Greater Love - Imagery, symbolism and themes
Imagery in Greater Love
Owen’s personification of Love dominates the poem. Love is a figure that Owen addresses as if she can understand the war, sacrifice and death. (For the purposes of this section we will use the female pronoun.) So she, Love, is a romantic figure possessing red lips l.1, alluring eyes l.5, kindness l.3, a slender body l.7, a soft voice l.13, a warm heart l.19 and pale hands l.21. None of these qualities stand up to their equivalents in the dead.
Owen uses a simile in every verse to illustrate the beauty of the dead:
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead. L.1, 1.2
In an era when lipstick was just beginning to be considered more acceptable, having previously only been worn by women of easy virtue, Owen uses the idea of a lover’s kiss staining the beloved. He compares it to the far more powerful ‘stained stones’ which bear the imprint of the soldiers’ blood as they embrace them in death. (The ‘stained stones’ l.2 also remind us of the ‘alleys cobbled with their brothers’ in Insensibility l.5.) In stanza two, Love’s body, trembling with passion, is a weak reflection of the jerking of flesh as it is bayonetted (‘knife-skewered’ l.8).
Stanza three’s reference to Love’s voice being as soft and even ‘as wind murmuring’ lacks any real weight (both poetically and in the evocation of Love). However in the fourth verse, the passionate heart of a lover is far outweighed by the great-hearted courage and love of the soldiers, as well as the visceral image of the exploded heart muscle that Owen had doubtless witnessed in dead comrades as the result of shell fire.
- Red lips l.1 is used as a signifier of passionate love, but perhaps with connotations of illicit or indulgent sex, given that Owen refers to the ‘shame’ of the ‘Kindness’ between couples. If Owen is thinking about lipstick, which is ‘fake’, it is no wonder that its redness doesn’t compare to the blood sacrificed out of ‘Greater Love’.
- The cross which the pale hands trail ‘through flame and hail’ l.23 is a symbol of sacrifice made for love, referring as it does to the cross on which (according to the New Testament) an innocent Jesus was executed, in order to save humankind. However, the fact that it is trailed rather than held aloft speaks of the men’s despair that ‘God seems not to care’. This itself echoes Christ’s words from the cross, when he quoted Psalms 22:1-3:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
Investigating imagery and symbolism in Greater Love
- Owen’s imagery in Greater Love illustrates in stark detail the horrors of the warfare, as he also does in Dulce et Decorum Est. Look for similarities between the two poems.
- Disabled is also a poem in which Owen uses graphic detail of injuries. Compare this with Greater Love.
Themes in Greater Love
By entitling this poem Greater Love Owen clearly intended that concept to be its main theme. In his planned introduction to his poetry collection Owen stated clearly that it was not a book about heroes, yet this poem shows the bravery and sacrifice of so many.
In Greater Love Owen questions the value of conventional love. To him it is as nothing compared to the love and honour men on the field of battle show to each other even as they cough, struggle, and die. The pitiful fate of the dead men adds to Owen’s constant theme of the ‘pity of war’.
Investigating themes in Greater Love
- Owen said that his poems were about the pity of war and that the poetry was in the pity. However, the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats said of Owen’s poetry that it was all ‘blood, dust and sucked sugar stick’. Examine the themes in Greater Love from Owen’s viewpoint.
- How far does greater love provide evidence to support W.B. Yeats’ view?
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. 3Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. 5To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. 6But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him! 9Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother's breasts. 10On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother's womb you have been my God. 11Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. 12Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet - 17I can count all my bones - they stare and gloat over me; 18they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. 19But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! 20Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! 21Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! 22I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: 23You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. 25From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. 26The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! 27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. 29All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. 30Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
1My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? 2O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. 3But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. 4Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. 5They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. 6But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. 7All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, 8He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. 9But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts. 10I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly. 11Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. 12Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. 13They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. 14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. 15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. 16For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. 17I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. 18They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. 19But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me. 20Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. 21Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. 22I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. 23Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel. 24For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard. 25My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him. 26The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever. 27All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. 28For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations. 29All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. 30A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. 31They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
A figure of speech where a non-person, for example an animal, the weather, or some inanimate object, is described as if it were a person, being given human qualities.
An image where one thing is said to be 'as' or 'like' another: e.g. 'He jumped up like a jack-in-the-box'.
the associated meanings of a word; its implications
Something which represents something else through an association of ideas.
1. Instrument of execution used in the Roman Empire.
2. The means by which Jesus Christ was put to death and therefore the primary symbol of the Christian faith, representing the way in which he is believed to have won forgiveness for humankind.
A 'testament' is a covenant (binding agreement), a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people. The New Testament is the second part of the Christian Bible. Its name comes from the new covenant or relationship with God.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.