Greater Love - Language, tone and structure

Language in Greater Love 

Stilted syntax

Owen addresses this poem to Love. His use of the apostrophe ‘O Love’ in line 5 suggests something or someone remote, and is perhaps rather artfully ‘poetic.’ Owen’s diction and syntax in Greater Love make the poem rather stilted in places. For example Owen’s inversion of pure love to make ‘love pure’ l.4 sounds affected and artificial in the same way as ‘trembles not exquisite’ l.8 and ‘sings not so soft’ l.14 do. Indeed the whole of line 14 seems a rather pointless addition for the sake of rhyme and structure that adds nothing to the power of the poem.

Eros and agape

The power of Greater Love lies in Owen’s diction. He chooses words which evoke different experiences of love. He would have known that, in ancient Greek, there were four words for four different types of love:

  • Storge: the natural affection that parents might feel for their children, or expressed between older and younger siblings
  • Philia: the cerebral or intellectual love for concepts (as used in the word ‘philosophy’), associated with altruism and virtue; the fellow feeling shared in friendship
  • Eros: erotic, physical love, associated with sensual desire
  • Agape: spiritual, unconditional love, associated with religious faith. The term is as frequently mentioned in teachings of the Early Church in the New Testament

It is the latter two meanings of love that Owen compares in Greater Love. He sees in the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers the same sort of sacrificial agape love that Christ exemplified. By comparison, erotic love is inadequate.

Owen uses a series of terms which we associate with erotic love: ‘Red lips’, ‘wooed and wooer’, ‘lure’, ‘trembles’, ‘Heart’ associated with ‘hot’, ‘large’ and ‘full’, and ‘touch’. However, each of these words and ideas are negated when Owen relates them to the war dead, creating conflicting emotions:

  • The ‘Kindness’ l.3 shared between lovers seems shameful (perhaps because it is associated with having one’s own physical longings met as well as caring for another) compared to the ‘pure’ altruistic love which asks for nothing in return
  • Eyes, traditionally regarded as the ‘windows of the soul’, communicate less love (l.5) than those which are now sightless, yet have become so out of self-sacrifice for the sake of Owen
  • A beautiful, seductive voice is as nothing to the ‘piteous’ voices last heard coughing to death l.18, which are now silenced forever.

Owen’s last line in Greater Love is ambiguous. Does he instruct Love to weep for the dead because they can no longer love, or weep because they are dead, or to cry in humiliation because erotic love is no match for the excellence of the dead men’s agape love?


Irony and anger

Owen’s tone seems to be ironic in parts of Greater Love. He focuses on the peripherals of romantic love, its ‘slender attitude’ l.7 and pale hands, which denote its weakness, compared to the soldiers’ ‘fierce love’ l.11 and ‘great’ hearts l.20. 

There is also a controlled anger communicated by the poem. The plosive ‘p’s and hard consonants of ‘earth has stopped their piteous..’ l.18 and ‘great with shot;’ l.20 are deliberately harsh.

Owen’s anger is also directed at God, or at least, the way in which his earthly representatives have mediated his message. It was the Church which added its voice to that of the politicians in urging men to die for God, King and Country. The troops were told, and to begin with many believed, that God was on their side. Now, Owen comments that: ‘God seems not to care’ (l.10) how the men die. In l.23 Owen picks up the idea that the men are burdened by the demands of fighting for the love of their country, just as Jesus carried the burden of the cross, his own form of execution, towards Calvary

Investigating language and tone in Greater Love

  • In Greater Love Owen states that God seems not to care and yet at the same time he seems to be endorsing the words of Christ about self-sacrifice for the love of others. Remind yourself of the poem Soldiers Dream. How does Owen differentiate between Jesus and God in this poem?
  • Remind yourself of the poem Exposure
    • What are the similarities between Exposure and Greater Love?

Structure in Greater Love 

In Greater Love Owen presents us with a string of opposites. In every stanza there is a sort of beauty which seems to fade when Owen presents us with its antithesis

  • Visual beauty fades before the pure love of sacrifice in verse one
  • Physical beauty fades in stanza two when Owen compares a ‘slender attitude’ l.7 with the true love shown by ‘limbs knife-skewed’ l.7-8
  • Vocal beauty is replaced by ‘mouths that coughed’ although now ‘stopped’.

Throughout the poem the words ‘not’ and ‘never’ link these ideas, culminating in the final negation of l.24.


Greater Love is structured into four six-line stanzas. Owen alternates trimeters in the first, third, fourth and fifth lines of each stanza with pentameters for the second and sixth lines. The rhyme-scheme is also a regular aa bbb a in each verse, adding to the sense of controlled expression.

Owen also juxtaposes smooth metres with disrupted ones. For example, the iambs of l.7 are reversed into three trochees, then an iamb, then a spondee in ‘Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed’, the angularity of the line echoing the distortion of the bayonetted corpses. 

In the first two stanzas there is enjambement between couplets. However, in the third verse each line is end-stopped, as the voices of the soldiers are themselves halted. The final caesurae of l.24 convey the lost lives and lost opportunities which fuel Owen’s repeated injunction to ‘Weep’.

Investigating structure and versification in Greater Love

  • In Greater Love Owen uses a simple structure to explore the differences between conventional love and the greater love for which a man dies for his friends. Take a sheet of A4 paper and fold it in half vertically. Head up one column ‘Romantic love’; the other ‘Greater Love’.
    • Fold your sheet in four horizontally to create a space for each stanza and use this pro-forma to note the way in which Owen uses each verse to explore the differences between the two types of love.
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