In preparing a work for posterity, Owen wrote in his planned introduction to his war poems: ‘my subject is war and the pity of war’.
The pity of war
Owen said that the poetry in his poems lay in the pity they evoked. Many of his poems describe situations where we feel pity for the dead and dying:
Anthem for Doomed Youth is soaked in sadness
Disabled was originally to be the title poem for Owen’s collection
Dulce et Decorum Est ranges from the pity for the weary soldiers, to the individual dying of gas poisoning, to the poet himself who is still haunted by the sight in his dreams
Futility is a poem which evokes our pity for the dead boy far from home.
The horror of war
Owen said that poets should tell the truth about the reality of the trenches and the war of attrition that produced horrendous casualties and agonising deaths. Owen‘s aim was to communicate man’s inhumanity to man to his readers:
In Mental Cases and Disabled his theme is the gruesome aftermath of war
Dulce et Decorum Est, Insensibility and The Sentry deal with the front line action.
Nearly every one of Owen’s poem contains some aspect of this theme.
Protest against war
Owen did not join up immediately in 1914.
He wrote the poem 1914 in response to the German bombings of the Home front
After he had experienced the horrors of the Somme, and in response to those at home who were urging children to die for their country, he wrote Dulce et Decorum Est with its strong anti-war message
The Letter, Soldier’s Dream, Strange Meeting and The Parable of the Old Man and the Young (amongst others) have an anti-war theme.
Injuries in war
Owen repeatedly uses the motif of the physical and mental damage war inflicts. The following are just a few examples:
In Spring Offensive he focuses on the moment of death and speculation on the hereafter
The Dead Beat seemingly raises no one’s pity
There is a distance in Owen’s depiction of the boy in S.I.W.
In Exposure the soldiers turn back to their dying and await the burial parties
The theme of death haunts the poem Wild with All Regrets
The death and burial of the Staffordshire Miners echoes the theme of the war dead and their forgotten graves.
That the survivors of war are unfortunates as well as the dead is a subtle theme in Owen’s poetry:
‘A few, a few, too few’ who creep back in The Send Off are the same ‘few who rush in’ at the end of Spring Offensive but live ‘to speak not of comrades’
Disabled and Mental Cases ably demonstrate the psychological and physical effects of warfare.
Owen’s pity for these men is profound.
As a small boy Owen fell in love with poetry, in his own words ‘through nature’. It is not surprising then that amidst the gruesome realities of the First World War he should be alert to the natural world:
Nowhere is Owen more sensitively aware of nature than in Spring Offensive where the men rest on the hillside before going over the top to their deaths. Nature seems benign. Trees, grass and buttercups flourish. Owen observes however that the insects are wasps and midges - creatures that irritate and harm. Spring and summer bring their delights but always there is a sense of danger. The sky and the sun are not benign, they are mysterious and threatening. Unfriendly aspects of nature can burn with fury as the men run across the herbs and heather of the hillside.
In Futility nature is as important a theme as war. The young dead boy is described against a background of an England in which he was a natural part. The warmth of seed-time and spring contrast with the snow which has contributed to his death. Owen’s anger flashes out against the ‘fatuous sun’ which is incapable of restoring the boy to life
In Exposure Owen uses the weather, a phenomenon of nature, to carry the theme of war. The wind and rain lash and the snow-flakes feel the faces of the men. The frost will fasten on bodies and ice form over dead eyes
In 1914 Owen uses the natural seasons to place the outbreak of war in the cycle of civilisation: in 1914 the war becomes the ‘Winter of the world’
Feelings are a major theme in Owen’s poetry, both his own emotions and those of other people.
Love of their country was a significant motivation for men to fight in the First World War. Owen was prepared to die for the language of Keats, before he saw the conditions in which that death would have to occur.
