Owen's war poetry is a passionate expression of outrage at the horrors of


war and of pity for the young soldiers sacrificed in it. It is dramatic
and memorable, whether describing physical horror, such as in‘
Dulce et Decorum Est’ or the unseen, mental torment such as
in‘ Disabled’. His diverse use of instantly understandable
imagery and technique is what makes him the most memorable of the war
poets. His poetry evokes more from us than simple disgust and sympathy;
issues previously unconsidered are brought to our attention.

One of Owen’s talents is to convey his complex messages very
proficiently. In‘ Dulce et Decorum Est’–‘ If in
some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we
flung him in’ the horror of witnessing this event becomes eternal
through dreams. Though this boy died an innocent, war allowed no time to
give his death dignity, which makes the horror so more poignant and
haunting. This is touched on in‘ Mental Cases’–‘
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter / Always they must see
these things and hear them’. Many of the sights which will haunt
the surviving soldiers are not what the officials have ordered them to
do, but what they have done to save their own lives. It is the tragedy of
war that you are not able to stop to help a dying man. They then, not
only physically scarred and mentally changed, carry remedyless guilt with
them. They have survived, at the expense of others–‘ Why
speak not they of comrades that went under?’ (‘Spring
Offensive’). Another dimension is that even the enemy soldiers are
just like them, it is the politicians and generals who have caused this
war, not these ordinary men. This is explored in‘ Strange
Meeting’ - the meeting of an enemy who is really a‘

Many of Owen’s poems share resentment towards the generals and
those at home who have encouraged war.‘ Disabled’ has a very
bitter tone–‘ Aye, that was it, to please the giddy
jilts’.‘ His Meg’ didn’t stay around after he
joined to‘ please’ her– presumably she is with a‘
strong man’ who is‘ whole’. In‘ The Send
Off’ and‘ Anthem for Doomed Youth’ the prayers and
flowers for the soldiers are mocked– useless offerings to men who
are being sent as sacrifices. In‘ Apologia pro Poemate Meo’
Owen again adopts a harsh tone to those at home -‘ You shall not
come to think them well content/ By any jest of mine . . . They are worth
your tears / You are not worth their merriment’. Much anger is
directed towards those ignorant of the full implications of war, but,
perhaps ironically, his poetry would serve to make them aware. The
thought of killing, watching your comrades be killed and constantly
trying to survive sounds horrific enough, but the precise detail of the
emotions, thoughts and sights of the soldier, succeed to drive the full
horror home. This is where much of Owen’s originality lies, not
vague reporting, but deep cynicism and conveyance of the situations.

Owen sympathises profusely with the vain young men who have no idea of
the horrors of war, who are‘ seduced’ by others and the
recruiting posters. He bitterly rejects the patriotic reasoning for war
in‘ Dulce’. That they eagerly join up for vanities makes
their situation all the more tragic– he‘ threw away his
knees’.‘ Smiling they wrote his lie’ depicts officials
who not only accept this under age boy, but smile knowingly while they do
it. In‘ The Send Off’ a lack of support for these men is
suggested. The young men are to give up their lives as a sacrifice for
their country, but their leaving lacks passionate good byes as‘
they were not ours’. In‘ S.I.W’ the full impacts of
social pressure are highlighted. Though the man’s family clearly
love him, they would‘ sooner him dead than in disgrace’,
leaving him only suicide to escape. This notion of escaping into hell
from war is also in‘ Strange Meeting’.

A recurring theme in Owen’s poetry is the notion of unseen scars.
Though the soldier may return alive or uninjured, their lives will never
be the same. In‘ Disabled’ the pain of the man’s life
is not his injury, but how others react to him. He will never feel love
or live life to the full again. The moment when‘ the women’s
eyes / Passed from him to the strong men’ is wonderfully picked out
by Owen, the women’s embarrassment at staring, and the man’s
misery at no longer being seen as a valid person. Though sleep is relief
from his tortuous life in‘ Disabled’, sleep becomes a hell
for many of the poems. In‘ Dulce et Decorum
Est’–‘ In all my dreams . . . He plunges at me’
and in‘ The Sentry’ the persistent memories–‘ I
try not to remember these things now’.

The detail in Owen’s poetry puts forward his scenes horrifically
and memorably. His poems are suffused with the horror of battle, yet
finely structured and innovative.‘ His bleeding cough’–
a scene unimaginable by us, something only a true witness would see
and‘ puckering foreheads crisp’– more than frozen to
death, Owen acutely describes the impact on the skin and face. The scene
witnessed by Owen is so detailed we feel familiar to it ourselves. As
with the unseen scars, Owen delves beneath the surface of cover ups and
expectations. As in‘ Disabled’ and‘ S.I.W.’, the
full horror behind these unemotional terms is described.

