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.

WWI casualtiesCommentary 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:

The interpretation of a diviner nature through our own .. experienced .. by those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base instinct.

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:

Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
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).

More on Wordsworth’s Character of the Happy Warrior?

As an antithesis, Owen overturns Wordsworth’s precepts. Knowing all too much about war, he speaks ironically when he says that:

Happy are men who yet before they are killed
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:

The enormity of the present Battle numbs me.

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?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.