible. As well as needing readers, editors and publishers, canonical poems require the critical attentions of literary scholars. Yet the collaborative nature of the making of the poem is, all too often, hidden from history, despite the fact that the practice of writing often assumes material form and survives archaeologically in archives. By revealing some of the histories buried in a set of papers recently acquired by the John Rylands Library, which relate to Wilfred Owen and Dennis Welland ,1 we can explore how some of the early editors and scholars associated with the Owen corpus have fashioned our understanding of the poet's work.

Let us first consider the condition in which Wilfred Owen left his literary remains. On 4 November 1918, before sunrise, leading his platoon to the west bank of the Sambre and Oise Canal, Owen was killed, at the age of 25, by German machine gun fire. His parents learned of his death on 11 November just as the church bells were pealing to signify the armistice. On his death, he had published only five poems ('Song of Songs' in the Hydra and The Bookman, 'The Next War', in the Hydra, and 'Miners', 'Futility' and 'Hospital Barge' in the Nation). The rest survived as 'works in progress' in draft manuscripts and fragments, in holograph, often covered with many layers of annotation through which it is hard to see what the poem's ultimate shape might have been. Some poems are clearly incomplete or unfinished. These manuscripts were found amongst his belongings, with other papers, returned to his mother. They included a sack which, in accordance with Owen's final wishes, his mother, Susan Owen, burned: 'it was like burning my heart'.

At his death, and for a considerable time after that, his work was very little known by the wider reading public. Most of his poems have therefore reached us through the efforts of editors who have sifted through the evidence of the manuscripts in order to reconstruct what they consider to have been Owen's intentions. According to Jon Stallworthy, the 'poems of Wilfred Owen present an editor with uncommon problems that call for uncommon solutions'.2

Compared with most other modern poets, establishing Owen's oeuvre has been achieved only by a high degree of editorial intervention. This is a matter of importance when we consider that poetry is often defined as 'an order of words'. Unsurprisingly, since the act of editing is subjective, editors have interpreted the primary evidence in the manuscripts in different ways. Take the example of 'Futility'. If we compare C. Day Lewis's rendition of the third line of this sonnet with Jon Stallworthy's we notice that one of the words is different; Day Lewis: 'At home, whispering of fields unsown'; Stallworthy: 'At home, whispering of fields half-sown'.

The difference in the diction in these two versions of Owen's poem creates subtle shifts in the linguistic patterning, sound, tone and meaning. 'Unsown' and 'half-sown' might approximate each other but they don't mean the same thing. The editors also punctuate the poem differently and this too changes the poem's meaning in a significant way, as Denise Levertov testifies: 'I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function, and the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem's life.'3

This the authenticity of the authorial voice of Owen's poetry will always be con tested. The fact that any manuscripts survived at all is little short of miraculous and the reason they did is largely because the poems were known by other poets who regarded them highly. Owen prophetically declared in a letter to Susan Owen in 1918, 'I am a poet's poet.'

Poets have led the way in the task of editing Owen's work. In the final year of his life he was invited by Edith and Osbert Sitwell to contribute poems to the magazine Wheels. This magazine ran for six issues and aroused controversy by championing poetry written in the Modernist idiom, providing an interesting, if little commented on, context for Owen.

After his death his mother sent seven poems. They were published in the 1919 volume of the magazine. Edith Sitwell then prepared a small edition of Owen's war poems (this included 23 poems) for which Siegfried Sassoon wrote an introduction: The Poems of Wilfred Owen (Chatto and Windus, 1920). Even today many people are unaware that Edith Sitwell edited this collection. As late as 1966 Owen's brother, Harold, was insisting that Sassoon had undertaken the editing, whilst consigning, and confining, Edith Sitwell's role to 'the technical side' .4 It is, however, Sassoon him self who refutes this and sets the archival record straight. In a letter to Dennis Welland from 1950 Sassoon states that he had 'practically no hand in the editing of the 1920 edition... my absence in America made it impossible for me to go through Wilfred's mss'. In the same letter he explains how the pain of Owen's loss has been so great to him that he 'could not bear to look at [Owen's poems]' and that writing about them was for him 'sheer anguish of mind'. This edition was reprinted in 1921 and included an extra poem by Owen.

Ten years later another soldier-poet, Edmund Blunden, took up the cause of making Owen's poetry better known. He produced an edition entitled The Poems of Wilfred Owen in which he included a memoir. This book too was published by Ian Parsons at Chatto and Windus. It was reissued eight times between the 1930s and the 1960s and was an important force in reviving and maintaining interest in Owen's poetry, as Sassoon recorded in a letter to Dennis Welland from 1950: 'EB is the person who has done more to help Wilfred's reputation than anyone else.' The Owen-Welland Papers in the Rylands include a manuscript book which Blunden gave to Dennis Welland. It contains transcriptions of some of Owen's poems and letters. These were made in Blunden's impeccable, elegant hand during the 1920s in preparation for his edition of Owen's work and were copied from the original manuscripts. One of the most striking transcriptions is a copy of the last letter which Owen sent to Sassoon, dated 31 August 1918, telling him he would be returning to the Front. It closes with the words, 'What more is there to say that you will not better understand unsaid.' As well as keeping Owen's poetry available to readers Blunden's edition was significant because, as noted above, it included a memoir, and for the first time readers were able to place an account of the poet's life alongside the poems.

