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Theme: The way weaponry has been portrayed.
Throughout literature poets have used various literary devices in order to convey their message to the audience. Wilfred Owen has cleverly personified weaponry in the context of war and has woven it in his poems. This in turn accentuates the message he is trying to convey– the paradox of War. The use of this tool is most prominent in three of his poems, The Last Laugh, Arms and The Boy and Anthem for Doomed Youth. In these poems he depicts weapons as sinister, flesh-hungry savages whose only purpose is to kill. In Anthem for Doomed Youth Wilfred Owen writes and elegiac sonnet moaning the loss of innocent life. Like his other poems to one too is steeped in irony. War he wants to point out is not fanfare and glory. It is dirt and muck and pain and struggle which ultimately end in death. His view of war is greatly influenced by his own experiences. Disenchanted, brutalised and lied to by his own nation he like so many others felt betrayed.
They were taught that war was glorious and soldiers were proud and valiant, the truth of it was that war was none of these and soldiers were being herded like cattle to tthose deaths. He goes on to personify weapons in the Last Laugh as mocking the soldiers that they ruthlessly killed using words such as “guffawed and chirped” In the poem Arms and the Boy, Owen changes the portrayal of the weapon and showcases it as a toy that is being handed out to a child “Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade”. Along with the description of the weapon Owen also juxtaposes the loss of innocence that prevailed during the time of war. In the poem Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery brought into Action Owen portrays weapons as an object that has to be paid respect to, this is shown by the words ‘thou, thee’.
He furthermore goes on to personify the guns by saying that he slowly lifted ‘thou long black arm’ and also describes the destruction that they eventually cause. The four poems have a lot of literary devices packed into them such as sound imagery, metaphors and personification which compliment his description of the weapons. World War 1 was the war that changed history. The use of mechanised weapons on an unsuspecting enemy proved to be the biggest challenge. Earlier war was seen as something glorious and even chivalrous. World War 1 overturned that view, the senseless bloodshed, the ruthless use of weapons made this war anything but glorious. Owen was one such soldier who first hand experienced the horrors of war and unlike poets before him conveyed the reality of war. He and a few others were instrumental in ripping the façade of the honour and glory that war claims to be. His poems are raw, undisguised versions of the harsh reality of what was occurring in the trenches of the Western Front. Wilfred Owen uses a significant amount of literary devices to convey how weapons play a large role in warfare.
His poem the Last Laugh begins with an expletive, ‘Oh! Jesus Christ! I’m hit’ the title itself is rich in irony as the poem goes on to depict how the weapons that are personified ‘chuckle’ and ‘guffaw’ at the soldier’s death. Lines like ‘the bullets chirped, machine guns chuckled…and the Big Gun guffawed’ reveal the dark humour that underlies the poem. The use of onomatopoeia adds to the chilling darkness of the imagery, “tut tut and the way the splinter spat and tittered’ are evidence of this. His use of alliteration enhances the poetic tempo. The ‘lofty Shrapnel’ is personified as it ‘gestures leisurely’ at the dying man calling him fool. Weapons are further personified as grim, hostile entities. The Bayonets have ‘long teeth’ and grinned as ravels of shells ‘hoot and groan and gas hisses’. The use of capital letters to classify the weapons further draws attention to their significance, in this case as purveyors of destruction. In Arms and the Boy, Owen depicts how innocence is destroyed by war. The title itself seems like an oxymoron because children are usually not associated with weapons.
The poem begins with a calm suggestion of letting the boy try the bayonet blade and see how ‘cold the steel is’ The bayonet itself is personified as a creature with a predatory nature, ‘it’s keen with hunger of blood’ its appetite is further described as ‘famishing for flesh’ this use of alliteration of fricative sounds embellishes the rapacious nature of the weapon, it is described as being ‘blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash’ this simile conveys the cruelty and evil that is associated with this weapon. By using explosive sounds and the use of adjectives such as cold increase the sinister effect of the weapon. The second stanza similarly begins with a tender gesture asking the young boy to ‘stroke these blind blunt bullet leads’ the use of consonance adds to making the bullets seem less deadly than they are words such as ‘ long to nuzzle’ portray warmth but ironically the euphuism, ‘in the hearts of lads’ stands for the death of young children.