The particular techniques adopted by Owen in his poetry underline his
messages. His use of speech and present tense give his poems urgency and
directness. All the senses are utilised by Owen, a constant input of
sound, smell, touch as well as sight increase the dimensions of his
images and overwhelm us as he must have been. Owen's appliance of
half-rhyme gives his poetry a dissonant, disturbing quality that
amplifies his themes. His stanzas jar, as war does.

Owen is more famous for his angry and emotional poems such as Dulce,
though his quieter poems can pack just a strong a punch. Futility has a
barely controlled emotion to it, we are used to Owen questioning war and
people but here he questions life itself. His desperation and hollow lack
of hope, so resigned against life, is intensely emotional, beyond anger
and beyond help. His use of sounds and assonance give the poem a quiet
tone, almost as if the speaker is whispering. There is no appeal to God
or to anyone, he includes no physically horrific imagery, but mentally
tormenting ideas.

Religion is a recurring theme in Owen’s war poetry. The intensity
of war can either bring crisis of faith (Futility) or spiritual
revelation -‘ I too saw God through mud‘’ (Apolgia Pro
Poemate Meo). But most poems seem to question God–‘ For love
of God seems dying’ (Exposure). Then in‘ Futility’ the
Christian idea of God is ignored and a more pagan view of nature and life
is turned to. Futility ultimately questions life’s motives and
offers neither religious comfort nor reasoning for war. In‘ Spring
Offensive’ some of the imagery used echos passages of‘
Revelations’ in the bible–‘ And instantly the whole sky
burned/ With fury against them; earth set sudden cups / In thousands for
their blood’. In this same poem he adopts a sneering tone about
belief in God–‘ Some say God caught them even before they
fell’. But though the Christian church officials are criticised as
hypocrites, and the rituals of Christianity are rejected (Anthem for
Doomed Youth) many of the Christian values are supported. The church
officials are depicted as hiding behind the church, and encouraging the
soldiers to fight. The soldiers are the only true supporters of
Christianity - prepared to die, the ultimate sacrifice.

Understandability of his poems was Owen’s main objective– in
a letter to his mother in 1918 Owen states "I don’t want to write
anything to which a soldier would say‘ No Compris’." This is
reflected in his very direct techniques. Instantly recognisable sounds
and words– such as onomatopoeia are used frequently. In‘ The
Sentry’–‘ And thud! Thump! Thud! Down the steep steps
came thumping . . . The Sentry’s body’. This has the effect
of appealing to more of our senses– we don’t just see the
body falling, we hear it too. Alliteration and repeated sounds adds to
the flow and images of the poem without compromising its
clarity–‘ Slush . . . choked the steps / too thick with clay
to climb’. We hear the clogging footsteps, see the mud and most of
all feel the effort to walk through the mud. Though all the poems are
understandable to most, Owen adds things, for example in‘
Inspection’, his use of the term‘ damnèd spot’ is a
reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If this is not picked up by the
reader it doesn’t leave them at a loss, but if it is understood it
enriches the poem further– adding the image of the guilt and
frantic scrubbing at the blood. This creates layers in Owen’s
poems, creating appeal through many groups of people.

The use of concrete, everyday material for his images creates great power
in his poems. This application of common notions could account for the
dismissive attitudes of some towards him. Yeat’s verdict was‘
mud and sucked sugar stick’ and promptly refused Owen recognition
in his 1936 edition of the‘ Oxford book of Modern Verse’.
This is to miss the point and the power of his poetry. He makes the
situation real, dramatising the experiences, making us share his
suffering. However full recognition as a highly esteemed poet did come,
sadly after his death.

So many of Owen’s poems bring across poignant themes and images,
which stay in the mind long after having read them. Though he states his
primary aim is not poetry, but to describe the full horrors of war, he
tells his experiences and opinions with such clarity and beauty–
adding to the poignancy as war is so ugly and confused. I love to read
his poems over many times, because each time I notice some new cleverness
or point unseen before. His ability to pin point certain images and
moments makes the moments recognisable, even to those who have never
experienced war. He attempts to connect war with other aspects of human
suffering, making him much more than simply a war poet.


‘ The Collected Letters’ Edited by H. Owen and J. Bell 1967

‘ A War of Words’ English Review S. Badsey Feb 1999

‘ The Wilfred Owen Association’
http://www.wilfred.owen.association.mcmail.com/ 1999

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