Greater Love - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery in Greater Love


Owen’s personification of Love dominates the poem. Love is a figure that Owen addresses as if she can understand the war, sacrifice and death. (For the purposes of this section we will use the female pronoun.) So she, Love, is a romantic figure possessing red lips l.1, alluring eyes l.5, kindness l.3, a slender body l.7, a soft voice l.13, a warm heart l.19 and pale hands l.21. None of these qualities stand up to their equivalents in the dead.


Owen uses a simile in every verse to illustrate the beauty of the dead:

Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead. L.1, 1.2

In an era when lipstick was just beginning to be considered more acceptable, having previously only been worn by women of easy virtue, Owen uses the idea of a lover’s kiss staining the beloved. He compares it to the far more powerful ‘stained stones’ which bear the imprint of the soldiers’ blood as they embrace them in death. (The ‘stained stones’ l.2 also remind us of the ‘alleys cobbled with their brothers’ in Insensibility l.5.) In stanza two, Love’s body, trembling with passion, is a weak reflection of the jerking of flesh as it is bayonetted (‘knife-skewered’ l.8). 

Stanza three’s reference to Love’s voice being as soft and even ‘as wind murmuring’ lacks any real weight (both poetically and in the evocation of Love). However in the fourth verse, the passionate heart of a lover is far outweighed by the great-hearted courage and love of the soldiers, as well as the visceral image of the exploded heart muscle that Owen had doubtless witnessed in dead comrades as the result of shell fire. 


  • Red lips l.1 is used as a signifier of passionate love, but perhaps with connotations of illicit or indulgent sex, given that Owen refers to the ‘shame’ of the ‘Kindness’ between couples. If Owen is thinking about lipstick, which is ‘fake’, it is no wonder that its redness doesn’t compare to the blood sacrificed out of ‘Greater Love’.
  • The cross which the pale hands trail ‘through flame and hail’ l.23 is a symbol of sacrifice made for love, referring as it does to the cross on which (according to the New Testament) an innocent Jesus was executed, in order to save humankind. However, the fact that it is trailed rather than held aloft speaks of the men’s despair that ‘God seems not to care’. This itself echoes Christ’s words from the cross, when he quoted Psalms 22:1-3:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Greater Love

  • Owen’s imagery in Greater Love illustrates in stark detail the horrors of the warfare, as he also does in Dulce et Decorum Est. Look for similarities between the two poems.
  • Disabled is also a poem in which Owen uses graphic detail of injuries. Compare this with Greater Love.

Themes in Greater Love

By entitling this poem Greater Love Owen clearly intended that concept to be its main theme. In his planned introduction to his poetry collection Owen stated clearly that it was not a book about heroes, yet this poem shows the bravery and sacrifice of so many. 

In Greater Love Owen questions the value of conventional love. To him it is as nothing compared to the love and honour men on the field of battle show to each other even as they cough, struggle, and die. The pitiful fate of the dead men adds to Owen’s constant theme of the ‘pity of war’. 

Investigating themes in Greater Love

  • Owen said that his poems were about the pity of war and that the poetry was in the pity. However, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats said of Owen’s poetry that it was all ‘blood, dust and sucked sugar stick’. Examine the themes in Greater Love from Owen’s viewpoint.
    • How far does greater love provide evidence to support W.B. Yeats’ view?
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