Cartridges are described as having fine zinc teeth, their sharpness is compared to ‘the sharpness of grief and death’ in saying ‘give him’ these weapons of destruction the poet is juxtaposing innocence with experience and death. Owen does so in a manner that seems innocuous asking the boy to play with these objects of death and destruction. The third stanza ‘his teeth seemed for laughing round an apple’ conveys the idea of childish innocence. The young boy does not have fangs nor ‘claws behind his fingers supple’. Furthermore Owen writes ‘God will grow no talons at his heels or ‘antlers through the thickness of his curls’. This conveys that God had not meant for man to be like a beast. Man needs to arm himself with weapons to don the mantle of a predator. In showing the young boy through the ‘thickness of his curls’ further implies how angelic and innocent he is. Owen is bereaved that he will one day pick up the weapons of destruction and will thus be robbed of his innocence. Owen uses many literary devices such as personification to depict the weapons he says the cartridges ‘have fine zinc teeth’ and the bayonet is described as being ‘keen with hunger of blood’. The poet alludes to Virgil’s epic the Aeneid ‘of arms and the man I sing’.
The poem itself uses half rhyme and alliteration ‘famishing for flesh’, ‘blind blunt bullet leads’ to convey the tone of the poem which is largely sinister. In his poem ‘Anthem for doomed youth’ Owen takes the theme of how weapons destroy one step further. Here to the imagery is stark and the poem begins with sound imagery, ‘what passing bells for these who die as cattle?’ The reference to cattle further shows the diminished emotion that war instils in humans. Soldiers are equated to cattle and the death knells are merely in passing. Written as a Petrarchan sonnet with a ABA rhyme scheme Anthem for doomed youth vividly demolishes the myth of soldiers being valiant of glorious in battle. Here too weapons are personified guns are shown as having ‘monstrous anger’ and ‘the stuttering ripples rapid rattle’ The use of alliteration further enhances the sound imagery as the reader is transported back in time. Words such as ‘stuttering and patter’ convey a sense of grief and hesitation.
There is no one to grieve for those who have died, ‘no mockeries now for them…nor any voice of morning save the choirs’ and these choirs are that of the ‘shrill demented, wailing shells’ by using words such as wailing and mourning Owen is trying to depict the harsh reality that the soldiers had to face. There is neither fanfare nor celebration ‘and bugles call for them from sad shires’ the soldiers are portrayed as the forgotten, remembered only in the ‘pallor of girl’s brows’ And in the ‘tenderness of patient minds’. Owen juxtaposes very interestingly the two themes of religion with war. The imagery of candles and flowers are harshly juxtaposed against that of death and pain. His use of mild innocuous language contrasts sharply with the violence of the action depicted. The two stanzas are starkly different as the first vividly describes the horror of war and the second the hope of the families left behind waiting for fathers, brothers, sons to return.
The disillusionment and bitterness is illumined in this poem. The tone is contrite and bitter and a sense of irony pervades the poem. Written as a eulogy the heading conveys the theme perfectly, it is truly an Anthem for the youth who are doomed to die in a war that made no sense. In the Sonnet that Owen wrote he describes the weapons initially as an object those posses’ majestic qualities. He praises the gun by calling it “Great” which shows his respect for this artillery. He furthermore shows the Gun ‘towering towards heaven’ which shows that the gun is about to attack God himself, portraying the amount of power that it posses. He personifies the gun and lifted its ‘long black arm’. He also describes the canon as a weapon that protects its soldiers as well as kills. Throughout this poem he admires the weapons but the last two lines reveal his true perception of artillery.
Harsh words such as ‘cut thee from our soul’ shows the level of resentment that he has against weapons as he also asks God to ‘curse thee’. The title itself is absurd as a Sonnet is a poem that is addressed to a lover however he uses it differently and uses it to both praise the weapons as well as criticise them. All of Wilfred Owens poems are bound by the sense of irony. His poems resound with pathos. He truly conveys the pity of war and doesn’t seek to elevate it as poets in the past did. His poems are stark snippets of reality as were experienced by young soldiers in trenches. The horror, the infestation the overpowering stench of war is all beautifully conveyed through his poetry. His poetry does not want to gloss over reality it is reality.