Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680
Posthumously published, Wilfred Owen’s “The End” paints a devastating scene of a ravaged, war-torn landscape. In the poem, Owen’s speaker considers how any lasting shreds of hope for a peaceful future could exist when only death and destruction surrounds him. Moreover, in anticipating his own end, Owen’s speaker questions the forces of creation—portraying God as a male entity and the Earth as a female entity. He asks if it is possible for humanity to recover from the damages wrought by World War I. Considering its subject, the poem is appropriately gloomy in tone, although it contains a yearning for redemption and rejuvenation. With desperation in his voice, he contemplates the possibility of reincarnation.
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“The End” opens with a bleak depiction of a postapocalyptic landscape in which the desolate Earth burns among littered corpses “after the drums of time have rolled and ceased.” Before the speaker asks, “Shall life renew these bodies?” in the second stanza—illuminating upon the prospect of rebirth—Owen sets the mood of the poem with ethereal imagery of the war’s aftermath, such as “the blast of lightning from the east” and “the flourish of loud clouds” to further illustrate this cycle of death and rebirth. With the image of “the Chariot throne” in the second line, he references Merkabah mysticism, in which the chariot represents a vehicle to heaven. Consequently, Owen’s tone oscillates between despondency and cautious optimism.
In employing a traditional sonnet format, Owen creates a fluid image of wartime in which inescapable death occurs rapidly and at an enormous scale. His rhyme scheme employs features of a Shakespearean sonnet—its octet follows an ABABCDCD structure—but the sestet is idiosyncratically composed of three couplets, unlike Shakespeare’s sonnets’ sestets’ EFEFGG rhyme scheme. By ending the poem in this manner, Owen places an emphasis on the finality of war and its eternally damning effect on humanity and morality. Likewise, he plays with syntax to add further gravity to this situation, as in the second stanza:
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Or fill these void veins full again with youth
And wash with an immortal water age?
In these lines, Owen reorders these questions to stress the verbs “annul” and “assuage,” thereby accentuating the prospect of peace and resolution, even in death. As a result, his words have greater depth, especially combined with his use of alliteration. Owen employs alliteration in other phrases as well, such as “void veins” and “wash with an immortal water.” Other significant sound effects include Owen’s use of iambic pentameter, as he stresses nouns like “truth,” “death,” and “tears.” Such metrical stresses deepen the impact of these already-evocative nouns.
Furthermore, Owen masterfully uses metaphorical devices, especially personification and anthropomorphism, to capture the all-encompassing horrors of World War I. In the final stanza of the poem, Owen refers to a divine force—perhaps God or Time— as “white Age.” This figure responds to Owen’s question about reincarnation by remarking, “My head hangs weighted with snow.” In describing the phenomena of “white Age” as a metaphysical force shrouded in snow, the poem suggests both the intractability and the mysteriousness of history’s ravages. Likewise, Owen personifies the Earth as a female force with a “fiery heart, “ancient scars,” and “titanic tears,” who somberly concludes the poem with a hopelessly unrestrained declaration:
My fiery heart sinks aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified
Nor my titanic tears the seas be dried.
Owen casts the Earth as a mother figure in this passage, seeing the destruction of war as antithetical to her principle of creation. The Earth herself feels these scars and expresses a sorrow as vast, profound, and inextinguishable as the seas of the world.
Wilfred Owen died fighting in World War I at age twenty-five, and thus “The End” is one of the final poems he wrote. A century after his death, Owen’s vivid, effective portrayals of the unrelenting horrors and lasting traumas of war remain resonant and powerful.