Wilfred Owen: Selected Poems

Wilfred Owen

Illustrated by Neil Bousfield

Introduced by Owen Sheers

Limited to 1,250 hand-numbered copies each signed by Neil Bousfield

A new limited edition published to commemorate the poet’s death in November 1918 and designed to emulate the fine press editions of the early 20th century. In series with Selected Poems Rupert Brooke and Selected Poems Edward Thomas.

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Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen is the ultimate soldier-poet, a writer whose verses have irrevocably shaped our understanding of the horrors of the First World War. One hundred years after his death in combat at the age of just twenty-five, his war poems have achieved canonical status.


For this new limited edition, Owen Sheers has written a specially commissioned introduction and Neil Bousfield has created engravings and vignettes to accompany the poetry. The design honours the craft techniques employed at the beginning of the 20th century, with letterpress printing on mould-made paper, a goatskin leather quarter-binding and hand-made paste-paper sides by Victoria Hall.

Production Details

Limited to 1,250 hand-numbered copies
Quarter-bound in goatskin with paste-paper sides
Set in Plantin
84 pages
9 engravings and 8 letterpress vignettes
Paper-covered slipcase blocked in gold on one side and inset with a printed label
Coloured top edge
Signed by the artist, Neil Bousfield
9¾˝ x 7˝

Wilfred Owen 18 March 1893–4 November 1918

I shall be better able to cry my outcry, playing my part…

Wilfred Owen is the ultimate soldier-poet, a writer whose verses have irrevocably shaped our understanding of the nightmarish horrors of the First World War. One hundred years after his death in combat at the age of just twenty-five, his war poems have achieved canonical status and phrases from works such as ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’ have entered our collective consciousness. But when he died, the bitter truths of the few verses that had been published were at odds with the jingoistic clichés prevalent at the time.

Owen was slow to enlist, finally joining up in October 1915 and only being sent into action in January 1917. Within weeks, he had undergone the intensely concentrated front-line experience that would inspire his greatest poems: enduring ferocious bombardment holed-up in a waterlogged dugout, crouching under fire in freezing conditions, and leading an attack through a ’tornado of shells’. This baptism of fire was compounded by physical and mental trauma: a fall into a fifteen-foot hole that left him severely concussed, and a horrific period lying wounded near the dismembered remains of a fellow-officer.

Owen’s subsequent mental collapse led to his evacuation to a pioneering military hospital in Edinburgh, specialising in the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers. As he recovered, he composed or reworked his poems before deciding to return to the front-line, convinced that a pacifist war poet had a paradoxical obligation to fight, and determined to salvage ‘some reputation of gallantry’ in order to give his anti-war writings authority. Owen’s capture of an enemy machine-gun post on the Hindenburg Line won him the Military Cross, but on 4 November 1918, just one week before the Armistice, he was shot and killed. On 5 November he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.

Poetry born of experience

These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poet must be truthful

  1. Wilfred Owen 

Wilfred Owen claimed to have realised at an early age that ‘the fullest life liveable was a Poet’s’. In reality, he spent his early adulthood drifting, working as a pupil-teacher, lay-assistant to a vicar, and then as an English language teacher and private tutor in France, while producing undistinguished poems that were heavily influenced by the 19th-century Romantics.

His experiences in the trenches were transformative, triggering a loss of religious faith and a total shift in his attitude to war, as well as the mental collapse that saw him institutionalised. Crucially for his development as a poet, his recovery at Craiglockhart War Hospital was supervised by an unorthodox medical officer, Dr Arthur Brock, whose principle of ‘ergotherapy’ or work-cure led him to encourage Owen to edit the residents’ magazine, teach at a local boys’ school, carry out social-welfare visits in Edinburgh, and above all, to alleviate his wartime trauma and his chronic nightmares by writing about them.

Owen was joined at Craiglockhart by the leading anti-war poet of the day, Siegfried Sassoon, who had effectively been sectioned after expressing treasonable views. Sassoon gave Owen detailed editorial input, confidence in his burgeoning talent and direct access to other writers, including Robert Graves, Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells. He also stressed his belief that poetry should draw directly on life and that even the most painful memories could be raw material for great art, leading to Owen’s new creed, that ‘every poem, every figure of speech should be a matter of experience’.

Under the influence of both Brock and Sassoon, the period between September 1917 and August 1918 saw Owen transmuting his trauma into what we now recognise as his masterpieces: poems that are unparalleled in their fusion of the elegiac and the brutally realistic, that set biblical phrasing alongside army slang, interrupt lyrical passages with military jargon, and seamlessly interweave literary reference and eyewitness testimony. Working and re-working his texts, Owen also employed discordant near-rhymes (known as pararhymes) that increase the feeling of unease and frustration – and sonic effects that capture the sounds of battle, as he struggled to achieve in poetry ‘what the advanced composers are doing in music’.

Owen’s work laid bare as never before the gap between propaganda and reality, revealing the psychological damage and deadening of feeling that were the only possible responses to the inhumanity of mechanical warfare. In his poetry he summoned up images that have seared themselves into the minds of generations of readers – a sentry screaming for help after a shell has blinded him; the fatal result of a panicked response to a gas attack; shell-shocked patients wrestling with memories that they cannot escape; soldiers shifting a comrade’s corpse into the sunlight in the futile hope of reviving it – achieving his stated aim of describing the unimaginable hardships endured by his fellow-soldiers as well as a pleader can’.

About Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is a Welsh novelist, poet and playwright whose work has often dealt with war and its traumatic fall-out, from verses such as ‘Mametz Wood’, inspired by one of the most brutal battles of the First World War, to The Two Worlds of Charlie F., a drama based on the first-hand testimony of, and performed by, soldiers wounded in Afghanistan.

In his insightful introduction, Sheers brings a writer’s sensibility to bear on Owen’s accelerated maturation as a poet, his influence on later authors and the reasons why his work continues to resonate so powerfully one hundred years on. In a fitting piece of synchronicity, Owen Sheers has recently received the Wilfred Owen Poetry Award for 2018, an honour bestowed in recognition of his own memorable war writings and his determination to give a voice to those who might otherwise remain voiceless.

Hand-crafted paper by Victoria Hall

Victoria Hall’s hand-crafted paste-paper perfectly complements Neil Bousfield’s engravings, the dynamic design responding directly to the parallel lines that appear throughout his prints, evoking stormy skies, violent explosions, trench duckboards and searchlights as well as the rays of the sun.

Preparing the papers is a complex process. After dampening the paper, Victoria applies a stippled soft gold background using a natural sea-sponge, to suggest simultaneously the reflection of light in water-filled shell-holes, the flames produced by incendiary devices and the nostalgic appeal of home fires. After drying and pressing, the papers are thickly coated with a custom-mixed green-grey paste enhanced with graphite to catch the light like gun-metal, then brushed to a fine finish and tooled while wet with five combs of differing sizes, before being dried and pressed for the final time. As every sheet of paper is individually coloured and patterned by hand, each book is unique.

About Neil Bousfield

In a striking series of original engravings, Owen’s texts have been brought vividly to life by printmaker Neil Bousfield. Drawing inspiration from pioneering First World War artists including Christopher Nevinson and Paul Nash, Neil’s unsettling images are by turns explosive and haunting, presenting disconsolate soldiers huddling knee-deep in water to escape the Vorticist shockwaves of incessant shelling, staggering blindly through the greenish light of a gas attack, and shuffling through an apocalyptic landscape, their faces expressionless as they confront sights and situations that are beyond their comprehension. Building on the preoccupation with landscapes as emotional palimpsests which is such a strong feature of his work, narrative elements are overlaid onto schematic diagrams of trench networks from the locations where Owen fought, creating a jarring contrast between the cool objectivity of the maps and the extreme violence that occurred in the places they represent.

To produce the images, Neil created his own blocks, before working on them using the ‘reduction method’, engraving and printing the block with a first colour before repeatedly re-engraving and reprinting it using different colours. The results are stunning – multi-layered images, with an instantly recognisable aesthetic and texture that are as painstakingly crafted as the texts that they accompany.

To complete his scheme, Neil has also engraved eight smaller vignettes of the officer’s equipment familiar to Owen. Appropriately, two of Neil’s engravings for this volume have recently appeared in the 250th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, an annual event that Wilfred Owen himself regularly attended.

What makes this limited edition so special

The craft techniques employed in this edition, limited to only 1,250 hand-numbered copies, are all characteristic of those used in fine press books in the early 20th century. Published to commemorate the death of Wilfred Owen on 4 November 1918, this is the final book in our series of war poets and follows the Selected Poems of Rupert Brooke and those of Edward Thomas.

The colours chosen for the binding, slipcase and letterpress printed vignettes are reminiscent of the uniforms worn by the British Army during the Great War and of the landscape in which the fighting took place. The paper-covered slipcase is inset with a label printed with a detail from the engraving illustrating ‘The Sentry’ and is blocked in gold with the name and dates of the poet.

18 March 1893, Oswestry – 4 November 1918, Ors

The khaki goatskin leather of the spine is also blocked in gold and perfectly complements both the pleasingly tactile paste-paper sides created by Victoria Hall at her studio in Norfolk and the coloured top-edges of the pages. Forest Stewardship Council certified Marcate Nettuna, felt-marked and in grigio, a beautiful grey-green shade, has been chosen for the endpapers.  

The poems have been set in Plantin at The Folio Society and have been printed letterpress by The Logan Press in Wellingborough on Zerkall, a smooth mould-made paper. Victoria Hall worked closely with Norfolk-based printmaker Neil Bousfield who created the nine stunning engravings which accompany the poems and the eight vignettes printed letterpress, again in khaki; he has also signed each book. Neil’s engravings have been printed on Natural Evolution Ivory by Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto – L.E.G.O. – founded in 1900 by Pietro Olivotto and still run by the family today. L.E.G.O. also bound the books having bound the two earlier editions in the series 

The specially commissioned introduction is by Owen Sheers, novelist, poet and playwright. His works include Pink Mist, a dramatic poem about three young soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play based on the experiences of wounded and injured service personnel. Owen has recently been awarded the 2018 Poetry Prize by the Wilfred Owen Association.

All those who have contributed to the production of this limited edition have created a remarkable tribute to Wilfred Owen’s poetry.


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