Greater Love - Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Greater Love

Image of Remembrance cross and poppy available through Creative CommonsOwen addresses a personification of ‘Love’ throughout this poem, and compares it disparagingly with the greater love demonstrated by soldiers prepared to die for the sake of others:

  • The ‘red lips’ associated with erotic love are less red (and therefore meaningful) than the stones stained by the blood of the young men who have died in the war
  • The benevolence demonstrated by lovers is lacklustre compared to the purity of the soldiers’ sacrifice
  • Love’s eyes lack appeal compared with the eyes of those who have sacrificed their sight for the poet (and others)
  • Love’s typical posture is nothing compared to the tortured limbs of the dying
  • The songs of love are not as precious as the vanished voices of the dead
  • Love’s passionate heart is still not as great as the hearts of men filled with shot
  • The pale countenance associated with love is not as colourless as corpses which have lost their lives for the sake of a greater love
  • And now Love’s grief is pointless, as the dead are beyond its reach.

Investigating Greater Love

Commentary on Greater Love 

Literary allusions

In the title, Greater Love, Owen is referring to the words of Jesus to his disciples in John 15:13, on the night before he was tried and crucified:

My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In examining the idea of what constitutes the greatest love, Owen uses a model famously employed by Shakespeare in Sonnet 18, where he takes a series of analogies about love and undermines them by stating that they don’t go far enough:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Sonnet 18

This poetic device is also seen in Algernon George Swinburne’s poem Before the Mirror which begins:

White rose in red rose-garden
Is not so white..

More on Before the Mirror by Algernon George Swinburne?

Both Owen and Swinburne look at unconventional love and the idea that the greatest love human beings can give isn’t that which is institutionalised (in Swinburne’s case, by marriage; in Owen’s, by being offered to God). For Owen, the greatest love is seen in the sacrifice of one’s life for one’s fellow men.


The poem was written between November 1917 and January 1918. In May 1917 Owen had written a letter home that was almost a direct quotation of the passage from John’s gospel which is the basis for Greater Love:

Christ is literally in no man's land. There men often hear his voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life- for a friend.
Is it spoken in English only and French?
I do not believe so.
Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism
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