The poetry of Wilfred Owen must be discussed in its historical context. Owen was one of a generation of British poets of World War I, an educated class of soldier-poets whose poetry can be divided into two distinct periods. The first period is roughly from 1914 to the Battle of the Somme in 1916. In this period, the poetic voice of the generation was generally patriotic and heroic. However, as the war dragged on, the carnage and suffering seemed ceaseless and pointless, since the front lines changed by only a few miles from year to year. The second period of British war poetry is the period to which Owen’s important work belongs.
While the officer-poets were becoming deeply disillusioned by the war, a gap was growing between the men fighting and the civilians at home in Britain: Soldiers home on leave found it impossible for their families to understand the realities of trench warfare. Owen wrote, in a preface to a volume of poems planned but not published in his lifetime, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Owen’s purpose in “Arms and the Boy” is to communicate some of his view of the “pity of War” to British civilians.
“Arms and the Boy” is a twelve-line meditation on the unnaturalness of weapons. In the first two stanzas, the poet presents a method of training a young boy to know, use, and appreciate a bayonet blade, bullets, and a cartridge. The instructions are heavy with irony. The poem begins: “Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade/ How cold steel is.” The first four lines describe, in harsh detail, the “madman’s flash” of that blade, “Blue with all malice.”
The second four lines speak of the “blind, blunt bullet-heads” and the sharp “cartridges of fine zinc teeth.” It is clear that the boy is not familiar with these weapons; this is a first acquaintance with the implements of death. While the first stanza emphasizes the cold malice of the blade, the second stanza moves on to the “sharpness of grief and death.”
In the final four lines, the poet makes his point. This child’s teeth “seem for laughing round an apple.” He hides no claws, nor talons, nor antlers for fighting. God has not made this boy for war, but he will be carefully taught and groomed in the implements of death by the elder generation that Owen condemns as responsible for the war.
In this poem Owen has written of a general situation rather than a specific war. He creates a picture that any English citizen at home can imagine, of boys playing soldier. This is Owen’s voice in 1918, saying that war is cruel and that its greatest cruelty is in the destruction of youth and beauty. In the context of 1918 and a generation of young men killed in the trenches, this innocent youth is doomed. The universality of the statement does not weaken its bitterness, for the boy and the “blind, blunt” bullets are not mere generalities after all.
Owen was not merely a poet of protest. He was also a poet of technical accomplishment, originality, and assurance. He was greatly influenced by classical models, particularly the nineteenth century British poets John Keats and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He was accomplished in the art and beauty of the form and language of poetry.
The title of the poem is literary, calling to mind Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (1894), as well as the opening of Vergil’s Aeneid (30-19 b.c.e. ): “Of arms I sing, and of the man.”...
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Such is Owen’s control of his material, that by the simple contrast of the heroic man of Vergil’s Greek epic with the British schoolboy of his poem, he manages to set a tone of ironic contrast at once.
“Arms and the Boy” is similar in feeling to an elegy, a meditative poem of lamentation for the dead. By the use of this classic form, he is able to indicate a complex progression of feeling, from protest against the futile carnage of the war, to anger at the waste of young life, to a turning inward toward sadness and grief. He mourns an entire generation of innocent youth.
Throughout the poem, Owen uses sensuous, beautiful language and the languid l sounds in “Let,” “Lend,” and “blind, blunt bullet-heads” to heighten the contrast with his harsh message, the cold ugliness of his subject: guns, bullets, implements of carnage, suffering, and death. Thus the rich, musical language of the poem is carefully chosen for its dissonance. The sensuous l contrasts with the alliteration of the cold, hard c and k of the “cold steel,” which is “keen with hunger or blood,” and the “cartridges of fine zinc.” Owen’s skill as a poet is evident not only in this use of alliteration but also in his rhyme scheme. He uses inexact or slant rhymes: blade/blood, flash/flesh, heads/lads, teeth/death, apple/supple, heels/curls.
Owen makes no attempt to conceal his homosexual orientation. The homoerotic elements in the poem reflect an intermingling of feelings. Owen presents the relationship of war to the young soldier in the terms of sexual experimentation: “long to nuzzle” and “try” and “stroke” and “famishing for flesh.” His imagery is strongly physical, with emphasis on parts of the body: teeth, fingers, heels, and hair. This language reflects the deep feelings that developed between the fighting men and the young officers in the heightened atmosphere of imminent death found in the trenches.
The camaraderie of the trenches is intensified into a love that is, in Owen’s case, homosexual but also expresses his deep sorrow at the waste of tender young lives. Even in the works of heterosexual poets of 1918, the image of a beautiful young man dying in the arms of fellow soldiers aroused feelings of love. This homoerotic motif in Great War writings is an expression of a very literary war, reflecting the classical education of the generation, raised on the Greek and Latin of the Iliad and the Aeneid, and the love of heroes like Achilles and Patroclus.