Arms and the Boy
“Protest – the unnaturalness of weapons” Wilfred Owen wrote as he sought to categorize this short poem. It would become his most famous, and make this young man – who spent virtually all of his short adult life either in the trenches or in a military hospital – synonomous with First World War poetry, though in his own lifetime only five of his pieces ever saw publication. It was the war that made Owen the poet he was, leading him to abandon his previously-Romantic sensibilities for a realism inspired by blood and dirt, training in murder, and Freudian psychoanalysis – and his fellow soldier and poet Sigfried Sassoon.
War poetry is nothing new, and was nothing new when Owen wrote during his convalescence for shell-shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital. But the English war poetry of the time was patriotic, celebratory, courageous, a moral boon to the war effort and a testament to the brave young men who put their lives on the line for King and Country. But Wilfred Owen painted an altogether-different picture in which bayonets slice through young boys, mustard gas chokes and poisons, hearts and minds are twisted into madness by pervasive violence…and for what? It’s worth putting the whole thing here:
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
This was not the picture of strong, gallant men in service to freedom. This was not tickertape parades and shiny faces earning shiny medals. Owen wrote war. Like none before him.
In 1991, English novelist Pat Barker published a novel about Owen, about his friendship with Sassoon, their days in hospital, their relationship with the war and with poetry. It’s called Regeneration, and it deserves to be read. But read Owen first. Then read him again afterwards. Because what Barker captures is what is so important about Wilfred Owen – the real trauma of war, and the image of the First World War in particular – whose trenches and bodies and senseless slaughter forever dislodged previous public perceptions of what battle looks like, of what war does to the young young boys on the front lines.