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An analysis of selected poems by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen is the writer of arguably some of the best war poetry written in English. He is commonly compared to Keats and Shelley who are often cited as his major influences. Owen began writing poems in his teenage years, mostly on current issues. His experiences after enlisting in the British Army during World War One inform his verse, detailing the horrors he witnessed in the form of endless marches, howling shells, the filth in the trenches and attacks with poison gas, and capturing the brutal and irrational nature of wars (Academy of Poets). There are some events that sparked Owen’s creativity, including his convalescence at Craiglockhart hospital in the summer of 1917, the sessions with a psychiatrist that brought out his internal struggles with Christianity, brotherhood and friendship and most of all his friendship with fellow soldier Siegfried Sassoon.
The two of them agreed on most matters; the need for the war to end and the misuse of nationalism by rulers who sent young men on the battlefield to die for the cause. Sassoon later introduced Owen to a London editor by the name of Robert Ross who then introduced Owen to other poets such as Thomas Hardy and Robert Graves. Owen’s work received a warm reception from critics, and he was pleased to be part of this community (Academy of Poets). [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]Owens poems include, among others: “Maundy Thursday”, “Greater Love”, “Apologia pro PoemateMeo”, “Parable of the Old Men and the Young”, “Arms and the Boy”, “Anthem for the Doomed Youth”, “Dulce et Decorum est” and “Futility” (Owen & Stallworth, 8). These poems, which this paper will analyze, cover some themes such as the irrationality of war and its surreal nature, the love and respect for his fellow soldiers, the complicated relationship between the church and state and immorality of war.
Owen’s poem “Maundy Thursday” shows the apparent distaste Owen had for the Christian religion. The poem was composed in 1915, two years after Owen had practiced as an assistant to the Vicar of Dunsden (Owen & Stallworth, 12). It describes a Christian mass where the congregation, one by one, approaches the altar to kiss the silver cross in held by a server lad with brown hands. Owen’s description of the men as ‘lugubrious but not sad’ implies that the people take the act as a simple gesture and not a statement of their faith. They seem to attend the Mass out of habit and not conviction. The women, on the other hand, seem to worship the real presence represented by the cross. While their faith is genuine, they phrase “their mouths are meek” implies that religion does not require the independent-minded, rather, those who can submit to it. [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
The children are too young, and their imaginations run wild, Owen uses the reference to a silver doll to portray the fact that they may not understand the implications of the gesture. Owen goes through all the necessary motions, kneeling and bending his head to kiss the ‘thing.’ In my opinion, Owen’s description of the Christ as “thin cold and very dead” makes his participation in the process seem rather routine and pointless. However, Owen continued to edit this poem at the time he was hospitalized for shell shock at Craiglockhart, which demonstrates the enduring relevance of this poem during the war
In “Greater Love” Owen rejects the idea of common love. By contrasting red lips which are usually indicative of romance to stones stained by English blood, beautiful eyes to the eyes blinded by Owen in battle. The exquisiteness of love’s attitude to the limbs cut by knives, love’s voice to that which sighs through a ‘raftered loft’ or those voices stopped by death. The hands of one peppered with shots being hotter and larger than other hands and those as pale as those who carry the cross through “through flame and hail.”
Many critics have analyzed this poem as having a theme of gender and sex. In particular, James Najarian’s article on Owen and the theme of eroticism portrays “Greater Love” as advocating for the bonds that may exist among men and slightly denigrates normative heterosexuality. He interprets the poem as being an argument by Owen that states the potential of same-sex love to be greater because it cannot be corrupted by traditional roles and diluted by common gestures that are usually deemed poetic. He further states that Owen compares heterosexuality to ‘kindness’ ascan become “rapidly pedestrian.” Najarian reiterates the purity of same-sex love based on the fact that it cannot be diluted by current poetic expression (Najarian, 6). However, I am of the opinion that “Greater Love” is simply descriptive of the suffering in the trenches of young soldiers who die an untimely death and the brutality of war contrasted with normal life.
“Parable of the Old man and the Young” is another of Owen’s poems that shows his complicated relationship with Christianity. Using the story from the Bible of Abraham being instructed by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac only for God to provide a ram at the last minute. Owen narrates how the English rulers (Najarian, 11) misconstrue an act that was initially honorable (the sacrifice of Isaac, Abrahams only son, to God). And further their selfish agenda (refusing to slaughter the lamb of pride and instead of slaughtering Isaac and later half the children of Europe, one by one) (Owen & Stallworth, 18).
Owen views the war as an unnecessary pain for the nation, brought about only by the rulers’ selfish agenda and pride.
In “Arms and the Boy,” Owen portrays the unnaturalness of weapons. In the first stanza, someone, quite likely the masters of the war, instructs the young boy to touch the bayonet blade. This act is meant to make the young boy get excited about the weapons he will soon have to use, which is ironic. The bayonet is described as a bloodthirsty animal with a “hunger for blood,” it is described as insane, “Blue with all malice” like “a madman’s flash.” The chaos that the weapon can cause seems unpredictable and crazed. In the second stanza, the boy is seduced into using these weapons, with descriptions like “blunt bullet-heads” and “cartridges of fine zinc teeth.” Finally, by contrasting the gentle nature of the boy with sharp and animal like teeth and talons, Owen proves once again the brutal nature of war for which man was not created.
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” is evidently a lament for the dead, an opinion on Owen’s experience of war as opposed to an account of the experience itself. By contrasting the loud sounds of battle to Britain’s ‘sad shires’ where loved ones mourn the loss of their dead. “Anger of the Guns” implies that the soldiers behind the guns were not angry and the citizens probably had more hatred for the enemy than the soldiers at the front lines. The sadness can only be seen in the eyes of the boys and brows of the girls, as dusk near, signifying the doom of youth. This poem makes mourning for the dead seem pointless as it can do little to bring them back.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
“It is sweet and honorable, to die for one’s country” is a quote from Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum est.” In it, he describes a troop of weary soldiers marching in the night, so tired that they do not hear the shells dropping. When they are finally warned of the impeding danger of poisonous gas, it is too late for one of them who is later carried on a cart while gurgling blood from his destroyed lungs. Amidst all this, Owen implies that those back at home still deem war as honorable, yet they know not of the suffering at the frontlines. Owen’s description of the event is harshly written and leaves one with a distaste for the notion of going to war for the country’s honor.
Finally, Owen uses “Futility” to bring out the grief associated with war. The poem is set on the frontline on a bright morning upon the passing of a soldier. Owen ponders the futility of nature that gives life only also to give the possibility of its extinction. He uses imagery of the sun by contrasting its warmth and vitality with its inability to wake up the dead soldier as it once would. Owen seems perplexed as to the sun’s ability to wake the seeds and yet could not stir the still warm insides of a man. The futility of the situation is how nature could give life and yet watch idly by as that same life wastes away (Bateson, 34).
As shown in the summary of some Owen’s work, his poems succeeded in aptly describing war and the internal conflict it brought in a person and in nature itself.
Academy of Poets.”Wilfred Owen – Poet | Academy of American Poets.”Wilfred Owen | Academy of American Poets,
BATESON, F. W. “The Analysis of Poetic Texts: Owen’s ‘Futility’ and Davie’s ‘The Garden Party’.” Essays in Criticism, vol. XXIX, no. 2, 1979, pp. 156-164.
Najarian, James. Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality, and Desire. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Owen, Wilfred, and Jon Stallworthy.The Poems of Wilfred Owen.Norton, 1986.
Simcox, Kenneth. Wilfred Owen: Anthem for a Doomed Youth. Woburn P, 1987.