The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.” 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....

(The entire section is 516 words.)