1914 - Language, tone and structure

Language in 1914

Owen uses very contrasting language in the two parts of the sonnet. His diction in the octet supports the idea that the present age, 1914, is ‘the Winter of the world’. His choice of words reflects the extended metaphor he uses of winter, bad weather and disruption:

  • Two negative words, ‘War broke’, begin the poem. l.1, the plosive ‘br’ and harsh consonant ‘k’ of ‘broke’ emphasising the abruptness of the action
  • Winter ‘closes in’, a threatening phrase l.2
  • Its ‘perishing great darkness’ suggests cold and lack of light, as well as death (to perish)
  • The ‘foul tornado’ l.3 suggests the further destruction in l.5, where ‘progress’ is violently torn apart (‘Rending’ and ‘rent’ l.5 suggesting the sound and finality of destruction)
  • The very poetry itself according to Owen ‘wails’ l.6, the onomatopoeic long ‘a’ echoing the cry of grief
  • Using natural imagery Owen charts how the abundance of the season of mellow fruitfulness (autumn) declines into ‘Famine’, ‘wine running thin’ and ‘rot’ l.7 and l.8.

By way of contrast, in the sestet Owen’s choice of words reflects the grandeur of the classical world, whose tradition had influenced modern times up until ‘war broke’:

  • ‘Spring .. bloomed’ l.9 full of promise
  • ‘Summer blazed’ l.10 full of life
  • ‘Autumn softly fell’ l.11 (echoing the ‘mellow’ mood of Keats’ Ode), a part of the natural cycle of the seasons that was celebrated by the ‘harvest home’ l.11, at the end of the growing year
  • The long vowels of ‘A slow grand age’ l.12 create a positive image of the recent past, now about to be destroyed
  • ‘Rich with all increase’ l.12 again references the vision on plenty in Keats’ Ode to Autumn.


Throughout the poem Owen links ideas by use of alliteration. Negatively, ‘War’ is associated with the ’Winter of the world’ l.1 which has ‘whirled’ the ‘width’ of Europe l.4, its ‘wild’ness reiterated in l.13 and the insufficiency of its ‘wine’ l.7. Also in l.7, ‘thought and feeling’ (almost alliterating) are lost to ‘Famines’. 

In the sestet, gentle ‘s’ sounds precede positive words such as ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’ and ‘slow’, setting us up for the verdant image of ‘seed’, the ‘sowings for new Spring’, until this positive association is subverted by the idea that the seed is substituted with plosive ‘blood’. 


In the octet the tone is one of despair and horror at the destruction wrought by the war. In the sestet Owen moves away from the present against which he raves to become reflective and celebratory of past times. The final couplet however returns to the cold despair of present winter and the horror of the blood/seed which will have to be spilt to ensure a future.

Investigating language and tone in 1914...

  • Owen’s sonnet 1914 is a poem of contrasts. Make a copy of the poem for yourself.
    • Highlight all the words and phrases with positive connotation in one colour.
    • Highlight all the negatives in a contrasting colour.
    • Look carefully at the balance between the two.

Structure and versification in 1914

Owen uses a conventional Italian or Petrarchan sonnet to carry his ideas in 1914. The first part, the octet made up of 8 lines, describes 1914 as ‘the winter of the world’ and goes on to outline the conditions which followed the outbreak of war.

In the second part of the poem, the sestet, Owen outlines what he considers as the natural, humane development of human civilisation, as reflected by the seasons. However the final rhyming couplet sums up the dire future which mankind must face in time of war. 


Owen uses regular and predictable rhymes in 1914. There is no experimentation with the subtle pararhyme3 he employs in his later poems. The octet follows a conventional abba abba pattern which draws the sonnet together as a classical form. The sestet similarly has a regular cdd cee pattern with the final rhyming couplet pulling the reader back to the present from the past, in order to confront the future.

Owen also uses a regular rhythm, iambic pentameter for much of the sonnet, particularly in the more measured sestet. The octet is more rhythmically disturbed, appropriate for storm imagery. Our expectations of smoothness are jolted by the opening spondees of ‘War broke’, followed by ‘great dark(ness)’ l.2 and ‘Verse wails.’ l.6. The latter is further highlighted by full stops creating caesurae before and after it. A similar effect is achieved around the compacted monosyllables of ‘Love’s wine’s thin.’

The opening inverted feet of ‘Rending’ l.5 and ‘Famines’ l.7 also disrupt the iambic flow drawing attention to the negative mood of the poem.

Investigating structure and versification in 1914...

  • Owen chose to write this poem about the start of the war in the style of an Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet. How well does the structure of this sonnet form suit the subject matter and theme of 1914?
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