Wilfred Owens’ poetry on war can be described as a passionate expression of Owen’s outrage over the horrors of war and pity for the young soldiers sacrificed in it. His poetry is dramatic and memorable, whether describing shame and sorrow, such as in ‘The Last Laugh’, or his description of the unseen psychological consequences of war detailed in ‘The Next War’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. His diverse use of instantly understandable technique is what makes him the most memorable of the war poets. His poetry evokes more than simple disgust and sympathy from the reader; issues previously unconsidered are brought to our attention.
The conscription of young men to battle during WWI was typically celebrated. Committed soldiers were glorified as heroes of the national cause. In Britain, churchmen justified such human sacrifice in the name of war, by claiming God was on Britain’s side. Religious services and anthems were sung, praising the patriotic departure of troops even though it culminated in great human loss. Owen’s poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, criticises Britain’s actions and their ignorant exaltation of them. Owen ironically undermines the concept of an anthem by emphasising that there is nothing to celebrate but ‘Doomed Youth’.
This refers to the young men having their lives brutally cut short. Owen establishes the theme of his sonnet with the rhetorical question “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” This refers to the inhumane slaughter of soldiers, shifting the audience’s vision of an honourable and pride-worthy death to the unprecedented and shameful mass killings of the Great War. Throughout the poem, Owen juxtaposes the musical quality of an anthem with the harsh sounds of war. This concept is first raised at the end of the first quatrain with the noisy onomatopoeia of the “rifles’ rapid rattle”. The use of the adjective ‘rapid’ and the assonance on ‘a’ quickens the pace and indicates the fashion in which the dead are buried in war.
Similarly to the aforementioned poem, ‘The Next War’ is a sarcastic poem presenting a soldier’s fatalistic recognition that in battle, death is his ‘chum’. This poem was written at the same time as ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, allowing it a different approach on a common idea. In the poem, Owen personifies death as to relate it the men, and their acceptance and ability to tolerate its rude behaviour. In the octave of the sonnet, Owen takes the audience to the Western Front, ‘Out there’, and describes the strange behaviour which their extraordinary situation excites: ‘we walked quite friendly up to death.’
Owen shows how the confining circumstances of battle overturn the ordinary conviction of life. This is depicted differently that of ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’. The audience is not directly asked to think of the soldiers as cattle ‘doomed’ to slaughter, but rather the environment they endure and the likelihood of death just as real. Onomatopoeia and personification are used to show the bullets, shells and shrapnel that death ‘spits’ and ‘coughs’ at men. Readers recognise that death is not glorious and that the real ‘enemies’ are those who orchestrated the soldiers’ daily meetings with it.
Likewise, ‘The Last Laugh’ circuitously raises the issue of the futility and sympathetic corollary of war. This is shown by the mockery of the sound of personified weapons laughing at soldiers dying in battle. The poem bitterly portrays the inhumane, death-bringing instruments of war having the ‘last laugh’. Three different but familiar cries of dying soldiers are listed. The first soldier calls on Jesus Christ, as he dies, but the only response is the mockery of the bullets, the machine-guns and the ‘Big Gun’. The second soldier cries out to his parents, but the shrapnel-cloud titters at him as a fool. The third soldier ‘moans’ to his beloved, but he can only ‘kiss’ the mud, as the bayonets, the shells and the gas deride him. Extensive use of onomatopoeia is made, linked to the personification of weaponry, in ‘chirped’, ‘guffawed’, ‘spat’, ‘tittered’ and ‘hissed’. This downgrades the value of troops mercilessly sent off to war, leaving behind their families, friends and life.
As well as criticising the nature and reality of wars, ‘The Send Off’, condemns the fashion in which men were sent off to battle. The poem is about a shameful and sinister departure of soldiers from an English rural setting. Owen begins the poem with the image of soldiers happily singing ‘down the close darkening lanes’. The portrayal of darkening lanes gives a notion of pessimism and fear, eluding their journey is not as innocent as the cheerful singing it begins with. This ambiguity is captured in the phrase, ‘grimly gay’, as to describe the men’s’ faces as seen in the train windows. The oxymoron ruthlessly closes the first stanza, indicating further uncertainty of the supposed adventure. Unlike the patriotic posters at the time, which showed women at home bravely urging their loved ones to war, Owen describes the place to be ‘silent’ and secret, only ‘dull porters…staring hard’ at the British youths. A ‘send-off’ juxtaposes a glad occasion of departure and farewell, but there is nothing to celebrate about the destiny of these men: they will be either killed, lost or return broken and ashamed.
These poems bring across poignant themes and images which remain in one’s mind long after having read them. Owen claims his primary aim is not poetry, but to describe the full horrors of war and other aspects of human suffering and ignorance. He has been successful.