Insensibility - Language, tone and structure

Language in Insensibility

Military diction

After starting with the bleak truth that to be ‘killed’l.1 is the assumed fate of all, Owen’s choice of words draws heavily on the military vocabulary and the language of war with many nouns qualified by negative associations: the ‘front line withers’ l. 6, ‘troops’ ‘fade’l.7, shell-fire ‘teases’ the men l.15, whilst ‘Armies’ are decimated l.18 and ‘battle’ cauterises l.28.

Feeling words

For a poem which ostensibly is about the lack of emotion, Owen frequently refers to feelings, though usually to negate them. Obviously there is the repeated, ironic injunction to be ‘Happy’, at the start of stanzas 1, 3 and 4. He also speaks of ‘no compassion’ l.3, ‘tearful fooling’ l.8, ‘cease feeling’ l.12, ‘Dullness’ solving ‘The tease and doubt’ l.14-5 and the loss of ‘imagination’ l.19. In the fifth stanza Owen commends the lad who is ‘not vital’ l.44, ‘Nor sad, nor proud, / Nor curious’ l.46-7 (author’s italics).

Where he gives full force to feelings it is to castigate the ‘stay-at-home’, ‘couldn’t-care-less’ dullards as ‘Wretched’ and ‘mean’ l.52, the former gaining particular force by its position at the start of the line.

Repeated sounds

In Insensibility Owen uses alliterative patterns in each stanza to highlight particular sentiments. Throughout the first verse, the deceptively soft ‘f’ sound links ‘fleers’ l.3 (meaning to mock), ‘feet’ l.4, ‘front’ l.4, the troops who ‘fade’ l.7 rather than flower, the ‘fooling’ l.8 of the poets and the bodies used as ‘filling’ l.9 for the gaps, to build up to a forceful, furious sound which echoes Owen’s anger and ends in the line ‘some cease feeling’ l.12 which opens stanza two.

In verse two another soft sound, the sibilance of the ‘s’ sounds in ‘some cease’ l.12, ‘themselves’l.13, ‘Dullness’, ‘solves / The tease’ l.14-5, builds up though ‘Chances strange’ l.16 and ‘simpler’ l.17 to the onomatopoeic hissed truth of the final phrase: ‘armies’ decimation’ l.18.

In the third verse ‘imagination’, ‘ammunition’ and ‘constriction’ echo the ‘sh’ of ‘shelling’ and ‘shilling’ from stanza two but there are far more hard consonants. The harsh reverberations of ‘spirit drags no pack’ l. 21 continue in ‘ache’, ‘red’, ‘rid’ and ‘blood’ l.22-5. This contrasts with the long vowel sounds of the last two lines in the fourth stanza in which Owen evokes the implacable onset of darkness through ‘long, forlorn’ ‘larger day’ and ‘huger night’ l.38-9.

In the final stanza, harsh words like ‘cursed’, ‘dullards’, ‘stuns’ and ‘stones’ l.50-1 are used to create an ‘insensible’ feeling in the poem before Owen returns to a cluster of soft ‘m’ and ‘sh’ sounds plus sibilants which underline the pity of the passing of the living: ‘moans’ l.55, ‘sea’, ‘hapless stars’ l.56, ‘mourns’, ‘shores’ l.57, ‘shares’ l.58, ‘reciprocity of tears l.59.



Owen’s tone is ironic in the opening stanzas since it is clear that the ‘happy’ soldier is of course not truly happy. It is also possible to interpret the tone as tongue in cheek when he states: ‘Happy are the men who ... can let their veins run cold’ l.2 and ‘lose imagination’ l.19, as if this is an act of their own volition, rather than, in fact, imposed on them by circumstance.

Reflection and anger

When writing in the first person in stanza 5, Owen’s tone becomes more reflective. He feels the pain of the way the sight of blood ‘besmirches’ the soul. The tone is mournful and haunting. However this is soon replaced by overt anger in stanza six, as he identifies the insensibility of those who have ‘made themselves immune’ to suffering and war l.54. They are ‘dullards’ and ‘cursed’ l.50. Owen says they should ‘be as stones’ l.51 and describes them as ‘wretched’ l.52, ‘mean with paucity’ l.53 and ‘immune to pity’ l.54/55. 


Owen uses this reference to the lack of pity in those who have chosen insensibility to communicate his own pity for the dying:

Whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars l.55/56

In the face of human immunity to suffering, he draws on wider natural phenomena to convey the enormity of ‘sensible’ people’s grief. The pathos of Owen’s tone echoes again in the penultimate lines;

Whatever mourns when many leave these shores

The sensibility of the living for the dead is expressed in the poignant final lines:

Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears

The tone of the poem in its final lines is full of the pity Owen feels for the dead.

Investigating language and tone in Insensibility

  • Insensibility is a poem packed with emotive words and phrases which have a powerful impact on the reader. Compare the language and tone of Insensibility to that of Owen’s last complete poem, Spring Offensive
    • In what ways are these two poems similar?
    • In what ways are these two poems very different?

Structure in Insensibility

Insensibility is the only poem for which Owen numbered his six stanzas, which are of uneven line length and vary in the number of lines per verse. Stanzas one to four deal with the concept of the soldier whose survival depends upon his ability to block out the reality of war. However, half way through verse four Owen becomes the first person narrator torn between being such a soldier and the required sensibilities of a poet and officer for whom blood has ‘besmirched’ his ‘soul’. As their leader, Owen had to be ‘sensible’ to his men and their fears. It is an agonising position to be in. However, he displaces the torment by directing his anger at those who have no excuse for their lack of empathy towards those dying on the front.


Owen uses pararhymes throughout Insensibility, creating some interesting yet dissonant patterns of association. Obvious links are ‘killed’ and ‘cold’ in stanza one and ‘stuns’ and ‘stones’ in stanza six. Some patterns link between verses, as with ‘fooling’, ‘filling’ and ‘feeling’ (stanzas 1-2). A similar chain of consequence can be seen in the final stanza with the powerful ‘mean’, ‘immune’, ‘moans’, ‘man’ and ‘mourns’. However, there is no consistent pattern and some lines don’t rhyme with any other (e.g. those ending in ‘arithmetic’, ‘battle’). 

Just as Owen resists having a neat predictable rhymescheme in Insensibility, so he makes the line lengths irregular and unsettling. Often there are ‘spare’ syllables left at the ends of lines (e.g. l.5, 12,15) and the last three lines of stanza 1 are just one example of how Owen uses caesura and enjambement to draw attention to the bitter truth of what he depicts (also echoing his poem, Exposure):

Men, gaps for filling
Losses who might have fought
Longer; but no one bothers.

Investigating structure and versification in Insensibility

  • Insensibility has irregular rhyme and rhythm schemes which creates a sense of unease and discord. Identify the rhyming couplets Owen uses in the poem and the places where Owen uses different rhyme patterns
    • Choose one of each and explore the way in which the different patterns work on your emotions as a reader
  • Look carefully at where Owen has chosen to use short lines and then pick out the extra-long lines in the poem
    • How does Owen communicate the horror and the pity of war in this way?


Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.