Spring Offensive - Language, tone and structure

Language in Spring Offensive

Contrast and juxtaposition

In Spring Offensive Owen uses language which juxtaposes the men’s rest with their action, life with death, peace with war, belief with questioning of faith.

‘Halted’, the first word of the poem, ‘easy’ and ‘at ease’ in the second line, leading to the careless ‘slept’ in line 4, create a feeling of peace unusual in Owen’s poetry. This is continued with ‘marvelling’ l.7 the men ‘ponder’ l.13, as Owen leads up to the natural, peaceful simile of the men breathing ‘like trees unstirred’. All this is shattered by the ‘little word’ of line 19. This throws them into action ‘like a cold gust’. The juxtaposition of the two low key similes however changes the direction and mood of the poem

The men, once part of nature, now actively confront it as they ‘begird’ l.20 and ‘tighten’ l.21 themselves for battle. In response, the ‘sky burned’ ‘With fury against them’ l.29-30, the earth is ready for their blood and the green field ‘Chasmed and steepened’ l.32. Although we know that this is the result of human activity, it seems as if Nature itself is in action against them. 

One brief line, l.37, tells of the simple belief ‘some’ hold that the souls of the men have gone to heaven even before they hit the ground dead. However, this idea of heaven is contrasted with the living ‘hell’ into which the men rush:

out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities
Long famous glories, immemorial shades l.41-3

Owen’s use of hyperbole (‘out-fiending all its fiends’) and oxymoron (‘superhuman inhumanities’) jumbles together virtue and evil, ‘glories’ and ‘shames’. Will it be a triumph or a curse to remember what happened? Owen uses the words of the final stanza to build up to his question about the survivors. What exactly have the men been involved in, serving which power, to what end and at what cost? Is it any surprise that the participants are rendered silent? 


In Spring Offensive Owen uses onomatopoeia to create some of the contrasts which make the poem so powerful. 

  • The long grass ‘swirled’, insects are ‘murmurous’ and ‘the summer oozed’. Owen borrows from Keats’ poem Ode to Autumn to create a sonorous peaceful scene:
    Until they think warm days will never cease;  10
    For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;   15
    Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,       
    Drowsed with the fume of poppies

    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.  22
  • By contrast the subterranean hell opening before the men ‘blasts’ them.

Alliteration and assonance

Owen’s use of alliteration and assonance in Spring Offensive serves to emphasise the pastoral scene of the early verses, the men’s action in the middle stanza and the questioning reflection of the last verse.

  • ‘Halted’ on a ‘last hill’ l.1 arrests our attention
  • Men ‘stood still’ facing the ‘stark .. sky’ l. 5, the abrupt ‘st’ and ‘sk’ conveying a moment of tension in the midst of the balmy scene
  • In the second stanza the drowsy consonance of ‘Marvelling’ l.7 in the ‘May breeze’ l.8 ‘murmurous with .. midge’ l.8, and the long vowels of ‘breeze’, ‘ooze’, ‘bones pains’ changes to the more threatening short, tight ‘I’ sounds of ‘imminent’ l.11 and ‘mysterious’ l.12.
  • The softness of the ‘m’ sound is picked up in the soft plosive ‘b’ sounds in stanza three: ‘buttercups .. blessed .. boots’ l.14-5 and ‘brambles’ clung to them. The men ‘breathe’, momentarily part of that nature and life
  • Their final contact with nature is as they go over the top of the ‘hill’ covered in ‘herb and heather’ l.27-8 in the fifth verse. Owen then uses the plosive ‘b’ to create the sound of battle: the sky ‘burned’. 29, men offered up their ‘blood’ l.31 to the ‘bullets’ l.43 and the ‘blast’ l.35.
  • In the final stanza Owen uses a sibilance to emphasise his question and to draw out the pain of the survivors. The first seven lines of the last verse contain sibilants which hiss and extenuate the poetry. In the final couplet they are used in the ‘peaceful’ air and the final question: ‘Why speak not they of comrades’?