The last edition of Owen's work to be represented in the Owen-Welland Papers is the one produced by C. Day Lewis. Day Lewis was engaged at Chatto and Windus as a 'reader' and editor and in October 1960 he wrote to Dennis Welland to tell him that he would be undertaking a new edition of Owen's poems. Dennis Welland had read English at University College Nottingham and received a first class degree in 1940. In the aftermath of the Second World War he decided to return to civilian life and undertake an MA on the subject of the life and work of Wilfred Owen. Since the 1940s he had been the foremost academic authority on Owen and was instrumental in raising the consciousness of the poet's work in academic and literary circles. Day Lewis was keen to invite him to collaborate, casually asking, 'Is there any chance you have the time and the inclination?' Inevitably, Welland replied by return of post to say, 'nothing would give me greater pleasure, and I am very honoured indeed by your asking me'. However, what had promised to be an equal collaboration between poet and scholar was swiftly under mined by the intervention of the Owen estate. Sadly and inexplicably, Welland had fallen foul of Harold Owen. Despite the fact that his studies of Owen had always been sympathetic, Harold Owen chose to exert the rights of the literary estate to consistently, and emphatically, prevent Welland from publishing Owen material. In a letter from 1947 Harold Owen wrote to Welland informing him that he, and his sister Mary, 'cannot grant any permission for the use of copyright'. In another letter to Welland Harold Owen explained how he thought it would be 'quite impossible' for anyone who had not lived with Wilfred Owen and known him 'intimately' to write about the poet's early life. Blunden strove valiantly on Welland's behalf to have this embargo revoked, without success, repining that: 'however it is arranged [I hope] the fullest portrait, and text, of W.O. will in time be given to the public'. The correspondence between Day Lewis and Welland provides an engrossing account of the convolutions in the progression of the work. This record reveals how the sight-punishing strain of textual comparison was relaced by visits to the Day Lewis household.

These meetings sometimes resulted in the production of charming drawings from the uncertain pen of a juvenile Daniel Day Lewis, long before Hollywood took him. The exchange of correspondence also speaks of troubling literary losses. In December 1961 Welland writes to Day Lewis concerning some manuscripts which were held in private hands and reports that 'unfortunately, the owner of [some Owen manuscripts] died in 1960 and they appear to have been either mislaid or destroyed; neither her relatives nor the matron of the home in which she died can give me any information at all about them'! Work on the edition reached its completion in 1963 with the book's publication. Day Lewis acknowledges his 'special debt' to Dennis Welland in the foreword: he 'generously put at my disposal his unrivalled knowledge of the Owen texts: his suggestions, criticism and care in the checking of my work have been invaluable'. Before its publication Welland was sent a manuscript of Day Lewis's preface for comment. He wrote back to Day Lewis, in modestly admiring terms, saying that the foreword 'has had the demoralising effect that I expected: its economy and incisiveness make everything that I've said about Owen look plodding, pedantic and banal'.

Around the time of publication in the 1960s, Owen's public significance was assured as his poems grew familiar to a mass audience and he became a household name. The C. Day Lewis/Dennis Welland edition endured for about twenty years and was only superseded when Jon Stallworthy's edition was produced in 1983.

On the scholarly front Dennis Welland eventually escaped the vagaries of the Owen estate when Harold Owen finally withdrew his objections. Writing to Day Lewis in 1960, Welland records the unnerving speed with which this was achieved: 'As you know, Parsons let [Harold Owen] read my book in typescript and he was so satisfied with it that hatchets were promptly buried, permission for use of unpublished material given, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day with him in January. But he is always unpredictable.' And so in 1960, Chatto and Windus finally published Wilfred Owen: A Critical Study, which today, as the Owen scholar John Purkiss observes, 'remains invaluable'. And so it came to pass that Wilfred Owen finally began to receive the scholarly attention he deserved and Dennis Welland, in the words of Owen's most recent biographer, Dominic Hibberd, became the 'doyen of Owen scholars'.

The catalogue for the Papers relating to Wilfred Owen and Dennis Welland is avail able in electronic format at: http://www. and enquiries about the collection are warmly welcomed.


  1. Literary remains relating to Wilfred Owen first arrived in the John Rylands Library in November 2002 when Dennis Welland, Professor of American Studies at Manchester University, died. His son Michael generously gave his papers to the Rylands where they now live within the Collection of Modern Literary Archives and are cared for as part of the Modern Literary Archives Programme.

  2. Owen, Wilfred, The Complete Poems and Fragments of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto and Windus, The Hogarth Press, and Oxford University Press, 1983), p.xxi.

  3. Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2000), p.102.

  4. There is a letter from Harold and Phyllis Owen in the Papers of Allen Freer in the John Rylands Library. In it Harold Owen writes to say he is 'so pleased' that Allen Freer is 'recognising SS as Wilfred's first editor' in a catalogue he is compiling.

This report is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
Further Reading: - Stella Halkyard Picture of - Stella Halkyard More Reports by... (14) Articles by... (66)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image