Wilfred Owen, selected poems Contents
- Wilfred Owen: Social and political background
- Wilfred Owen: Religious / philosophical context
- Wilfred Owen: Literary context
- Wilfred Owen: 1914
- Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth
- Wilfred Owen: At a Calvary near the Ancre
- Wilfred Owen: Disabled
- Wilfred Owen : Dulce et Decorum Est
- Wilfred Owen: Exposure
- Wilfred Owen: Futility
- Wilfred Owen: Greater Love
- Wilfred Owen: Hospital Barge
- Wilfred Owen: Insensibility
- Wilfred Owen: Inspection
- Wilfred Owen: Le Christianisme
- Wilfred Owen: Mental Cases
- Wilfred Owen: Miners
- Wilfred Owen: S.I.W
- Wilfred Owen: Soldier’s Dream
- Wilfred Owen: Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action
- Wilfred Owen: Spring Offensive
- Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting
- Wilfred Owen: The Dead-Beat
- Wilfred Owen: The Last Laugh
- Wilfred Owen: The Letter
- Wilfred Owen: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
- Wilfred Owen: The Send-Off
- Wilfred Owen: The Sentry
- Wilfred Owen: Wild with All Regrets
Insensibility - Synopsis and commentary
Synopsis of Insensibility
In the first four stanzas Owen tells us that the only way for a soldier to survive on the Western front is to damp down his own emotions, rather than respond to the carnage that surrounds him (stanza 1), and to become insensible to his bodily sensations (stanza 2). A soldier is fortunate if he loses the capacity to imagine, be horrified or terrified (stanza 3) or if he is ignorant of what is happening due to being on leave or never having thought very deeply (stanza 4). Such men are, in Owen’s estimation, ‘happy’ and those who, like the poet, think too deeply and imagine too vividly need to learn from them (stanza 5). However, the poet curses those who perfectly comprehend the horrors of war yet have made themselves immune to its terrible consequences and wilfully ‘turn a blind eye’ to those they should pity.
Commentary on Insensibility
A reaction to Romanticism
Owen’s choice of title for his poem is influenced by a line in the poet Shelley’s essay A Defence of Poetry. Here Shelley defines poetry as being:
Shelley is espousing the Romantic notion of the poet as an acutely aware (‘sensible’, as in, ‘alive to all one’s senses’) mediator of the sublime, who himself must be morally noble.
Such a Romantic notion is echoed in another Romantic poet’s description of how to be a soldier. Insensibility is Owen’s riposte to William Wordsworth’s poem, Character of the Happy Warrior, written in 1807 (two years after the naval Battle of Trafalgar) about military heroes who are to be commended not only by men but by God. Wordsworth opens with this question:
That every man in arms should wish to be?
In the ensuing couplets, he promotes the idea of a soldier who is fully engaged, wants to learn, overcomes discomfort with self-control, perseverance and compassion and keeps hold of his reason and morality. Wordsworth’s heroic tone and exhortations indicate that he was not familiar with the realities of the battlefield (also true of Shelley).
As an antithesis, Owen overturns Wordsworth’s precepts. Knowing all too much about war, he speaks ironically when he says that:
Can let their veins run cold
In contrast to Shelley, Insensibility asserts that it is far better not to feel too much nor to think too profoundly.
Owen wrote Insensibility in 1918 at Ripon where he was training to return to the Western front. In a letter to his mother he wrote:
Owen’s dreams of the horror and death of the front had previously caused his breakdown (resulting in him being sent to Craiglockhart in 1917 to recover). During his time at Ripon, Owen found a private and secret place, so as to be able to compose his poetry. In order to write, Owen had to consciously bring to mind all those horrors which had had such an impact on him and become ‘sensible’ to them rather than numb. This took courage.
Investigating commentary on Insensibility
- In Insensibility Owen is influenced by the views of earlier poets. Compare Owen’s view of the warrior to that of Wordsworth’s in Character of the Happy Warrior.
- How far do you think Owen reflects Shelley’s view of a poet?
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