The theme of love appears in different forms in different poems:
The moving simplicity of the trust and love that the fighting man has for his comrade creates a major theme in Spring Offensive. The poem opens with the men sleeping at ease on friends’ chests or knees and ends with the horror felt by the few who survive who are now incapable of speaking of the friends who died
The grim situation which Owen describes in Exposure serves to highlight the theme of love. The sacrificial love which allows men to die for each other seems to be the soldiers’ natural destiny. The unrelenting cruelty of the Western front suggests to the men that ‘love of God seems dying’
The love between comrades becomes the love between enemies in Strange Meeting: ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend’.
It might be expected that hatred would be a major theme in Owen’s war-poetry; however, the anti-war theme of his poems results in hatred being much less dominant than love. That said, hatred does appear and when it does it shocks in a way we do not expect:
Owen leaves the antipathy felt by the doctor for the soldier in The Dead Beat to fester on our imaginations: ‘that scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’ This from a member of a ‘caring profession’ for someone who is so ‘dead beat’ with the pounding he has received in the war that he can do nothing
In S.I.W. those men who shoot themselves to escape the horrors of war are seen as ‘vile’. Those at home, such as the father of the young boy Tim who kills himself, say ‘death sooner than dishonour’ and hate the ‘Hun’
During their Strange Meeting, Owen’s enemy/friend sums up the more significant hatred for ‘the cess of war’ as opposed to any conventional hatred for ‘the enemy’.
Fear, hatred and anger are akin. In his poetry it is Owen’s anger which we encounter most frequently, although there are some interesting exceptions:
In Anthem for Doomed Youth ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’ personifies the anger of war
Insensibility is a poem which ironically presents those who are insensible to the pain of others as the happy ones. Owen’s own anger spills out in the final stanza: ‘Cursed are dullards who no cannon stuns’
Dulce et Decorum Est is perhaps Owen’s angriest poem. The way he feels at how the war reduces men to ‘march asleep’ builds up, through his anger at the grotesque death-throes of the gassed man, to the venomous spitting out of bitterness at the ‘you’ responsible for telling children ‘the Old Lie’.
Experiencing something bad which one can do nothing to alleviate creates frustration. This is clearly seen in those with injured bodies as well as those who cannot help them:
In Wild with All Regrets the speaker voices the private and personal anger of the man dying of wounds in hospital, castigating his arms as ‘brutes’ for their failure to respond
In Disabled, the soldier transfers his frustration with himself onto others: ‘Why don’t they come?’
‘The poetry is in the pity’, wrote Owen. The deep emotion of grief permeates almost all Owen’s poems. In some it is more overt than in others:
The deep grief of those who survive the Spring Offensive results in their life-long silence about the war
This contrasts with the sobs of The Sentry for his loss of sight
The dead enemy in Strange Meeting speaks of ‘my weeping’
The cries of the dying in The Last Laugh.
The relationships between men at the front were crucial. Their reliance on each other was a matter of survival and this camaraderie is a major theme throughout Owen’s poems. The relationship between the men at the front and people at home was often very different.
Officers and men
As an officer Owen was very conscious of the responsibility he held for the men in his command.
In Inspection, The Sentry and The Dead Beat Owen represents himself as the officer in charge. His care for his men is not sentimental. At times it can read as critical, of either himself (The Sentry) or the victim (The Dead Beat).
Brothers in arms / camaraderie
The Send Off, Spring Offensive and Exposure all show the camaraderie which Owen celebrates in his war poetry:
In The Send Off the men sing together, fight together and most die together
In Spring Offensive they rest and sleep together before they make the attack
The whole of Exposure is about how they suffer and die, hope and dream together
Wild with All Regrets demonstrates the importance of the care of brother-in-arms – the only ones sometimes with whom servicemen can be honest.
