Arms and the Boy

by Wilfred Owen

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Themes and Meanings

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“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 are no match for the bullets and cartridges, and the final end is sure to be “grief and death.” There is a sense of endurance, an acceptance that there is no fate but violent death, a state that Owen reached only after a period of inward contemplation during his own convalescence in the hospital. He would go back to join the boys at the front, in a war that civilians could never understand and poets could never explain. Owen died in action only a few days before the armistice. He could not save the innocent child, the boy with supple fingers and thick curls. He could not save himself. All that the true war poet could do was warn the next generation.

“Arms and the Boy,” for all its graphic description of malicious weaponry, has a musing quality. While Owen’s aim is to communicate the horror, futility, and unnatural state of war to civilians and future generations, the poem is his personal meditation on the “pity of War.” He reveals his own political protest, his homosexual love for the beauty of young men, and his mastery of classical poetic devices.

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