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6th October 2000 at 01:00
We are in an A-level English literature class. Joe is exploring some possible reasons for Wilfred Owen's decision to omit the comparison of a soldier's face to "a bud" from the final version of Dulce et Decorum Est.

If you could see, at every jolt, the blood

Come belching black and frothy from the lung,

And think how once his face was like a bud,

Fresh as a country rose, and clear, and young,

You would not go on telling with such high


To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori

Joe feels that the image is out of place, that it is too romantic. Projecting Owen's first draft of the poem on to the whiteboard, Joe takes us through his reading of how it developed.

The students have been studying Owen's poetry in preparation for AQANEAB's Linked Texts paper. For the past few lessons their school editions have been left at home as we work in a way that only a short while ago would have been impossible without travelling to London, Oxford and Texas.Thanks to the work of a team at the University of Oxford the students have been able to study manuscript drafts of the poems over the internet.

The Wilfred Owen Digital Archive gives them instant access to Owen's work and allows them to see the poems as they appear in their original, handwritten state. The website is easy to navigate and students soon learn to find their way through the sequence of "virtual seminars". There is a very real sense of discover. Claire, commenting on The Send Off, for example, finds that Owen initially called the poem The Draft. We talk about the two titles and about various ways of interpreting them. Understanding is developing of how Owen worked, an awareness of the ideas and emotions shaping the form and content of the poems. Miriam, voicing a feeling shared by many in the group, writes that "drafting the poems allowed him to control his anger...". The drafting process "makes the poems more timeless".

This is a website that brings students into the closest possible contact with Owen's work. They see the ferocity with which he crossed words out and replaced them with alternatives and they see the poems change in tone and style. Given the freedom to explore the site with one another they come to a new understanding of the texts as they appear in print.

There are a number of virtual seminars open to students on the site. Teachers of English literature are likely to find The War Poems and Manuscripts of Wilfred Owen of greatest value but students may also benefit from hearing the interviews with war veterans and seeing the video clips and photographs which appear elsewhere on the site.

The virtual seminars are the work of Paul Groves and Dr Stuart Lee. They were created in partnership with the English faculty library at Oxford University, the Imperial War Museum, the British Library and the University of Texas.

Peter Shears is head of English at Cardinal Newman Catholic school in Hove. E-mail:

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