The Artillery Sonnet - Language, tone and structure

Language in Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

Use of the imperative

Owen begins the alternate odd lines of the octet with the imperative form of the verb, commonly used to give firm orders. This use of the imperative suits the military mood of the poem. In context the gun’s orders are all aggressive verbs:

  • ‘Be...lifted up’ l.1 commands the gun to rise up skywards into a position to fire
  • ‘Sway’ l.3 tells the gun to swing out across the enemy line
  • ‘Reach’ l.5 orders the gun to target ‘Arrogance’ and ‘beat it down’ l.6 
  • ‘Spend’ l.7 commands the gun to ‘disburse’ in flames all the material resources (‘our gold’) which have been poured into it.

Archaic language

Owen uses archaic language in the sonnet which echoes the sonorous phraseology of the King James Bible and gives an air of dignity to a subject matter which is not normally dignified in Owen’s poetry. It also creates the feeling that the poem is an incantation. 

  • ‘Be slowly lifted up’ (line one) is a dramatic start to the sonnet because Owen is directly addressing an inanimate object: the Great Gun. The words also recall the phraseology of a well-known Psalm, about how the writer believes God will help him face his attackers, and an Old Testament prophecy about the success of Israel against her enemies:
    And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me
    Psalms 27:6

    Thine hand shall be lifted up upon thine adversaries, and all thine enemies shall be cut off.
    Micah 5:9
  • ‘imprecations’ is a word of Latin origin meaning ‘to invoke evil’ and is a much more formal word than ‘curse
  • ‘Yea’ is a very archaic form of saying ‘yes’, often found in the Bible and Shakespeare
  • ‘malison’ literally means a curse. It is derived from French and Latin, where ‘mal’ means bad or evil, and is the opposite of ‘benison’ or blessing. (Note it has the same ending as ‘orisons’ which Owen uses instead of the word prayers in Anthem for Doomed Youth.)
  • ‘spoilure’ is a strange coinage. Owen has created the noun (perhaps as a shorter version of the word ‘spoliation’, for the sake of scansion) to suggest damage done by the gun
  • The inverted verb formation of ‘Be not withdrawn’ (the modern English equivalent would be ‘Do not be’) is also archaic, as is the use of the verb ‘be’ in l.13 where today we would use the verb form ‘is’.

The use of ‘thy’ and ‘thee’

Owen uses ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ for the same reason that he uses ‘yea’. It makes the whole sonnet sound as if it belongs to another age. ‘Thee’ and ‘thou’ are old forms of ‘you’. They were used as a plural or as an intimate form in the singular. However, because such forms were used when addressing God, in prayer for example, the terms came to be associated with addressing someone important and therefore given an aura of formality. Owen apostrophises the heavy artillery as if it was an important person.


Owen uses alliteration sparingly but to good effect in The Artillery Sonnet.

  • ‘Great Gun’ l.2. The repeated ‘g’ sounds gives added weight to the weapon
  • ‘Sway steep’ l.3 the repeated ‘s’ sound emphasise the curvature of the arm as it swoops to attack.

In the last three lines of the first stanza Owen uses many words either beginning with the sibilant ‘s’ or containing that sound: ‘sins’, ‘worse’, Spend’, ‘resentment’, ‘disburse’, ‘breaths’ , ‘storm’. This has the effect of making the words sound as if they are spat out or hissed. In other words, Owen’s last command to the gun is ‘do your worst’.

In the final two lines of the second verse, the repeated hard ‘c’ of ‘cast complete’, ‘curse’, and ‘cut’ conveys the finality of the action Owen wants God to undertake.


Imperative and ironic

Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery brought into Action is both imperative and ironic in tone. Owen speaks to the ‘Great Gun’ in an authoritative manner and yet we know from the second part of the sonnet that he does not agree with the morality of the orders he gives. The only justification for the gun is that this war will end all wars.

Lofty formality

The lofty tone suggests that the ‘voice ‘of the poem belongs to some one important. Here Owen is speaking as if he has power to command the heavy artillery. The ‘Great Gun’ also has power and authority. The way in which Owen addresses the ‘Great Gun’ suggests he respects his subject – the range of its ‘malison’ is ‘vast’, its looming presence ‘dark’. 


Owen makes his sonnet sound like an incantation, which is a spell or curse put by one person onto another. It can sometimes take place during a ritual. Bringing a piece of heavy artillery into action would be almost ritualistic on the front. The same movements would need to be performed and the same instructions given. ‘Lift’, ‘Sway’, ‘Reach’, ‘beat’ and ‘Spend’ in stanza one are almost the ‘rubric’ (that is, the instructions and directions) for putting this massive piece of armament in place.

Investigating language and tone in Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

  • This sonnet uses the sort of archaic language Owen employs in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. Which poem do you find more effective as an anti-war poem?
    • Compare the tone of each poem. Which is the more powerful and why?
    • Look for similarities in Owen’s use of archaic diction in both poems.

Structure of Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

Owen is using the formal structure of an Petrarchan or Italian sonnet which is made up of two stanzas:

  • Stanza one has eight lines and is known as the octet. The eight lines are made up of two quatrains: four lines of verse which are held together by their rhyme scheme. It outlines an idea or question – here, an argument for the gun and its action to curse the enemy
  • This is countered or answered in the second stanza of six lines, known as a sestet, made up of a quatrain and a rhyming couplet which ends the sonnet. Here Owen sets out his counter argument that, once the gun has fulfilled its duty, it will itself will be cursed by God
  • A Petrarchan sonnet usually has a volta or ‘turn’, the moment in a sonnet at which there is a turn of thought. The first word of the second stanza, ‘Yet’, is the point where Owen turns everything he has said in the octet (which seems to be glorifying the gun and its power) into his more usual anti-war argument.



The rhyme-scheme of the sonnet reflects its formal structure, though the strict abba abba pattern of the octet is unsettled by the final pararhyme of ‘storm’ (instead of ‘harm’). This prepares us for the ‘Yet’ of line 9 which changes the tone of the poem. 


The rhythm of The Artillery Sonnet also adheres in the main to the Petrarchan expectation of pentameter. However in the second line of stanza one Owen extends the line with extra syllables. This has the effect of recreating the action of the gun ‘towering towards heaven’ and emphasises the word ‘curse’. The fourth line of the sestet does not fit the pattern either. Owen extends it to eleven syllables although if the reader avoids putting equal value on each syllable of the word ‘prosperity’ it is possible to see this as pentameter. 

Although the metre is usually iambic, many initial feet are trochaic or spondees, to give due emphasis to the imperatives. Line 12 uses three dactyls and a trochee: ‘Safe to the / bos-om of / our pros- /per-i-ty’, its speed expressing the hurried desire to put the gun under wraps (the sibilance hinting that it may be used as a threat in future trade negotiations perhaps, which Owen opposes).

Investigating structure and versification in Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

  • Owen adjusts the sonnet form to good effect in Anthem for Doomed Youth. In Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action Owen keeps much more strictly to the traditional form. Compare this sonnet with Anthem for Doomed Youth.
    • Do you have a personal preference and if so can you explore the reasons why?
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.