Parents and children
In many of Owen’s poems he paints a disjunction between the expectations of the older generation on the Home front and the reality their sons faced. Thus the relationship between parents and children is seen as part of the bitterness of war:
The father of the man who dies in S.I.W. believes in death before dishonour, whilst his mother hopes he will get a Blighty one
In The Last Laugh the dying son calls out the names of his mother and father, perhaps too young to have had to leave them
A common motif in Owen’s poetry is of the youthfulness of the fallen, as seen in: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility, Inspection, The Last Laugh, Dulce et Decorum Est and The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.
The role of women
There is a divided attitude apparent in Owen’s mentions of women. Often, depicted in the voices of his ‘men’, they are objects of love and caring concern, their protection the reason why the men fight:
The wife, mother and daughter of the writer of The Letter are beloved and will be bereaved
In Anthem for Doomed Youth only the evident grief of the ‘girls’ is an adequate tribute to the dead.
However, women at home are sometimes scorned by Owen:
‘The giddy jilts’ in Disabled no longer care for ‘damaged goods’
The unfaithfulness of his wife is the last straw for The Dead Beat
In Miners Owen acknowledges the fact that most (personified in female terms as ‘crooning’) will quietly erase memories of male sacrifice from their hopes for the future.
Owen’s religious upbringing means that Christian imagery infuses much of his work. His belief in the text, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ John 15:13, is at the heart of the pity of war which he said was the main theme of his poetry.
The image of an all-powerful, but not always all loving, God is found in the following poems:
In The Parable of the Old Man and the Young God tests father Abram’s faith but sends an angel to intervene and save the boy Isaac from death. In war the Old Man sacrifices the Young and no one intervenes – a reflection on the seeming powerlessness of God
In Soldier’s Dream God is vengeful, ensuring the continuance of war through his military agent, Michael
At the end of his Sonnet: On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action, Owen prays that once the war is over God will curse the weapons of war which have caused so much destruction.
Whereas Owen sometimes paints God as a vengeful force, the image he portrays of Jesus is gentle and peace loving:
The name of Jesus Christ is used as the first soldier cries out in pain in The Last Laugh. As Owen explained to his pious mother, on the field of battle blasphemy and prayer are akin
TheSoldier’s Dream is of Jesus as a Saviour who comes to save the men from death by destroying the weapons of war
Faith, doubt and the church
In the face of devastating carnage, conventional platitudes about God’s love and control no longer sufficed. Some could only reconcile what they had been taught and what they now experienced by drawing a line between God’s character and the assertions of the church which claimed to represent him.
The poignant line ‘for love of God seems dying’ in Exposure echoes the line ‘we turn back to our dying’ l.30. Owen is being ambiguous. The suggestion is both that God’s love for the men is dying and that their love for him is dying
Similarly Owen sees the ministers of church and state as complacent propagandists for war in The Dead Beat
Most bitterly, in Anthem for Doomed Youth Owen sees the rites and rituals of the church as a mockery of the dead.
Christian teaching in war
Owen grappled with the contradiction of being called both to fight against, and show love towards, his enemies. The first instruction was pronounced from pulpits, the other he found in the gospels where Jesus said ‘Love your enemies’:
Strange Meeting demonstrates this collision of values. The ‘strange friend’ Owen addresses in his dream of hell says, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’ l.40 and suggests, ‘Let us sleep now.’ l.44
Spring Offensive, Owen’s last complete poem, is poignant with the pity of war. The love men show for each other on the field of battle is illustrated before during and after the attack.
Making sense of the senseless
Owen was a conscientious officer to his men. He did his duty in the face of his religious and humanitarian principles. The physical and psychological sufferings Owen saw and personally experienced on the Western front were significant for a thoughtful and sensitive young man:
1914 shows Owen’s initial views on the war
Strange Meeting explores the philosophy of loving your enemy
Dulce et Decorum Est expresses his hatred for the ‘old Lie’ that it is ‘sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’.
Owen was haunted by the things he had seen and experienced on the Western Front. Indeed, sometimes the idiom of dream was perhaps the only way to process the atrocities he witnessed. The motif of dreams and dreaming can be found in the following poems: