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In May 1917, the poet Wilfred Owen was diagnosed with neurasthenia (shell-shock) and sent to Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh to recover. Whilst receiving treatment at the hospital, Owen became the editor of the hospital magazine, The Hydra and met the poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have a major impact upon his life and work, and to play a crucial role in the dissemination of Owen’s poetry following his untimely death in 1918 aged only 25.
Owen wrote a number of his most famous poems at Craiglockhart, including several drafts of both ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Owen’s poetry was markedly different from the patriotic verse which had previously been written about the war, as it sought to vividly describe the horrors of war rather than concentrating solely on the heroic and patriotic fervour that surrounded the early years of the conflict. Sassoon advised and encouraged Owen, and this is evident in a number of drafts which include Sassoon’s annotations.
‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is made up of harrowing images of trench warfare, including a gas attack: 'Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, / But someone still was yelling out and stumbling / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.' In the final lines the poet addresses the full horror of war as he attacks the patriotic fervour of ‘The gesturing lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patri mori’, a Latin motto meaning ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. Sassoon added suggestions in pencil directly onto Owen’s drafts. For example, Sassoon placed a question mark next to the phrase ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ – but Owen chose to keep it in the poem.
Only five of Owen’s poems were published in his lifetime. However, after his death his heavily worked manuscript drafts were brought together and published in two different editions by Siegfried Sassoon with the assistance of Edith Sitwell (in 1920) and Edmund Blunden (in 1931). They are among some of the most visceral and heart-breaking poems about World War One. The drafts were subsequently acquired by the British Museum Library in 1934.