Where and how does Wilfred Owen emphasize the theme of class divisions in his poetry?
Issues of class and of class division appear a number of times in the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Since much of Owen’s war poetry deals with the sufferings of common soldiers, and since most common soldiers were men of the lower classes, much of Owen’s war poetry is (almost by definition) concerned with issues of class.
In Owen’s poem “Miners,” for instance, the speaker mentions
. . . all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock . . . (21-23)
Surely most of Owen’s first readers would have assumed that such war-time, battlefield miners were members of the lower classes – the same kind of men who worked in coal mines back home. Members of the aristocracy or upper classes were unlikely to be put to work digging mines and trenches. In fact, an emphasis on class distinctions becomes fairly explicit as this poem moves toward its end. Thus the speaker contrasts the present suffering of himself and other miners with the comfort that will be enjoyed by others thanks to the miners’ efforts, after the war is won:
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired
In rooms of amber . . . (25-26).
The emphasis on the softness of the chairs and the amber (because wood-paneled?) color of the rooms perhaps suggests that the speaker is thinking of the lives of wealthy people. Certainly, by the very end of the poem, an emphasis on class becomes quite explicit:
. . . they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground. (33-34; emphasis added)
In “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” it seems significant that the “old Lie” (27) of the title is given in Latin – the language of the educated upper classes. It was the upper classes who went off to colleges, learned classical languages, and imposed militaristic values on people of the lower classes, while it was mainly people of the lower classes who died by the millions in World War I.
Issues of class are extremely explicit in Owen’s poem titled “The Chances,” in which the speakers are obviously members of the lower classes:
I mind as ’ow the night afore that show
Us five got talking – we was in the know . . . (1-2)
A soldier named Jim explains (the night before an infantry assault) that there are only five things that can happen to a soldier: he can be killed, wounded badly, wounded lightly, captured, or made crazy. The poem ends, ironically, by describing Jim’s own fate:
’E’s wounded, killed, and pris’ner, all the lot –
The ruddy lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad.
In poems such as this one, Owen makes it very clear that it was the lower classes who often did most of the real fighting – and dying, and suffering – in World War I.