Arms and the Boy

by Wilfred Owen

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Student Question

Analyze the poem "Arms and the Boy."

Quick answer:

In “Arms and the Boy,” Wilfred Owen uses devices like simile, personification, imagery, and alliteration to depict how it is unnatural and barbaric for young men to engage in war. For instance, the image of talons growing at the boy's heels and antlers growing through his thick, curly hair emphasize how unnatural and barbaric it is for boys to fight in war. This poem should be analyzed in the context of the war it was written about, World War I.

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Wilfred Owen’s poem “Arms and the Boy” explores how young boys are taught to engage in war. This poem must be analyzed in the context of World War I, in which young men were sent into the brutal world of trench warfare, where they were unlikely to survive. Owen uses a great deal of figurative language in this poem to highlight the brutality of warfare and critique the way in which young men are taught to engage in it.

For example, Owen uses a simile to compare the blade to a flash of a madman’s anger. He also personifies the blade when he says that it is “famishing for flesh.” By portraying the boy’s blade as this angry, vicious object, he suggests that the boy will soon be like the blade when he goes to war. Owen also uses vivid imagery when he writes that

God will grow no talons at his heels
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

The image of a handsome young boy growing talons or antlers is unnatural and strange to visualize. By stating that God will not do this, Owen is showing readers how making young men engage in barbaric acts of violence like other animals is not natural for human beings.

Notice how the phrase “famishing for flesh” is also an example of alliteration, when a writer repeats an initial sound multiple times in a phrase. Owen uses several other alliterations in this poem, like when he writes about the “blind, blunt, bullet-leads.” These alliterations help him emphasize the harsh nature of these subjects and add an engaging musical quality to the writing.

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We can begin an analysis of Wilfred Owen's poem “Arms and the Boy” by taking a close look at the poem's meaning. The speaker is describing a boy who is going off to war. Recall that Owen wrote during World War I and was himself a soldier (he did not return home). This boy is innocent yet. He should be eating apples and laughing. Yet he must become familiar with the tools of war.

This boy must “try along this bayonet-blade.” He must run his thumb along it and see how sharp and cold it is. This blade is “keen with hunger of blood” and “blue with all malice.” It is even “famishing for flesh.” Notice how the poet personifies the blade, giving it the qualities of a seasoned warrior that is out for its enemy's blood. The boy, however, is not like that, yet the implication is that if he uses the blade, he might become so. He might grow hardened.

Then the speaker wants the boy to stroke “these blind, blunt bullet-leads.” These bullets want to “nuzzle in the hearts of lads.” The poet makes these bullet-leads sound like animals, almost pets, that tolerate stroking and like to cuddle, but ironically, these pets are deadly. The cartridges, too, have “fine zinc teeth,” and they are “sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.” They bite, and their bite brings sorrow and destruction.

Again, this boy is innocent, but if he is going to be a soldier, he must know his weapons, and he must realize how deadly they are. Yet he needs these weapons if he is going to fight, for God has given him no weapons of his own. He is no demon with claws or talons or horns. He is an ordinary boy, just like every other soldier who picks up weapons and goes to fight. The poet is implying here that what the soldiers do out of duty does not reveal who they are as people. They may use deadly weapons but still have innocent, laughing hearts.

Now let's take a look at the poem's structure. Notice how the rhymes in each pair of lines are slightly off. “Blade” and “blood” do not actually rhyme, although they contain similar sounds. The same is true for the rest of the pairings (with the exception of “apple” and “supple”). These non-rhymes are rather jarring, and they are intended to be, for they match the unsettling subject matter of the poem. Notice, too, how the poet adds interest through alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds), as in “malice” and “madman's,” and how he plays a bit with his syntax, as in “fingers supple.”

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