S.I.W. - Language, tone and structure

Language in S.I.W.

Owen chooses to tell the story with colloquial expressions that ‘the lad’ l.1 who kills himself to escape the horrors of war might have used. The effectiveness of Owen’s diction lies in the juxtaposition of the ordinary, everyday detail of life at home and the matter-of-fact horrors of the trenches.

On the Home front we hear the voices, attitudes and expectations of the lad’s family – his father proud l.3-4, his mother anxious l.5-6, his sisters envious l.7 and his brothers not knowing what to say but communicating affection through a deed l.8. There is mention of letters l.9, favourite cigarettes l.8 and ‘patting goodbye’ l.1. His family have unreal expectations about what war is like - that it is comfortable (‘some Y.M hut’ l.10) and romantic – and the girls see soldiering in terms of shooting, charging and cursing l.7, not as real conflict.

The Western Front

The everyday realities of the Western front are communicated by references to things such as the ‘butt’ of the lad’s rifle l.11, the hourly ‘bullet’ l.12, the ‘sandbags’, lack of ‘leave’, ‘wounds’, ‘fever’, ‘trench foot’ and ‘shock’. The picture of everyday life becomes more ominous when Owen mentions how the boy’s eyes wince l.14 and his hands shake with ‘ague’ l.15 as he faces the ‘torture’ of being constantly under fire - ‘machinally shelled’ l.19. However, the realities of death are presented as routine. ‘men shoot their hands’ l.21 with an ‘English ball’ rather than be ‘sniped’ l.28. The boy was buried with his ‘muzzle’ l.36 after being found on a ‘wire patrol’ l.24  


Owen builds up a tension of expectation throughout S.I.W. The aspirations of those on the home front shifts to the stress of the boy at the front writing home to assure the family that he is safe in the midst of hopeful bullets. Nothing happens to release him from the general tension of danger, so his mind is disintegrating. Although he sees men shoot off their hands to escape the war, he can’t forget his father’s words about death before dishonour. As a result he chooses to die. Owen is involved in the finding of the boy’s corpse and simply states: ‘We could do nothing’ l.26.

Reflective tone

In the section headed The Poem, Owen’s language changes from the colloquial, everyday speech the boy and his family might have used to a more sombre, intense tone as he describes the reasons for the S.I.W. 

Ambiguous attitude

Owen calls the boy ‘the wretch’ and personalises him as ‘Tim’, which seems to indicate his pity for him. However, though understanding what may have driven the lad to suicide, his dispassionate tone indicates that he may share the attitude of Tim (or his father) that S.I.W. victims were ‘vile’ l.22.

Investigating language and tone in S.I.W.

  • Owen is frequently quoted as saying that his writing was about the pity of war. From your reading of S.I.W. how do you think Owen feels about this event?
  • Compare S.I.W. with Futility, another poem about the death of a young soldier.
  • Which poem is most effective in showing the pity of war in your view and why?
  • Compare Owen’s feeling for the man in S.I.W. to his feelings about The Dead Beat.

Structure in S.I.W.

Owen opens S.I.W. with an epigraph from W.B. Yeats’ play The King’s Threshold.

Owen divides this poem into 4 distinct parts of varying length:

  • The Prologue: A prologue is that which goes before or leads to another event or action. In his prologue Owen explains the background that will produce the events of the main action
  • The Action: The dramatic heart of S.I.W. is the boy’s suicide. We only get to hear of the manner of his death, rather than being present at the moment when he puts his rifle to his mouth
  • The Poem: Owen uses this unusual heading for his own reflections on the reason for the action
  • The Epilogue: The opposite of the prologue is the epilogue – what happened afterwards. Owen simply (and ironically) tells us how the story ends.



Owen uses a straightforward pattern of full rhymes to progress the story of the boy. The prologue is told in an abba pattern. The regular, predictable pattern of the verse reflects the regular, predictable behaviour of those at home. This only breaks down at the point when the lad takes his own life, perhaps suggesting that Owen sees his action as inevitable and unavoidable.


Owen uses a regular iambic pentameter for most of The Prologue until the telling last line ‘So Father said.’ l.23. The brevity of this makes up for the hexameter of l.3 where ‘Father’ has all too much to say. Both lines are in part responsible for the resulting action. 

Thereafter, Owen relates the aftermath in disjointed and broken line lengths, with caesurae in l.27-8 conveying the rhythms of brief dialogue. In the section headed The Poem Owen reverts to the regular (3iambic pentameter3] - in one or two lines the pattern is broken with the addition of an extra syllable where he wishes us to be aware of a particular point.

Investigating structure and versification in S.I.W.

  • Owen creates a poem in four parts: PrologueActionPoem and Epilogue. What does The Epigraph add to the poem?
    • Why does Owen make The Prologue the longest section?
    • What is the central Action of the poem?
    • How does Owen voice his own opinions in The Poem section?
    • Why is there such a brief Epilogue do you suppose?
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