Arms and the Boy Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Arms and the Boy” is a poem written for a specific purpose: to convey a message about the horror of World War I, from the experience of a soldier who has witnessed the catastrophe of trench warfare to a public composed of patriotic civilians at home in Britain. The poem is an expression of the alienation between the separate worlds. The poet sees the life at home as make-believe, like boys playing soldier, while the world of bombardment and slaughter, the world of malice and madmen, is the real world for the duration of the war. The reality for an entire generation of young men was that they were not likely to survive the horror of the “blind, blunt bullet-heads.”

Owen was strongly moved by the waste of young life, of children whose laughter and play would be cut off by bullets which would “nuzzle in the hearts of lads.” His poem is a protest against the exploitation of the younger generation for a political purpose that he sees as increasingly futile. By deliberately using images of childhood and the school yard, of “the boy” and “lads” playing at soldiers, he conveys the theme that war and weapons must be taught, that they are not natural to the innocent young of the species but are a tool of the older generation of government and military decision makers. This is one of the meanings Owen seeks to reveal to the civilian population.

There is, however, a sense of the inevitableness of death for these boys in the poem. They...

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