The Artillery Sonnet - Imagery, symbolism and themes

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


Much of the extended metaphor which Owen creates in Sonnet is tied in very closely with the personification of the ‘Great Gun’, itself a metaphor for war.

  • towering towards Heaven: Owen is using ‘Heaven’ as a metaphor for God. The gun ‘towers’ in the sense that it strives to touch heaven, to become God-like. There is an echo here of the Old Testament account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) when humanity, in its pride, tries to reach heaven
  • rehearse: a rehearsal is a run through for an important event such as a play or a speech. Here Owen is saying that the artillery fire sounds out year after year as if it is practising to become perfect
  • imprecations: the words the gun rehearses are curses and ‘blasting’ charms. These are a metaphor for the noise of war. The guns create a din but war itself blasts at life
  • Spend: Here Owen is making a play on words (a pun). Cartridges and shells, once they have been fired and released their ammunition, are said to be ‘spent’. Owen picks up this term and uses it in its other sense as in spending money
  • disburse: this is another word for spending. (A bursary is a grant of money and has the same root.) It doesn’t mean ‘disperse’ although it sounds like that word and the ‘gold’ is in fact spread out
  • gold in shape of flames: the gun burns money. Britain’s gold reserves would be spent on buying armaments which would ‘go up in flames’
  • our breath in storms: the gun is also there to ‘spend’ the lives of men. Their ‘breath’ is a metaphor for their life, the ‘storms’ stand for the war
  • the bosom of our prosperity: ‘the bosom’ represents the place of safety. Owen is using the term in the sense of being in ‘the bosom of one’s family’
  • when thy spell be cast: this is a metaphor for the whole horror of war which weapons such as the great gun create
  • cut thee from our soul: Owen here wants the future to be free of armaments and weapons of war. ‘Our soul’ is a metaphor for humankind.


Owen uses the simile, ‘Like a blasting charm’ l.4 to imagine how the spell or charm which war casts is blasted both audibly and physically. The gun’s deadly ‘charm’ / ‘malison’ is a metaphor for the death and destruction it has meted out.


Throughout The Artillery Sonnet Owen personifies the Great Gun. Owen never actually uses the definite or indefinite article (‘the’ or ‘a’) to define it but directly addresses it. The capitalisation of the words makes them into proper nouns, a name. Like a human this piece of artillery has an ‘arm’ l.1 and can ‘rehearse’. It has a human voice, capable of cursing by throwing its ‘imprecations’ l.4 at the enemy and of withering men with its ‘malison’ l.9. Owen instructs the gun to ‘reach’ l.5 and ‘beat’ l.6 as if it had a will of its own. He tells it to ‘Spend’ and ‘disburse / Our gold’, both actions associated with what human beings do with money. 

In the sestet Owen fears the gun’s potential to draw its arm back into the safety of ‘our prosperity’, also personified as ‘the bosom’. The final human action which the gun performs is to finish the spell it has been casting over men l.13. but its personality is present in the final line where Owen prays that God will curse ‘thee’.

Arrogance’ and ‘its sins’ in line 5 and 6 is a personification of the enemy. So a whole race is symbolised as one person, named ‘Arrogance’ because of their pride, who ‘needs’ to be punished. 


The gun with its long black arm is the overriding symbol in the poem for aggression and destruction. It stands for the militaristic, aggressive spirit which has fuelled the war and which Owen prays will not be incorporated into peacetime life. However, it is so powerful and persuasive that only the greater, divine might of God can in turn curse it and excise it from the soul of humanity.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action

  • The personification of the gun in this sonnet reminds us of the personification of the weapons in Anthem for Doomed Youth and The Last Laugh. Read both poems and make a note of the metaphors used in each.
    • Compare the way in which Owen uses weapons to show the horror of war.
    • Which poem makes the most effective use of the personification of weapons?

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

The main theme of this sonnet is of aggression, mechanical yet directed by humans. The pity of war is seen in the vulnerability of men in the face of this weapon of destruction. Owen raises the question of nationalism and the cost of the war; ‘our gold’ has been spent to generate much destruction. That God will judge the aggression of man is also a key theme in The Artillery Sonnet.

Investigating themes in Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action...

  • This is an unusual poem because, at first reading, Owen seems to be glorifying the gun and all it stands for. How does Owen present his theme of the pity of war and of man’s inhumanity to man to us through this sonnet?
  • How far do you agree that Owen could understand the need for the Great Gun in an attempt to win the war which would end all wars?
    • How did his attitude change in the later poems he wrote?
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