In the juxtaposition of tranquillity and terror in Spring Offensive Owen creates a real sense of tension. The mood of the poem is one of peace followed by apprehension, death and survival. Yet throughout the poem the tone is balanced. There is a solemnity both in the pre action and the aftermath of the attack. The tone is measured and solemn.

Investigating Language and tone in Spring Offensive

  • Owen looks at the events in Spring Offensive almost at a distance. He does not write directly about his own responses and emotions. How does the language Owen uses in the poem contribute to this more objective approach?
  • Compare the tone of Spring Offensive to the tone of Dulce et Decorum Est where Owen is a much more central figure.

Structure of Spring Offensive

In each of the seven verses Owen tells us of a different stage in the attack:

  • Stanza one: Owen sets the scene of the men resting after a march, the ease of the scene conveyed by the fluid enjambement of lines 2-3. He then uses a caesura in l.4 to introduce the motif of tension, as the men observe the scene and look to the future
  • Stanza two has a similar structure, of relaxation brought up sharp by what the ‘imminent line of grass’ actually symbolises – the brink of destruction
  • Stanza three conveys the interminable pause, waiting for orders – it is as if Nature itself is holding its breath, both men and trees ‘unstirred’ l.18. The fact that Owen has taken three verses/18 lines to get to this point has also teased the reader who knows, from the poem’s title, that action is imminent 
  • Stanza four: At last the command arrives. Owen begins to build up the tension as the men prepare for battle, enjambement from l.19-21 conveying the controlled rapidity with which the men get ready. A pause in l.22 then prepares us for the enormity of what is about to happen, and in the two extra lines of the stanza Owen sets the actions of the men against a more universal context
  • Stanza five: Owen shows the men running as one as they attack, and disrupts the flow of action with caesurae in l.29, 30 and 31, just as the landscape is thrown into turmoil by the gunfire
  • Stanza six is full of active verbs – ‘running’, ‘Leapt’, ‘went up’ (i.e. blew up), ‘plunged’ and ‘fell’ (twice) as Owen describes the manner of the men’s deaths in battle. The relative brevity of the stanza perhaps echoes the sudden cutting down of the soldiers’ lives
  • Stanza seven: Owen describes the drastic fighting and wearied return of the survivors, surprised to be alive, framed by a reiterated question in the first and final lines of the verse. He leaves it unanswered.



Owen uses a broken rhythm in Spring Offensive. The pentameter is varied by shorter or longer lines. Owen introduces a trochaic metre at different points in the poem which unsettles the more regular and anticipated iambic pentameter. The effect is to create a tension in the reader.


As with the rhythm of the poem, Owen also varies his rhyme scheme. Owen uses fully rhyming couplets such as in lines 2 and 3 where the ‘ease’ of the men is heightened by the rhyme created by the resting places they find on each other’s ‘chests and knees’. Owen continues to use rhyming couplets to create the sense of peace in this place which seems like ‘the end of the world’ l.6 (and for many will be exactly that) as the men watch as ‘the long grass swirled’ l.7. Owen’s third rhyming couplet allows some of the coming horror to creep in. Although ‘summer oozed into their veins’ l.9 it is shadowed by ‘their bodies’ pains’ l.10. Coldness descends on the poem. An ominous rhyming couplet in l.11 and l.12 shifts nature from being a benign force to being blank and potentially pitiless:

Sharp on their souls hung the immediate ridge of grass
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass

At this point Owen momentarily abandons rhyming couplets as he takes us through the detail of the attack. He returns to them in the last verse which opens and closes with two couplets. The first emphasises the actions in battle of the survivors who on ‘the brink’ of death l.38 are ‘too swift to sink’ l.39. The latter ends with the question about the consequent silence of those ‘few’ who, crawling back, have ‘Regained cool peaceful air in wonder-‘ but at the cost of ‘comrades that went under’.

Investigating structure and versification in Spring Offensive

  • Owen’s versification in Spring Offensive demands careful study. Read the poem aloud with a friend, scanning each line so as to identify where the lines of irregular length occur.
    • Try to establish why Owen chose to alter these particular lines.
  • Look at the pattern of rhyming in the poem.
    • Which, if any, take you by surprise and why?
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