The themes, techniques and reader response to the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen

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The themes, techniques and reader response to the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen  

The First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen provides an exhaustive and poignant account of the atrocities he witnessed between the Allies and the Germans from 1914 to 1918. Although the style and structure of his poems vary considerably throughout his body of work, the two elements of physical and psychological torment suffered by the soldiers in the war. He is quoted here describing his work:

‘Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The poetry is in the pity.’

The physical destruction the Great War had on the soldiers is often described in minute, intricate detail. Owen’s most famous poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ paints a stomach-churning image of a victim of a gas attack, describing his ‘white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin’. In poems such as ‘Mental Cases’, Owen shows the profound mental effect of the war on a great deal of soldiers, grotesquely describing their faces as ‘wearing this hilarious, hideous, awful falseness of set-smiling corpses’.

Owen’s ability to write such memorable and poignant poetry with an intellectual depth that goes beyond the simple emotion of sympathy is what makes his work exceptional.

        His poems can be read at a number of levels, which means his work appeals to a wider audience. For example in ‘Inspection’ there is a reference to Macbeth when he speaks of the ‘damnèd spot’ of blood on the soldiers uniform. In Lady Macbeth’s case the blood signifies the dirt of guilt, however in the case of the soldier it is clearly not guilt but the wound he has suffered that causes the mark. The officer’s response that ‘blood is dirt’ shows that he either doesn’t care or is unaware of the fact that the mark is due to his injury.

        Such references serve to increase the appeal to different groups of readers, as they will not disorientate the reader who is unaware of the connection. Instead, they will enhance the image of the soldier removing the bloodstain; to those familiar with the scene in Macbeth in which he fears that not even ‘all great Neptune's ocean could wash this blood, clean from his hand’.


Like many of his contemporaries, Owen held a deep disregard towards the futile and sympathetic attitude that many civilians directed at the returning soldiers. Much of the false impressions however were a result of the national press and the fabricated stories of comfort and happiness amongst the soldiers. Indeed the poem ‘Smile, smile, smile’ was written in direct response to an article published in the Daily Mail. Owen speaks of the ‘broad smiles that appear each week’ in photographs of the troops and the misguided readers ‘in whose voice real feeling rings say: how they smile! They’re happy now, poor things’.

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In poems such as ‘the Send Off’ Owen describes the soldiers appearance, their ‘breasts stuck all white with wreath and spray, as men’s are, dead’. This makes a mockery of the glorified troops, comparing their decorated appearance with that of a corpse lying in a coffin. In ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ Owen caustically states ‘these men are worth your tears. You are not worth their merriment’

        This apparent feeling of contempt is again echoed in ‘Disabled’ although in this poem the it is directed towards the authorities as ‘smiling’ they ‘wrote his lie’ and allowed the underage civilian to join ...

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